Elizabethan Drama

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What are the main features of Elizabethan drama, focusing on Shakespeare and Marlowe?

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While medieval drama had a strong religious flavor, Elizabethan drama was to a great degree secular. Much of Elizabethan drama was based on a rediscovery of classical models, an influence that can be seen in the classical settings of such Shakespearean plays as Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream and Marlowe's Dido. 

One important genre of Elizabethan drama was the revenge tragedy, a form of drama highly influenced by Seneca. The revenge tragedy has a protagonist who has been wronged before the opening of the play and seeks vengeance. Hamlet is a typical example, and Marlowe's Jew of Malta also shares certain characteristics of the genre, although the protagonist is not a character with whom we entirely sympathize. Also as was the case in antiquity, all roles in Elizabethan drama, including female roles, were performed by men.

Unlike classical drama, Elizabethan drama does not have a chorus and may have more than three actors. Another major innovation of Elizabethan drama was the insertion of comic episodes (famously the rustics and mechanicals in Shakespeare) into otherwise tragic plays. 

Another interesting element of many Elizabethan dramas is their historical themes, with many works such as Shakespeare's Richard II and Henry IV and Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Edward II being based on historical figures. Most of the plays of both authors were based on narratives found in earlier sources, whether historical or fictional, rather than being invented by the playwrights.


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Christopher Marlowe was one of the University Wits.  This was a group of univeristy trained men who wrote for the popular theatre.  Of this group, Marlowe stands out today despite the fact that he died at an early age in a bar room brawl.

Marlowe explored blank verse and used it effectively in his plays.  Marlowe also looked into Seneca's closet dramas which broke the rigid Greek rules.  Instead of the violence taking place off stage and reported, it was brought onto the stage to the delight of the Elizabethan audiences.

Shakespeare took over where Marlowe left off.  He used language, both blank verse and prose, to show many things about his characters.  Each character can be defined by the language they use.   He also used the language to define relationships and situations.  For example, friends may use prose in informal situations but verse in more formal ones, IE, Act I , scene 1 of King Lear where two nobleman speak in prose until the king enters.  Prose is often, but not always, used by servants.  

Shakespeare also explored structure in his late plays, IE, The Winter's Talehas what is called a broken back structure since it begins like a tragedy but ends positively.

Shakespeare also used sources for his plays like Ovid and Holinshed.  There are only two plays that have no source, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest. 

Both Marlowe and Shakespeare helped shaped Elizabethan theatre.  

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