What are main characteristics of Renaissance drama?

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Renaissance drama, centered in England, evolved out of the morality and mystery plays of the Medieval era. While these earlier plays attempted to teach a lesson and were often performed by monks or tradesmen, the Renaissance dramas moved toward entertainment. Renaissance drama developed around the 15th century and was at first often performed as short plays at court or in the homes of nobles. The playwrights of the era, such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, were not intellectuals and wrote to entertain rather than to instruct. 

The subjects of Renaissance plays often included comedy, and some, such as Skelton's Magnyfycence (1515), also included political satire. The early plays of the era also included history and set the stage (literally) for the later history plays of Shakespeare and other playwrights. As the Reformation re-introduced European audiences to the Latin classics, much of the material of classical humanism was adapted into Renaissance drama. For example, Shakespeare included story lines from an English translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis in plays such as Midsummer Night's Dream (particularly the story of Pyramus and Thisbe). In addition, the traditional Latin structure of the five-act play was introduced into English drama. Roman writers such as Seneca influenced Renaissance playwrights to pen tragedies such as Hamlet that included elements such as ghosts and violence. 

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Whereas Medieval dramas were essentially amateurish endeavors in which clergy or various trade guilds participated, the Renaissance theater was composed of professional actors, among whom were those who specialized in tragic roles and others in comic roles. These actors were not members of a guild, a requirement for workers, so they placed themselves under the patronage of royalty; in this way, they would then be considered servants and, therefore, be allowed to perform.

Here are other characteristics of the Renaissance theater:

  • It was a "presentational" theater; that is, no attempt was made to convince the audience that they were not present in a theater.
  • Theaters became established and profitable (admission was charged). At first theaters were performed in inns with tables put together as the stage. People could stand on the balconies of their rooms and watch. Later on, they  were constructed to three stories high and built around an open space at the center.
  • The Renaissance theater was a unified theater, allowing all social classes to attend.
  • The Renaissance theater was an intimate theater as the actor was no more than forty feet from his audience.
  • Performances of the same play were repeated while this play was new, then fewer times, until after about a year and a half, the play would cease to be performed.
  • The roles were performed by professional actors, all of whom were men (young men performed the female roles). In fact, certain actors specialized in tragic roles, while others performed only comic roles.
  • There were certain dramatic gestures used consistently to signify to the audience specific emotions
  • Plays were often written by dramatists for a particular company of actors. He would read the play, or parts of it, to these actors, welcoming their input. Thus, plays were often joint ventures between writer and actor.
  • Masques and such that were performed by courtiers were replaced by these plays.
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The Renaissance was a period of a great flowering of English drama. It differed from many ways from the medieval dramatic tradition immediately preceding it but was strongly influenced by classical drama.

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