Elizabethan Drama

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Critical Overview

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Attending the theatre was an extremely popular pastime during the Elizabethan era. One of the main reasons that the theatre was able to flourish during the sixteenth century was that Queen Elizabeth herself was a supporter of the arts. She enjoyed attending theatrical entertainments and that legitimized the activity for the rest of the citizens. Most of the populace loved going to the theatre, and as Jeffrey L. Singman notes in his book Daily Life in Elizabethan England, “There was a constant and insatiable demand for plays, and actors became very popular figures—the first ‘stars.’” But not everyone was thrilled with the theatre’s popularity. There were some who shunned it and others who actively campaigned against it. The Puritans were particularly vocal in their opposition to the English playhouses, and numerous treatises and pamphlets were written, warning citizens of the evil and immorality that could be found festering in these amusements. The first major assault came in 1577, in John Northbrooke’s A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Interludes. This was soon followed by Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse in 1579. As Oscar Brockett comments, “Both works railed in the harshest terms against the theatre as an instrument used by the Devil to encourage vice and to take people away from honest work and other useful pursuits.” These attacks were answered by theatre supporters, with the most famous response being Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poetry in 1595. While Elizabethan audiences continued to enjoy theatre, the philosophical battle continued to rage, and the Puritans finally succeeded in closing the theatres in 1642.

Elizabethan drama did not disappear, however; the theatres were reopened in 1660, and the works of these fine playwrights were once again brought to the stage. The reputation of the great works of Elizabethan Drama grew steadily in England and throughout the rest of the world. They have consistently been performed and appreciated up to this day; people still look to this era as one that produced some of the finest drama in all of theatre history. In attesting to the significance of Elizabethan drama, John Gassner writes, “No one with even the slightest interest in English literature needs to be told that its greatest period is the Elizabethan Age, and no one familiar with that period is likely to depart from the consensus that its major literary achievement is the drama.” R. C. Bald also weighs in with this superlative praise of the Elizabethan playwrights: “Even if Shakespeare had never lived, the last fifteen years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the reign of King James I would still be the greatest period in the history of English drama.” Plays from this period are still produced all over the world, and Shakespeare is recognized by many as the greatest playwright of all time. His works are considered timeless and universal, and they still resonate, even four hundred years after his death. Diane Yancey notes, “The number of Shakespearean acting companies and theater productions that exist today also bears witness to the continuing importance of Elizabethan drama.” The Elizabethan playwrights created a body of work that has withstood the test of time. Their work has had a lasting influence on all succeeding generations of theatre artists and audiences.

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Essays and Criticism