Elizabethan Drama

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Account for the rise of English drama in the Elizabethan Age.

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Elizabeth I's reign brought about a period of political and social stability to England after a long period of disorders and upheavals, both civil and religious. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England became a genuine world power. Though it may be unclear how the phenomenon occurs, a sense of greatness and power within a country's leadership has a way of permeating an entire society, including the artistic culture.

Sir Philip Sidney had noted in his Defence of Poesie that there are certain qualities in the English language that will make it ideal for literary expression. Sidney basically asked why his own countrymen could not create a great national literature as the Italians, French, and Spanish were doing. In the 1500s, major poetic works had emerged, especially from Italy, the most important of which were Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. English poets and scholars like Sidney and Edmund Spenser were emboldened to attempt the same kind of achievement. Spenser was perhaps the first English poet of this, the Renaissance period, to create an epic, The Fairie Queene, that could stand with the work of the continental European poets, and this was an inspiration to the English literary men of his time and the following generation.

Further, this period the expanding middle class meant that there was an increasing audience in London for both literature and stage spectacle. The triumph of the Tudor dynasty created a sense of gratitude among much of the population, and there was a desire to celebrate the Tudors in stage portrayals, almost as a kind of propaganda for the regime. All of these elements—a new sense of national greatness, political power, the influence of poetry and romance from continental Europe, and the general spread of learning and expansion of the urban bourgeoisie—set the stage for the Elizabethan drama, whose greatest exponent was Shakespeare, with the second rank occupied by Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Thomas Kyd, and others.

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The Elizabethan Age is considered to span from the later half of the sixteenth century to 1603, when James I took the throne of England.

As London's population began to increase during Elizabeth I's reign, affluence did as well, creating disposable income that could be spent on entertainment. At the same time, large public amphitheaters offered tickets at different price points, depending on whether the ticket holder chose to stand, sit, or sit in relative privacy. Theaters were built in the city of London and on its outskirts, and traveling theater companies brought plays all over the country and onto the European continent.

The appetite for drama in this era came from a turn to back to the humanism found in plays from ancient Greece and Rome. The church had less of a hold on English culture at this time, and themes in drama were mainly secular. The morality plays of medieval England were replaced by human-centered stories that were both comic and tragic (sometimes both within the same play) and always observant of the lives of real people: heroes, the nobility, and ordinary people alike.

A major driving force behind Elizabethan theater was of course the Queen herself. Because it would be unseemly for her to travel to theaters, dramas were often performed at court, and most playwrights wrote to please their monarch, knowing that her patronage was necessary for the genre to flourish.

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Several historical developments, along with literature advances, encouraged the growth of theatre during Elizabeth’s long reign.   First, the Roman Catholic dislike of theatre was no longer a strong political force, since Henry VIII had established the Church of England.  Second, the city of London, which had certain restrictions on theatres in the city of London (mostly the courtyards of inns), began to allow certain sites, especially on the south bank of the Thames, to build dedicated theatre buildings (the South Bank was not the most socially desirable part of the city).  Third, the Age of Exploration, and with it the financial affluence of an emerging business class, brought interest in other countries and cultures.  Poetry, and with it dramatic texts, became circulated outside London and thereby brought travelers and visitors into the audience.  The main reason for theatre’s popularity at this time was Elizabeth’s own interest and support.  Companies could count not only on her licensing approval, but also on a sizable sponsorship when they performed at court.

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