The ascension of James I to the English throne in 1603 marked an era of social and philosophical transition that was reflected in the increasingly dark and ambiguous drama of the period. While a Christian humanist conception of the universe prevailed during the Elizabethan age, the scientific movement of the seventeenth century cast doubt upon earlier views of the cosmos as a highly moral environment governed by God. Astronomical discoveries, for example, along with the publication of Sir Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning in 1605, contributed to a new analytical mode of thinking that marked the separation of philosophical and artistic thought from the realm of religion and morality.
The transition between the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages was reflected in drama in varying degrees. With the exception of such late tragedies as Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare, for example, is generally associated with the Elizabethan sensibility. Most of his works display a sense of providential justice; a sense that the ravages of evil will ultimately be overcome by an inevitable movement of the cosmos toward moral harmony. The works of several of Shakespeare's noted Jacobean contemporaries including Webster and Middleton, however, depart from the Elizabethan sense of moral order through depictions of corruption and violence that do not suggest divine retribution and the ultimate triumph of good. Critics do not consider Jacobean drama to be amoral, however: many of the tragedies seek to affirm human dignity and honor in the face of suffering and injustice. Irving Ribner described Jacobean tragedy as the search "to find a basis for morality in a world in which the traditional bases no longer seem to have validity."
While extensive critical commentary has focused on the tragedies of the Jacobean period, by far the most popular and frequently performed dramas of the era were the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher. Although lauded in the seventeenth century, nineteenthand twentieth-century critics have frequently criticized the Fletcherian tragicomedies for sensationalism, contrived plots, and the use of merely entertaining dramatic devices at the expense of integrity and meaning. Some have blamed the growth of private theaters during the seventeenth century and the resulting rise of special interests among audiences for the perceived emphasis on escapist entertainment over meaningful artistic commentary. Others, such as Jacqueline Pearson, have defended the artistic significance and dramatic skill of the tragicomedies. Pearson comments: "Behind the clear-cut structure of sharp contrasts, surprise and suspense, lurks a teasing double-vision, a critical ability to see events simultaneously in very different ways." Also popular during the Jacobean period were masques, which became highly fashionable in the court of King James. Predominantly written by the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, the Jacobean masques are noted for lavish set designs and musical scores provided by the major artists and musicians of the period. The focus of the performances was most often the glorification of nobility and right rule, presented in the context of an allegorical, mythological framework. Pat Rogers commented: "The masque can be seen as conspicuous consumption, a sign of decadence, or as the apotheosis of the arts."
Beaumont, Francis, and Fletcher, John
The Woman Hater c.1606
Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid c.1607
Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding c.1609
The Coxcomb c.1609
The Captain c.1611
Cupid's Revenge c.1611
A King and No King c.1611
The Maid's Tragedy c.1611
The Scornful Lady c. 1615
Thierry and Theodoret [with Philip Massinger] c.1615
Beggars' Bush [with Massinger] c.1615
Love's Pilgrimage c.1616
Bussy d'Ambois 1604
Eastward Ho [with Ben Jonson and John Marston] 1604-05
The Widow's Tears 1604-05
The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron 1607-08
The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois 1610-11
The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France 1613
The Honest Whore [with Thomas Middleton] 1604
Westward Ho [with John Webster] 1604
Northward Ho [with Webster] 1605
The Whore of Babylon 1605-06
The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse 1611
If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It 1611
The Virgin Martir, A Tragedie [with Philip Massinger] 1620
The Witch of Edmonton [with William Rowley and John Ford] 1621
The Broken Heart 1633
Love's Sacrifice 1633
'Tis Pity She's a Whore...
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The Jacobean Worldview: An Era Of Transition
SOURCE: "The Jacobean Drama," in The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation, revised edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1958, pp. 1-27.
[In the following chapter from her frequently cited critical study of Jacobean drama, originally published in 1936, Ellis-Fermor emphasizes the "sense of defeat" that characterized drama of the Jacobean period in contrast with the "vitality" of the Elizabethan era. She notes the increasingly unresolved treatment of evil and the sense of a decaying civilization that characterized the era and asserts that Jacobean drama anticipated a changing collective worldview in its separation of poetry, philosophy and science from the realm of religion.]
The mood of the drama from the early Elizabethan to the late Jacobean period appears to pass through three phases, each reflecting with some precision the characteristic thought, preoccupation or attitude to the problems of man's being of the period to which it belongs. That of the Elizabethan age proper, the drama of Greene, Kyd, Peele, Marlowe and the early work of Shakespeare, is characterized by its faith in vitality, its worship of the glorious processes of life, an expansion and elation of mind which corresponds directly to the upward movement of a prosperous and expanding society. This robust gusto appears directly in the comedies of Shakespeare and only less directly in Romeo and...
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Morality And Jacobean Drama
Peter F. Mullany
SOURCE: An Introduction to Jacobean Drama Studies: Religion and the Artifice of Jacobean and Caroline Drama, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1977, pp. 1-28.
[In the following essay, Mullany discusses what he perceives as the increasing artificiality, sensationalism, and dissociation from reality that characterized drama of the Jacobean period.]
Religion is a perennial concern of literature and appears in a variety of uses. Not infrequently we find it used for sentimental effects in the saccharine entertainments produced for television and movies. In the popular media religion provides on many occasions a counter eliciting automatic responses in much the same fashion as such standard topics as family, patriotism, political institutions, and crime. Money in the novels of Sinclair Lewis, for example, immediately suggests the evil of capitalistic oppression of society's underdogs. Each age has its particular emotional counters which produce stock responses because of an audience's shared attitudes toward a specific subject. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, such themes as those of revenge, Divine Right of Kings, and the confrontation of Christian and pagan beliefs afforded dramatists subjects which appealed to ethical and religious beliefs of vital concern to the actual lives of Englishmen....
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SOURCE: "Tragedy and the Age," in The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960, pp. 1-46.
[In the following excerpt, Ornstein focuses on the problem of critical interpretation associated with the "hectic portraits of vice and depravity " that characterize Jacobean tragedies. He emphasizes the gradual transition between the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, stressing the uncertainty associated with a changing epistemology.]
We applaud the Jacobean tragedians but we do not always approve of them. Their poetry seems at times superior to their principles and their sense of the theater more highly developed than their sense of values. Because we do not find in other Jacobean literature a cynicism comparable to theirs or detect in Jacobean culture the wormwood ingredients which might explain their distaste for society, we wonder what reality if any lay behind their hectic portraits of vice and depravity. We do not assume that scholarly research can ever explain the flowering of tragic drama in the first decade of the seventeenth century, but we do expect that a study of the cultural background will help us to understand the dramatists' preoccupation with evil and their heightened awareness of the tragic anguish and disorder of experience.
Because we cannot find in Elizabethan literature the seeds of Jacobean pessimism, we...
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The Jacobean Masque
SOURCE: "The Politics of the Jacobean Masque," in Theatre and Government Under the Early Stuarts, edited by J.R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 87-117.
[In the following essay, Parry describes the political purpose and theatrical techniques of Jacobean masques, focusing on the works of Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson.]
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Bluestone, Max, and Rabkin, Norman, eds. Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1970, 411 p.
Presents selected essays focusing on important Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.
Braunmuller, A. R., and Bulman, J. C, eds. Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986, 290 p.
Offers an overview of the comic tradition and comic form. Includes essays on Stuart and Caroline comedy, discussing the works of Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton, and Massinger.
Camoin, Françoise André. Jacobean Drama Studies. Vol. 20: The Revenge Convention in Tourneur, Webster and Middleton. Edited by James Hogg. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1972, 141 p.
Examines the moral framework of the revenge motif in Jacobean tragedy, distinguishing its role in Jacobean drama from that in drama of the medieval and Elizabethan periods.
Champion, Larry S. Tragic Patterns in Jacobean and Caroline Drama. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1977, 247 p.
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