Elizabethan Drama

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Trace the development of english drama in the elizabethan period

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The reign of Queen Elizabeth lasted from 1558 to 1603. It was one of the great periods in which English drama flourished and changed, in part due to Elizabeth's own support for the arts. 

The first major transition we observe is from a medieval model, with limited genres and performance opportunities, to a far more diverse model. At the start of Elizabeth's reign, there were two main forms of drama. Mystery drama consisted of plays that told Bible stories in English. These were initially developed in part because Roman Catholics (before the foundation of the Church of England by Elizabeth's father Henry VIII) conducted church services and read the Bible in Latin, which was incomprehensible to most of the population, who did not know Latin and were illiterate. Another genre common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the morality play, also a fundamentally religious genre in which various virtues and vices were personified and the plots were generally allegories of religious and conventional morality.

The revival of classical knowledge, and especially Roman drama, led to the development of more realistic forms of drama, including comedies, tragedies, and history plays. Interludes and masques were often performed at court and permanent theaters were built, supplementing the ad hoc performance spaces used earlier. Court patronage allowed playwrights to earn a living and popular audiences, and aristocratic patronage supported the foundation of professional theater companies. 

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Elizabeth had already been on the throne for ten years when we see the first commercial public play house being built by records from 1567 and these venues were specially for the performance of plays. They offered novel entertainment opportunities for London,  but drama, plays and pageantry had toured the countryside a long time before.

There were performances called mystery plays and miracle plays which were the main part of early Elizabethan performance and drama – and these had been going around for centuries. They  dramatised the Bible and illustrated the lives of saints, so were  linked to the church's calendar being performed at special times of the year, such as holy days and sanits feast days.

Play wagons were taken around the towns, halting at important locations to perform plays outside for the general public. Players would sometimes act out the whole Bible and a holiday atmosphere prevailed with side shows and music and trade.

However Henry V111 split with the Catholic church so the religious drama died out and the space was filled with tragedies, histories and  comedies which we now link with Shakespeare and other writers of his time.

This new kind of drama was more professional and commercial performed by employed actor/writers who travelled the country staging plays wherever they might get a ready audience such as pubs,  taverns, guildhalls, churches and churchyards, Eventually of course, one enterprising young actor/writer realised the entrepreneurial potential of a fixed venue - and that was William Shakespeare's first theatre.

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