Elizabethan Drama

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George Chapman (1559–1634) George Chapman was born in 1559 in the town of Hertfordshire, near London. He was the second son of Thomas and Joan Chapman. Little is known of his early life except that he attended Oxford in 1574 but left before completing his degree. From 1583 through 1585, he was in the household of Sir Ralph Sadler, although his exact position there is somewhat unclear. It seems that Chapman served in the military in 1591 and 1592 but returned to London prior to 1594. Chapman’s earliest drama, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, was produced in 1596, and he quickly gained a reputation as a talented playwright. Chapman wrote approximately twenty-one plays between 1596 and 1613, but his output was very sporadic. Some years he wrote no plays, instead concentrating his efforts on translating the poetry of Homer. Chapman experienced financial troubles throughout his life and spent some time in debtor’s prison. His fortune changed for a brief time in 1603, when he was given a position in the household of the young Prince Henry. Henry undertook sponsorship of the Homer project. During this time, Chapman also wrote plays for the Children of the Chapel, and the company produced Chapman’s most famous tragedies: Bussy D’Ambois (1604) and two plays on Byron (1608). When Henry died in 1612, Chapman once again found himself in financial trouble. Very little is known about the last twenty years of his life. He died on May 12, 1634.

Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632) The exact date of Thomas Dekker’s birth is unknown. In a document from 1632, he speaks of his “three-score years,” and this is the basis for the assumption that he was born in or around the year 1572. He is thought to have been born and raised in London, but little is known about his life prior to January 1598, when his name begins to appear on the payment books of Philip Henslowe, theatre owner and financier of two London theatre companies. From 1598 to 1600, Dekker wrote eight plays for The Lord Admiral’s Men and collaborated on twenty-four others. In 1600, his most famous play, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, was produced. The play is notable for its realistic depiction of everyday life in seventeenth-century London as well as for Dekker’s strong use of romantic fantasy in his depiction of characters. The play was extremely popular with London audiences. Around 1606, Dekker turned to writing pamphlets. His most notable works of this genre are The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606) and The Gull’s Hornbook (1609). In 1610, he returned to writing plays, but many of his later works have been lost. Even though Dekker was a talented playwright, he was never able to make a comfortable living. As Diane Yancey notes in Life in the Elizabethan Theater, “Thomas Dekker was a talented and overworked man who spent his life in hopeless poverty.” He served several prison terms for debt, with the longest being the six-year period from 1613 to 1619. Dekker was last heard from in 1632. It is assumed that this was also the year of his death, as there is a record of one “Thomas Decker householder” being buried on August 25th.

Thomas Heywood (c. 1573–1641) Thomas Heywood was a prolific writer who claimed to have written and collaborated on more than two hundred plays. He is most famous for his plays dealing with contemporary English life. Heywood was born in Lincolnshire to the Reverend Robert and Elizabeth Heywood. His family was fairly well off, and he is believed to have studied at Cambridge University. However, he...

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did not complete his degree. On June 13, 1603, Heywood married Anne Butler. It is uncertain how many children the couple had. There are baptismal records for eight Heywood children, but there is no way to verify if these were all sons and daughters of the dramatist or children of another Heywood family. By 1598, Heywood was gaining recognition as a comic writer, although most of his significant literary activity was done between 1600 and 1620. His best-known play,A Woman Killed with Kindness, was produced during this period, in 1603. After the death of his first wife, Heywood married his second wife, Jane Span, on January 18, 1633. In his later years, Heywood served as City Poet and produced several pageants for the Lord Mayor. He was buried on August 16, 1641, in Clerkenwell.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) Ben Jonson was born in 1572 in Westminster. His stepfather was a master bricklayer, and Jonson briefly took up this trade in his youth. He also spent a brief time as a soldier, returning to England and marrying sometime prior to 1592. Upon his return to England, Jonson became an actor and by 1597 was working as a dramatist for the theatrical entrepreneur Phillip Henslowe. Jonson’s first play, co-written with Thomas Nashe in 1597, was The Isle of Dogs. It was deemed offensive and landed Jonson in jail for a brief time. Then, in 1598, Jonson was arrested for killing a fellow actor in a duel. In that same year, however, Jonson also gained his first dramatic success with the play Every Man in His Humour. This play was the first instance of a new comic form known as “the comedy of humours,” and it turned him into a celebrity. Jonson became a favorite of King James I and wrote over thirty masques for court performance. In 1616, King James I made him poet laureate, the official poet of the court. This position also came with an annual pension, allowing Jonson to live out his life comfortably. Jonson suffered a severe stroke in 1628 and died in Westminster on August 6, 1637.

Thomas Kyd (1558–1594) Thomas Kyd was born in London in November 1558, the son of Thomas Kyd, a scrivener, and his wife, Anna. Kyd went to Merchant Taylors’ school but did not enter a university. From about 1587 to 1593, Kyd was in the service of a lord. He began to write plays, and it was during this time that Kyd had his greatest theatrical success, with the production of The Spanish Tragedy. It was wildly popular with Elizabethan audiences and established Kyd as the founder of a new genre of Elizabethan Drama known as “blood tragedy.” The exact date of the very first production of The Spanish Tragedy is unknown. Things seemed to go along fairly smoothly until 1591, when Kyd ran into some very serious trouble due to his earlier acquaintance with the dramatist Christopher Marlowe. During a government search, some antireligious papers were seized in Kyd’s home, and he was accused of atheism. He was arrested and tortured but was freed after maintaining that the papers belonged to Marlowe and had become inadvertently mixed with his own belongings when the two shared a room for a brief time. Kyd was eventually freed, but the lord he served was not convinced of his innocence. He released Kyd from service in 1593. Kyd was unable to obtain other financial assistance and died in August 1594 in great poverty.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564, the eldest son of master shoemaker John Marlowe and Katherine Arthur. Marlowe attended Cambridge, quickly distinguishing himself as a brilliant university student. During his time at Cambridge, Marlowe became part of Queen Elizabeth’s secret service and carried out several secret missions for the crown. After receiving his degree in July 1587, he went to London, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord Admiral’s Company. During that same year, both parts of Tamburlaine the Great were performed on the London stages, catapulting Marlowe into celebrity status. Marlowe lived a reckless life and had several scrapes with the law. In 1591, Marlowe’s former roommate, playwright Thomas Kyd, was imprisoned and tortured after authorities found heretical writings in Kyd’s room. Kyd, who was also taken in for questioning, insisted that the writings belonged to Marlowe. Marlowe was released without incident, however, possibly due to his earlier ties with the secret service. Marlowe’s life ended when he was only twenty-nine years old. On the night of May 30, 1593, he was stabbed in the head during a barroom brawl. He died instantly.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, to John and Mary Shakespeare in Stratford- upon-Avon. He was the third of eight children. At age eighteen, Shakespeare married the alreadypregnant Anne Hathaway. They would eventually have three children. Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life from 1583 to 1592. By 1594, however, he had joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, serving as both an actor and a playwright. By the end of that year, six of his plays had already been performed. In 1599, Shakespeare and other members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men financed the building of the Globe Theatre, and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men continued to mount popular performances there, including many of Shakespeare’s plays. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the foremost London company, performing at Court on thirty-two occasions between 1594 and 1603. After his ascension to the throne, James I granted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men a royal patent, and the company’s name was changed to the King’s Men. Shakespeare’s talent as a playwright was widely recognized. He became one of the wealthiest dramatists of his day and lived a comfortable life. He retired to Stratford in 1610 and died on April 23, 1616. In 1623, actors Henry Condell and John Heminge published his plays as a collection known as the First Folio.