The dramatic arts grew and flowered in England during the Renaissance. This period produced some of the most distinguished names in the history of drama, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. Even today, their work continues to provide matter for scholars and entertainment for viewers, in England and elsewhere.
Scholars often refer to the English plays of the late 1500s and early 1600s as either Elizabethan drama or English Renaissance drama. However, neither of these terms is completely accurate. The term Elizabethan refers to Elizabeth I, whose reign began in 1558. However, there was no system of scheduled play performances in England until the 1580s. Also, although Elizabeth died in 1603, English drama continued to flourish until 1642.
The term Renaissance also poses problems. It is true that the English drama of this period reflected the new artistic ideas of the Renaissance, which had spread to England from other parts of Europe. However, "Renaissance" art generally grew out of a desire to revive the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. English drama, by contrast, was mostly a business, aimed at attracting the money and applause of the semieducated masses.
In general, the term Elizabethan is more appropriate than Renaissance for referring to the plays written and performed during Elizabeth's reign. However, the two terms put together reflect a tension in the English drama of this period—and, in fact, in English society as a whole. Authors wanted to show respect for English traditions while making a place for new ideas. Elizabethan drama reflected common social views about the love of God, of country, and of community. Yet at the same time, it relied on strange and unusual images that alarmed many religious and public officials. Some authorities saw theaters as a threat to society and tried repeatedly to shut them down.
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London's Theaters. Elizabethan London had two distinct types of theaters. Large, open-air playhouses, such as the Globe, the Red Bull, and the Rose, first appeared in the late 1500s. These theaters attracted a mixed audience. Wealthy patrons sat in the upper levels, while the lower classes stood in front of the stage. These large playhouses made it necessary for plays to include broad, bold effects that appealed to the lower-class spectators.
Refined, upper-class viewers came to associate the large theaters with loud overacting, sensational drama, and rowdy audiences. In the early 1600s, the large playhouses fell out of style with the well-to-do. They turned instead to smaller, more expensive private theaters that offered seating for everyone, such as the Phoenix and the Blackfriars. Historians of the late 1600s, looking back on the Elizabethan theater scene, argued that the indoor theaters stood for the respected dramatic tradition, while the large public playhouses served only to suit the tastes of "the meaner sort of people."
The private theaters resembled the playhouses that had existed at the court early in Queen Elizabeth's reign. At that time companies of choir-boys, aged 12 to 16, had performed plays written especially for the queen. However, the child actors also presented "rehearsals" of their plays to the paying public. The queen closed these theaters down in 1590, probably because of some political blunder on the part of the acting companies. When the playhouses reopened ten years later, they had to survive in a more commercial world. They began putting on more sophisticated plays designed to appeal to young gentlemen, such as the law students at London's Inns of Court. However, young boys continued to play all roles.
Companies of adult men (women never appeared on the Elizabethan stage) had to compete with these child actors. Over time, the adult companies won favor with the court. In 1608 the King's Men, the most respected and financially successful of the adult companies, took over the Blackfriars playhouse from the boys.
The Playwright's Profession. In Elizabethan England, the theater was a business, much like the modern movie industry. Wealthy investors financed the commercial playhouses where actors performed, while dramatists supplied the public's demand for new plays. However, audiences seldom knew the names of the authors who created the plays they watched. Most people at this time did not see drama as a form of literature. In fact, society looked down on those who wrote plays for money, tailoring their artistic vision to the tastes of the masses.
Although few people respected the playwright's profession, it still attracted many well-educated writers. The theater gave them a chance to display their broad range of knowledge and their skill with language. It also provided a better income than they could earn in most other professions available to educated men, such as preaching and teaching.
To keep thousands of spectators coming, acting companies had to produce a different play every afternoon of the week—and a new play once every two weeks. As a result, playwrights had to write quickly, often working in groups to complete a piece. They tailored their work to the acting companies they wrote for, creating plays that took advantage of the actors' strengths. They also paid careful attention to their audiences' tastes. Like the modern public, Elizabethan audiences enjoyed stories of great misfortune and disaster. Playwrights borrowed many of their plots from local scandals and crimes. In many ways, an Elizabethan dramatist's job was similar to that of a modern newspaper reporter.
In general, the most popular plays of this time are not the ones most admired by scholars. However, scholars tend to consider the plays as texts, while Elizabethan viewers saw them as events. Plays competed with other popular forms of entertainment, such as fencing, acrobatics, and bearbaiting—a spectator sport in which dogs attacked a chained bear. Like these spectacles, drama had to provide a show of energy and activity. The connection between the actors and the audience played a major role in the Elizabethan theater.
The History Play. English playwrights worked with many dramatic forms that were familiar throughout Europe, such as comedy and tragedy. However, they also created a type of drama rather specific to England: the history play. In these plays, dramatists drew on the events of the past to shed light on their own times.
Early history plays appealed to many viewers because they portrayed glorious English victories over foreign enemies. The play The Famous Victories of Henry V, written by an unknown author in the 1580s, offers an example of this type of unquestioning patriotism. It relates the adventures of Henry V, king of England from 1413 to 1422, who attacked France and brought it under English rule. The playwright presented the young king as both a war hero and a champion of the individual.
Later playwrights used similar themes in their plays, but they explored the issues in more depth. For example, Shakespeare's three plays about Henry V examine the moral questions surrounding the king's attack on the French. Shakespeare's history plays about England's rulers posed difficult questions about the clash between politics and morality: Does a good king have to be a good man? Do national goals reflect national good, or only the ego and ambition of leaders? These complex views of history transformed drama from simple entertainment to food for thought.
Over time, history plays came to focus less on the military deeds of their kings and more on the rulers' personal lives. Marlowe's Edward II, written around 1591, focuses on the king's love for two male courtiers who are not of noble birth. His willingness to share power with them violates the accepted social structures of his country and ultimately leads to his downfall.
The last Elizabethan play to deal with a real political situation was probably John Ford's The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck: A Strange Truth. This play centers on the figure of Warbeck, an imposter who tried to seize the English throne from Henry VII. The sham king, a lively figure who dominates the stage, makes a vivid contrast to the dull yet competent ruler who controls the country. Ford's play cast suspicion on the very idea of celebrating the glory of kingship on the stage. Many scholars see this production as the end of the history-play genre*.
Problem Plays. Scholars label many popular plays of the English Renaissance as "problem plays." One of the "problems" with them is that they do not fit easily into the mold of comedy or tragedy. They often combine humor with disturbing elements. They also tend to be unclear in their moral position. Sometimes characters are rewarded for acts that seem morally questionable. Even when these plays end happily, some doubts linger about whether everything has truly worked out for the best.
Many problem plays draw on familiar stories, such as the "prodigal son," a young man who leaves his family, wastes all his money, returns home in disgrace, and finds forgiveness. Playwrights created several variations on this basic theme. They presented sons refusing to marry, husbands being unfaithful to their wives, and foolish country gentlemen falling victim to slick city merchants. However, the playwrights also put a twist on the basic plot. The young men who rebel against their families often embody the kind of manly vigor that Elizabethan society admired. These plays forced viewers to question their own standards.
Some of Shakespeare's plays, including Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, fall into the category of problem plays. A less familiar example is Captain Thomas Stukeley (1596), a play by an unknown author about a man who needs money for a military career. Stukeley's ambition enables him to convince his best friend to break his engagement and let Stukeley marry his fiancée. The "hero" then runs off with her dowry*. Stukeley's desperate search for glory eventually leads him into North Africa, where he dies in a contest between two groups of Moors*. The play leaves the audience uncertain about whether to honor the character's ambition or condemn his morals.
The idea of moral uncertainty also appears in "city comedies," plays that focus on the changing economy and social structure of London. In this harsh environment, the success of the hero often is not a victory of good over evil, but a matter of the survival of the fittest. The central character is typically a noble lover or soldier cheated out of his rightful estate by villains who reject traditional values. The only way he can defeat his enemies is by beating them at their own game. In the end he wins his love and recovers his losses, but the unworthy methods he has used leave a stain on his character. The city comedies raise questions about society's values and the conflict between economic success and honorable behavior.
The reign of James I, which lasted from 1603 to 1625, is known as the Jacobean period. Many of the king's subjects disapproved of him because he gave political favors to his courtiers (much like Marlowe's Edward II) and sold noble titles for money. These concerns affected the tone of English drama during this period.
Jacobean drama focused mainly on the court and on London. Female characters took on larger roles than they had in Elizabethan drama, often appearing as shrewd schemers. Wicked or incompetent rulers also became common figures in drama. City comedies, with their biting wit and harsh view of the world, remained popular during this time. The other common type of drama was the satiric* tragedy, usually set in an immoral foreign court—a thinly disguised version of the English one. Plays of this time featured dark plots filled with horror and violence. Some critics have called them "tragedies of state" because they deal with diseased societies that lack a moral foundation.
Leading Dramatists. One of the most productive playwrights of the period was Thomas Middleton. Many scholars see Middleton's play The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) as the first drama in a distinctively Jacobean style. In this grim play about revenge, vicious humor overpowers any sense of moral certainty. This use of dark comedy is a common feature of Jacobean tragedy.
Most of Middleton's plays deal largely with money and sex. His comedies are energetic, featuring huge numbers of characters and complex intersecting plots. In 1624 Middleton scored a huge success with A Game at Chess. This biting satire broke all records for attendance when it played for nine straight days. Scholars also note that Middleton's work shows particular sympathy for women. The character of Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling, Middleton's most famous tragedy, is one of the greatest female roles in Jacobean drama.
The practice of collaborating, or working together on a play, remained common during this period. For example, Ben Jonson worked with fellow playwrights George Chapman and John Marston on his play Eastward Ho! One particularly well-known team was Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. They achieved great success in the new genre known as tragicomedy, which blended elements of tragedy and comedy. Their three most famous plays—Philaster, The Maid's Tragedy, and A King and No King—all focus on one of the favorite topics of Jacobean theater: a king neglecting his duties.
One of the last great Jacobean dramatists was John Ford. Although he created most of his plays during the reign of James's son, Charles I, they reflect the style and ideas of Jacobean drama. Many of Ford's plays reworked plots and themes from Shakespeare. His most famous play, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633), retells the story of Romeo and Juliet with a shocking twist: the lovers are also brother and sister. Incest* was a common theme in Jacobean drama, but Ford was the first to deal with it so openly.
The Court Masque. One form of drama did not share in the general darkness and heaviness of the period. This was the court masque, a popular form of entertainment that combined words, music, dance, and elaborate scenery. Masques formed a part of the Christmas festivities at court and celebrated important state events, such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613. They also served to display the splendor of the court to an audience that often included diplomats from foreign nations.
A masque began with the entry of members of the court in disguise. These courtiers performed a series of staged dances, then led members of the audience out into the social dances (known as "revels"). The plot of the masque served to explain the courtiers' entry, often by introducing them as foreign visitors coming to honor the monarch. The plot also had to praise the monarch, its most important spectator.
Playwright Ben Jonson and set designer Inigo Jones produced most of the masques at the court of King James. Jonson laid out his theory of masque writing in 1606. He saw the masque as a serious genre, suited to an educated audience and able to serve moral and educational purposes. Jonson transformed the genre by introducing the "antimasque," which opens the masque by introducing a series of evil or deceitful characters. Their actions provide a contrast with the heroic virtues of the figures in the real masque. Jonson created his first antimasque at the request of Queen Anne, who wanted her own entrance to follow a "false masque" of witches.
(See alsoArt in Britain; Censorship; Dance; Drama; England; Theaters. )
- * genre
- * dowry
money or property that a woman brings to her marriage
- * Moor
Muslim from North Africa; Moorish invaders conquered much of Spain during the Middle Ages
- * satiric
involving the use of satire, the ridicule of human wickedness and foolishness in a literary or artistic work
- * incest
sexual relationship between blood relatives
Women Who Wrote
Although the professional playwrights of the Elizabethan era were all men, women produced "closet dramas," which were meant to be read rather than performed. The most famous play by a woman was The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), by Elizabeth Cary. The author, a wealthy and well-educated heiress, angered her husband when she converted to Catholicism. Her play about Mariam, the wife of the biblical king Herod, deals with women's role in marriage and their right to speak.