What are the chief characteristics of Renaissance tragedy?

The chief characteristics of Renaissance drama are its adherence to genre, most notably comedy, tragedy, and history. It was also very much derived of the history of both the drama, from the Greek theater to morality plays, and interested in the literature of the past. It was also a form of theater that appealed to a wide audience and was, more so than now, a popular art.

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One of the chief characteristics of Renaissance tragedy is the tendency of tragic heroes to transcend traditional systems of morality. This can be observed most clearly in the character of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who abandons Christian morality in his overwhelming desire for knowledge, and the power that comes with it.

In classic Renaissance fashion, Faustus is very curious about the world around him. He always wants to know more, but such is his intellectual curiosity that any additional knowledge he acquires is never enough. This leaves him vulnerable to the wiles of Lucifer. In due course, Faustus, frustrated at the limitations placed upon him by human nature, succumbs to temptation and sells his soul to the Devil.

In contrast to the tragic heroes of Ancient Greek tragedy, Faustus isn't simply acting foolishly or with considerable hubris. He's flat out rejecting the prevailing system of morals in an attempt to satisfy his overriding needs and desires. This is a common occurrence in Renaissance tragedy, which shows the dangers of mere mortals taking it upon themselves to behave like gods. When they impudently place themselves in the position of the Almighty horrors follow.

Though far from being a godless age, the Renaissance was a transitional epoch from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason that began in the 17th century. Tragic heroes in Renaissance tragedy, such as Faustus, point towards a time when secular morality came to supplant Christian teachings in the minds of the educated elite.

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Renaissance drama emerged and flourished in the 1500s and 1600s. Emerging out of medieval drama, which was heavily focused on morality, mystery, and miracle plays, the English theater of this period produced some of the greatest and most influential plays in literature. One of the earliest plays from the period is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, a revenge play, which would influence Shakespeare. The dramatists of this era primarily worked in three genres: comedy, tragedy, and history. The genre lines often blurred between the three, with history frequently overlapping the other two. Aside from Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson, Webster, Ford, and Middleton were other major playwrights.

Renaissance, of course, means "rebirth" and there was a rediscovery, starting in Italy, of classical arts and culture. While some of the English writers could read these texts in the original Latin, many came to these sources in translation or second-hand. Plutarch's Lives provided many writers with historical material from the Roman period, while Ovid's Metamorphosis was a key source for mythology. Shakespeare, for example, used other sources, like the writings of Plautus, for all of his plays; originality was not as highly prized as it is now.

In terms of conventions of the stage, only men were allowed to act. Boys played women's parts. Many of the theaters, most famously the Globe, were round and open air. Seating was dependent on status and money, with the best seats in the balcony. Those who paid the least and stood in front of the stage were known as the groundings. During the Renaissance, theater appealed to a cross-cultural audience. The theaters were closed several times due to plague and were considered dens of iniquity and immorality by the Puritans, who shut them down when they took power.

A final characteristic of the plays of the time is the highly wrought, allusive, and poetic language the writers used. Many authors, such as Shakespeare, used blank verse in some of his plays, when he didn't use iambic pentameter. Marlowe, who influenced Shakespeare, also experimented with the new, less structured form. The language was, overall, very stylized and theatrical. In the best of these writers's work, the language transcends the period they were writing in and brings a psychological depth and introspection that had heretofore been absent in drama.

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As Susan Wise Bauer explains in The Well-Educated Mind, the chief characteristic of Renaissance tragedies was personality. Medieval mystery and morality plays had emphasized universal concepts such as virtue, vice, and humanity; they did not focus on the individual. (The most popular morality play, for instance, was titled Everyman.)  

The Renaissance—influenced by humanism—emphasized "a free individual with power to act in the world and change it." The main character in a Renaissance tragedy was a person "full of complexities, ambitions, and potential" (Wise Bauer, 248). In short, Renaissance drama got rid of "flat" characters and reintroduced "dynamic" ones.

Since the Renaissance was optimistic about humanity's plight, one might have expected Renaissance dramas to exhibit primarily happy endings. However, the major Renaissance playwrights—specifically William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe—seemed somewhat skeptical of humanism. Tragedy flourished during the Renaissance. As Wise Bauer comments:

Shakespeare writes comedies, tragedies, and histories—but he never writes victories....Shakespeare's heroes are free, but they are far from happy (249).

Here are two examples: Macbeth was free to pursue his ambitions, but attaining his goals did not make him happy. Hamlet was a complex individual caught in a tragic circumstance; he had autonomy (he could decide whether or not to kill the man who murdered his father), but this freedom could not stop him from ending up dead at the play's end.

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This rich period in English literary history featured stage presentations that appealed to all classes of people.  Following the Aristotelian rules of tragedy (a hero falling from a high place due to a flaw, etc.)  and began the literary tradition of applying personality traits in full dimension to stock characters, the invention of “character”.  One special feature of virtually all Elizabethan tragedies is the “personification of a tragic flaw” – for example, Iago in Othello (jealousy) and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (ambition or pride).  The structure of English tragedies called for a restructuring of historical incidents into fictive tales with cathartic endings, and were meant to frighten the audience into proper emotional behavior.  Later tragedies became too “bloody” to appeal to sophisticated audiences.

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