Study Guide

Elizabethan Drama

Elizabethan Drama Biography

Introduction

From the Elizabethan Age come some of the most highly-respected plays in Western drama. Although it is generally agreed that the period began at the commencement of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in 1558, the ending date is not as definitive. Some consider the age to have ended at the queen’s death in 1603, while others place the end of Elizabethan Drama at the closing of the theatres in 1642. Elizabeth I was a strong, resolute monarch who returned England to Protestantism, quelled a great deal of internal turmoil, and unified the nation. She was also a strong supporter of the arts, and this sparked a surge of activity in the theatre. During her reign, some playwrights were able to make a comfortable living by receiving royal patronage. There was a great deal of theatrical activity at Court, and many public theatres were also built on the outskirts of London. Theatre was a popular pastime, and people of all walks of life attended. Although women were not allowed onstage, they did attend performances and often made up a substantial part of the audience. The theatre also drew many unsavory characters, including pickpockets, cutpurses, and prostitutes. Because of the perceived bad influence of the theatres, the Puritans were vocally opposed to them and succeeded in shutting them down in 1642. Some of the most important playwrights come from the Elizabethan era, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe. These playwrights wrote plays that were patterned on numerous previous sources including the Greek tragedy, Seneca’s plays, Attic drama, English miracle plays, morality plays, and interludes. Elizabethan tragedy dealt with heroic themes, usually centering on a great personality who is destroyed by his own passion and ambition. The comedies often satirized the fops and gallants of society.

Elizabethan Drama Representative Authors

George Chapman (1559–1634)
George Chapman was born in 1559 in the town of Hertfordshire, near London. He was the second son of Thomas and Joan Chapman. Little is known of his early life except that he attended Oxford in 1574 but left before completing his degree. From 1583 through 1585, he was in the household of Sir Ralph Sadler, although his exact position there is somewhat unclear. It seems that Chapman served in the military in 1591 and 1592 but returned to London prior to 1594. Chapman’s earliest drama, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, was produced in 1596, and he quickly gained a reputation as a talented playwright. Chapman wrote approximately twenty-one plays between 1596 and 1613, but his output was very sporadic. Some years he wrote no plays, instead concentrating his efforts on translating the poetry of Homer. Chapman experienced financial troubles throughout his life and spent some time in debtor’s prison. His fortune changed for a brief time in 1603, when he was given a position in the household of the young Prince Henry. Henry undertook sponsorship of the Homer project. During this time, Chapman also wrote plays for the Children of the Chapel, and the company produced Chapman’s most famous tragedies: Bussy D’Ambois (1604) and two plays on Byron (1608). When Henry died in 1612, Chapman once again found himself in financial trouble. Very little is known about the last twenty years of his life. He died on May 12, 1634.

Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632)
The exact date of Thomas Dekker’s birth is unknown. In a document from 1632, he speaks of his “three-score years,” and this is the basis for the assumption that he was born in or around the year 1572. He is thought to have been born and raised in London, but little is known about his life prior to January 1598, when his name begins to appear on the payment books of Philip Henslowe, theatre owner and financier of two London theatre companies. From 1598 to 1600, Dekker wrote eight plays for The Lord Admiral’s Men and collaborated on twenty-four others. In 1600, his most famous play, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, was produced. The play is notable for its realistic depiction of everyday life in seventeenth-century London as well as for Dekker’s strong use of romantic fantasy in his depiction of characters. The play was extremely popular with London audiences. Around 1606, Dekker turned to writing pamphlets. His most notable works of this genre are The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606) and The Gull’s Hornbook (1609). In 1610, he returned to writing plays, but many of his later works have been lost. Even though Dekker was a talented playwright, he was never able to make a comfortable living. As Diane Yancey notes in Life in the Elizabethan Theater, “Thomas Dekker was a talented and overworked man who spent his life in hopeless poverty.” He served several prison terms for debt, with the longest being the six-year period from 1613 to 1619. Dekker was last heard from in 1632. It is assumed that this was also the year of his death, as there is a record of one “Thomas Decker householder” being buried on August 25th.

Thomas Heywood (c. 1573–1641)
Thomas Heywood was a prolific writer who claimed to have written and collaborated on more than two hundred plays. He is most famous for his plays dealing with contemporary English life. Heywood was born in Lincolnshire to the Reverend Robert and Elizabeth Heywood. His family was fairly well off, and he is believed to have studied at Cambridge University. However, he did not complete his degree. On June 13, 1603, Heywood married Anne Butler. It is uncertain how many children the couple had. There are baptismal records for eight Heywood...

(The entire section is 1533 words.)