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The best place to start when discussing Elizabethan Theater is at how the union of Art and commercial opportunity under a relatively stable English monarchy advanced the English language.
The late 16th to early 17th centuries were unique in English history in that the conditions were right for the distinctly social/cultural nature of drama (as opposed to poetry). Public theatrical presentations were the site of the largest gatherings and social mix of foreigners, rural visitors, and Londoners, with the possible exception of church gatherings. The genre of drama/theater as literature benefited from the explosion of printing presses, notably in quarto publications of playscripts, which were circulated throughout England. So drama/theater enjoyed patronage as Art while at the same time providing a commercial base for economic growth.
The linguistic contributions of plays, especially neologisms (newly coined word or new use of words), kept plays popular for all the centuries following Elizabeth’s reign, and the insights into human conduct, demonstrated in the striking characterizations of the dramas, moved the nascent philosophies (newly emerging philosophies) of human nature into the Age of Reason.
Elizabethan theatre has its beginnings attributed to the reign of Elizabeth I from 1558-1602, but some place its end when the Puritans had the theatres closed in 1642. In London, drama was a very popular form of entertainment. Unlike the morality plays and Greek dramas, Elizabethan drama excluded God or gods from the content and concentrated man's faith upon himself. Thus, Elizabethan tragedies focused upon a hero destroyed by his own ambition and passions rather than by fate or other external forces. Common themes of Elizabethan drama include the following:
In many plays characters are disguised literally or figuratively. At times, the disguises result in humorous consequences. In Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night, for instance, women are disguised as men and revealed as themselves at the end of the play. Because men had to play the roles of women, there are those who believe that these disguises made the actors more comfortable in their roles.
- The four humours
In Elizabethan times, there was a belief that people's temperaments were controlled by four humours in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.
Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, a new species of comedy devoted solely to the interplay of these elements was created, known as the “comedy of humours.”
Tragedies, too, employed the affects of the humours. Shakespeare's famous Hamlet, for instance, is described as the "melancholy Dane," an implication that Hamlet is somewhat mentally imbalanced.
Hamlet, of course, is a revenge play as is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy in which the ghost of Don Andrea calling for revenge, and later sits onstage to watch his enemies be destroyed.
Duels and murders enacted onstage was new to Elizabethan drama.
Thomas Dekker's plays depict the quotidian life of the Londoners in a satirical manner. Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta ridicules the Semite as a hooked-nosed red-haired comic figure, who is ridiculously avaricious and confrontational. Modeled after this play is William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in which a Jew is also ridiculed as greedy and selfish.
- The supernatural
Elizabethans believed in the Great Chain of Being and were also very superstitious. Ghosts, witches, and fairies figure very prominently in Elizabethan drama as they act as catalysts that ignite the action. The interference of the preternatural world often alters the outcome of many a tragic hero's life.
Along with certain themes, there are also certain devices used in Elizabethan drama:
- Monologues, Soliloquies, and Asides
Individual speeches by players helped the audience to understand that character's thoughts. In Hamlet, for example, it is the soliloquies--the self-debates of Hamlet--that advance the action of the play as well as reveal his inner conflicts.
- Insults and Puns
An art form in the Elizabethan Age, name-calling excited the audiences, especially the groundlings. This "verbal dueling" complemented the physical dueling at times; in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio and Tybalt exchange figurative and literal barbs. Romeo and Juliet is also replete with puns; perhaps the most famous one is Mercutio's telling Romeo, "Tomorrow you will find me a grave man" as he will no longer banter in humor and he will also be dead.
- Iambic Pentameter, blank verse, and rhymed couplets at the end of scenes or acts
- Bare stages - lines indicate settings
I would also strongly suggest that you consult books in your local library.
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