Elizabethan Drama

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Historical Context

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Master of Revels and Censorship
Every play had to be submitted to the Master of Revels for licensing before performance. He acted as the official censor and would often force the deletion of passages or references that were deemed offensive. Gerald Eades Bentley, in “Regulation and Censorship” from The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642, observes that

most of the censoring activities were intended to eliminate from the stage five general types of lines or scenes: 1. Critical comments on the policies or conduct of government. 2. Unfavorable presentations of friendly foreign powers or their sovereigns, great nobles or subjects. 3. Comment of religious controversy. 4. Profanity (after 1606). 5. Personal satire of influential people.

The Office of Revels was originally established to select and supervise all entertainment of the sovereign, but as time progressed, its power grew. In 1581, a patent was issued that centralized the regulation of all plays and players with the Master of Revels. The man holding this position became quite powerful and prestigious, for he could significantly change the tone and intent of any production through censorship or could prevent the production from occurring altogether. The position was also very lucrative, as the Master of Revels received a tidy sum for each play that was licensed.

The Puritans were extremely zealous Protestants who held strict views on matters of religion and morality. They shunned all forms of entertainment, including music and dancing, because they believed that these diversions turned a person’s thoughts away from concentration upon the Bible and spiritual matters. Puritans considered the theatre to be an ungodly institution and vocally denounced it as “wicked” and “profane.” Throughout the Elizabethan era, they actively campaigned against the public playhouses because they felt that such institutions threatened England’s morality. Numerous Puritan writers produced pamphlets warning against the dangers of attending the theatre and attacked the actors as sinners and heretics. As John Addington Symonds notes in his essay “Theatres, Playwrights, Actors and Playgoers,” “The voices of preachers and Puritan pamphleteers were daily raised against playhouses.” The Puritan mindset eventually prevailed, and they succeeded in closing down all of the public theatres in 1642.

The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” which had begun in southern Europe, originally made its way to England around 1348. Although this was well before the Elizabethan era, the effects of the plague continued to be felt for centuries. Plague broke out frequently, and London was visited by the dreaded disease in 1563, 1578–1579, 1582, 1592–1593, and 1603. During the outbreak of 1603, over 30,000 people died. One reason the plague was so devastating was the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the city of London. Fleas carried by rats spread the plague, and the overcrowded conditions provided ample breeding grounds for the disease-carrying creatures. These conditions also caused the disease to spread quickly once someone had been infected. The term “plague-sore” is an insult that can be found in the drama of the time. This is a reference to the visible sores that would cover a person’s body once he had contracted bubonic plague.

Royal Patronage
Actors were subject to the same laws as vagrants and were in danger of arrest if they could not prove that they had a permanent residence. In order to avoid persecution, they sought a noble patron to support and promote them. They became servants of the nobleman, thus providing him more prestige. In return, the nobleman would protect them if they got into trouble. He did not pay them regular wages or allowances, however. In 1572, noble patronage became very significant because of...

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a law that was passed allowing only registered servants of a nobleman to go on tour. Since touring was one of the main sources of income for theatre troupes, it was necessary for them to gain patronage to survive.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher who was famous for the political theories put forth in his book, The Prince. Machiavelli believed in man’s capacity for determining his own destiny, and in his book, he describes how it is possible for one to usurp power through treachery. The Prince is considered by some to be a “manual of tyrants,” while others claim that Machiavelli was just describing the existing world as opposed to teaching people how things should be. Machiavelli’s work was widely known throughout England, and his ideas inspired several Elizabethan playwrights. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta has been described as a work of “Machiavellian policy,” and the ghost of Machiavelli actually appears at the opening of the play.

Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon and King Henry VII, was queen from 1553 to 1558, immediately prior to Elizabeth. She was a devout Catholic and gained the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her attempts to suppress Protestantism by executing many of its leading adherents. During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth concealed the fact that she was Protestant, but when she ascended the throne, Elizabeth restored Protestantism to England. She was not so vicious a queen as her half-sister had been, however. As Dick Riley and Pam McAllister relate in The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Shakespeare, “As Queen, Elizabeth fined Catholics who refused to attend services of the official church, but there was no widespread persecution of those who clung to the old faith, and Elizabeth tried to ensure that services and prayers were conducted in a way that both Catholics and Protestants could in good conscience attend.” Her moderate policies brought a stronger unity than England had enjoyed for several years.

Literary Style

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Asides are brief comments spoken privately to another character or directly to the audience. They are not heard or noticed by the rest of the characters onstage. The character would suddenly turn toward the audience and deliver the aside from behind his hand, thus hiding it from the rest of the players. This technique was used often by Elizabethan dramatists as it helped to let the audience in on the character’s thoughts.

Blank Verse
Blank verse is unrhymed poetry that still contains a rhythm and meter. This was the primary form used by Elizabethan playwrights, although prose and many other forms of poetry are also found throughout their plays. Serious characters of high stature and nobility often speak in blank verse, especially when discussing important issues, while comic and lower class characters are less likely to do so.

Iambic Pentameter
Iambic pentameter is the rhythm used in Elizabethan blank verse. Each line has five two-syllable units, or “feet,” with the second syllable of each unit receiving the heaviest stress. Iambic pentameter is relatively close to the natural form of spoken English. For example, “She WENT to SEE a PLAY a-BOUT a KING” is a line of iambic pentameter.

Name-calling was an art form during the Elizabethan Age, and this is reflected in the plays from that period. Characters often engage in “verbal dueling” by hurling creative slurs at one another, hoping to get the upper hand by delivering the best insult. Shakespeare was a master at creating these insults. Insults such as, “You ungrateful fox!” “You overweening slave!” and “Thou art a boil! A plague-sore!” are sprinkled liberally throughout his plays. He was not the only playwright to use this technique, however. The art of creating insults was common in Elizabethan times, and all of the playwrights used them to some extent.

Elizabethans were fond of word plays, and they especially appreciated puns; so, Elizabethan dramatists make great use of puns throughout their plays. One of the most skilled in the use of puns and wordplay was Shakespeare. One famous example occurs in Romeo and Juliet. As Mercutio lies dying from a sword wound, he says to his friend, Romeo, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Rhymed Couplets
Rhymed couplets are two lines of poetry that rhyme, as in, “Well, I will in, and do the best I can; To match my daughter to this gentleman” from Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Rhymed couplets often signal the end of a scene or act for the audience.

Scenery and Settings
Most Elizabethan Drama was performed on a bare stage with no scenery and no sets. Therefore, to let the audience know where and when the action was taking place, playwrights would begin scenes with lines that establish place and time. For example, the opening line of Act IV, Scene I of The Shoemaker’s Holiday lets the audience know right away where they are: “Yonder’s the shop, and there my fair love sits.” Sometimes settings were conveyed by the use of placards that would be hung onstage immediately prior to the scene. These would tell the audience in what town or village the action was taking place.

A soliloquy is a speech that narrates a character’s thoughts. It tells the audience what is going on in a character’s mind by allowing him to think out loud. The most famous soliloquy in all of drama is the “To be or not to be” speech from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In it, Hamlet ponders whether or not to kill himself and considers the consequences of each decision. The term “soliloquy” is sometimes confused with the term “monologue”; the two are different, however. In a monologue, the character is actually speaking directly to the audience as opposed to narrating his thoughts out loud. With a soliloquy, from the character’s point of view, there is no one else present.

In most Elizabethan plays, the violent acts occur offstage. These acts are then reported by a character who narrates what happened for the audience and the others onstage. This convention allowed Elizabethan dramatists to include huge battles as part of the “action” of their plays without the theatres having to hire hundreds of actors to perform the plays. Also, horrific acts of brutality that are difficult to execute onstage are often more effective when described than when actually shown. The audience must use their imaginations to visualize the carnage, often creating a scene in their mind, much worse than ever could be created on the stage. The Elizabethan dramatists borrowed this tradition from Greek tragedy. The tradition changed, however, with the development of the “blood tragedy” (also known as “revenge tragedy”). In these plays, acts of violence are performed onstage, in full view of the audience. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is one of the best-known plays of this genre.

Movement Variations

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Boys’ Companies
Boys’ companies were performing troupes that were made up entirely of young boys. The practice of using boys in the English theatre dates back to the early 1500s, when choirboys sang and performed at court for the king, and during Elizabethan times, these acting companies were still usually under the training and direction of a choirmaster. During the latter part of the 1500s, boys’ companies were very popular. Their popularity faded around the turn of the century, however, due to several scandals that took place. In 1597, Nathaniel Giles, manager of the Chapel Children, was charged with kidnapping boys and forcing them into servitude as actors, and in 1600, Henry Evans, another manager of the Chapel Children, involved the boys in several politically controversial plays. Public support for the troupes waned, and boys’ companies dissolved around 1608.

Court Masques
Masques were short entertainments that were held at Court as one part of a royal evening of entertainment. They were much shorter than regular plays. Masques usually contained romantic and mythological themes and consisted of elaborate settings in which players posed, danced, and recited poetic lines of dialogue. Nobles and guests of the Court would often take part, and although women were banned from appearing on the public stage, they were allowed to participate in Court masques. Queen Elizabeth I held very few court masques during her reign, but when James I took the throne, masques were revived with increasing grandeur and magnificence. Ben Jonson was the primary writer of masques during James I’s reign, but other playwrights also tried their hand at the form.

Inn Courtyards
Many acting troupes performed in the courtyards of English inns both before and after permanent theatres were built. The inns were usually multi-storied, U-shaped buildings, and they prefigured the design of the public playhouses. Players constructed a rough stage made of boards on trestles at one end of the courtyard, and audience members would stand in the yard to watch the performance. Well-to-do patrons brought their own chairs and watched from the balconies overlooking the courtyard. Playing at inn courtyards was sometimes difficult for acting troupes because their performances could be interrupted or even cancelled if the business at the inn was brisk.

Interludes were short plays that were often performed during a break in a royal or noble banquet. They were typically nothing more than a small scene or conversation between two or more persons. Diane Yancey sees interludes as an important link to English secular drama: “By shying away from religious themes, the interludes made it acceptable for the later Elizabethan dramatists to write plays that had little, if anything, to do with the Bible.”

Miracle plays
Miracle plays were also known as “mysteries,” from the Latin word ministerium, which means “act.” They were performed on Corpus Christi and other feast days, and they depicted biblical history. Residents of English towns would gather along the streets to watch the plays, which were performed on moveable stages known as “pageant wagons.” Several miracle plays would make up an entire cycle; the first play was presented, and then its wagon would move along to the next stop on the street while another wagon moved in to take its place. The second part of the play was performed on this pageant wagon, and then it would move along, and so on. This would continue until the entire history of the Bible had been told. Because of this convention of staging, these productions were also known as “cycle plays.” The structure of miracle plays had an important influence on English history plays. As Diane Yancey notes, “Histories borrow medieval techniques found in miracle plays, including rearranging historical events, using anachronisms, and writing a subplot that parallels the main plot.”

Morality Plays
Morality plays were religious plays that first appeared in the fourteenth century. They most likely had their beginnings when popular outdoor preachers began telling stories that applied biblical teachings to the problems of daily living. They began as biblical allegories but gradually became more and more secularized. They were one of the major links between the religious and professional stages. Oscar Brockett observes, in “Theatre and Drama in the Late Middle Ages,” that “Elements of the morality play persisted into Shakespeare’s time. But as the morality play was increasingly secularized during the sixteenth century, the distinctions vanished between it and the type of play commonly labeled ‘interlude.’”

Private Theatres
Indoor, roofed theatres were known as “private theatres” during Elizabethan times, even though the public could attend the performances. These playhouses catered to a more aristocratic audience and were different from the public theatres in many ways: they accommodated less than one-half as many spectators; they charged considerably higher admission prices; seats were provided for all spectators; and candles were used for illumination. The Blackfriars, the first private theatre, opened its doors in 1576. Coincidentally, this is the same year the first public theatre opened. It was built as part of a former monastery. Until 1610, private theatres were used exclusively by boys’ companies. After that time, the popularity of the children faded, and the private theatres passed into the hands of adult troupes.

Public Playhouses
The first permanent theatre in England opened in 1576. It was called The Theatre and was built by James Burbage, who based its design upon the English inn courtyards. It formed a model for nu- merous English playhouses that were to follow. It is not known exactly what Elizabethan playhouses looked like because no detailed drawings still exist, but some extant sketches from audience members in attendance do remain. From these drawings, along with some written reports and other documents, historians have concluded that most of the Elizabethan playhouses were similar in structure. They were many-sided, open-air structures, made of a timber frame covered with clay plaster or mortar. They had three tiers of galleries with a thatched roof covering only the gallery seating area and the rear, housed-in part of the stage. This stage-house was also called a “tiring house” because it was the area in which the actors attired themselves for the plays. The playing area was an open-air platform that jutted out into the middle of the yard, and the lower-class patrons would stand on the ground surrounding the stage; thus they were known by the term “groundlings.” Aristocratic patrons would pay more to sit in the tiered galleries, and very wealthy patrons could pay to actually be seated onstage.

Compare and Contrast

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1600s: Women are not allowed to perform in plays, and all the female roles are played by boys or men.

Today: Some of the most notable and highly respected performers are women.

1600s: Names do not have a standard spelling. Shakespeare’s name appears in several variations, including: Shakespeare, Shaksper, and Shakespere.

Today: Names are spelled consistently, and, for legal purposes, each person’s signature is consistent as well.

1600s: Most plays are performed outdoors during the day to take advantage of the natural light. Plays performed indoors must be lit by candlelight.

Today: Most plays are performed indoors in the evening. They are illuminated by electric lighting.

1600s: One of the most common surgical procedures is bloodletting, done through an incision in a vein or the application of leeches.

Today: Thousands of sophisticated surgical techniques are available that have been proven safe and effective.

1600s: There are no sewers or drains, except for the gutter which runs down the middle of the street. Garbage is dumped into the gutters and accumulates there until the rain washes it away.

Today: There are sophisticated sanitation systems that maintain the cleanliness of cities and help to prevent the spread of disease.

Representative Works

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Everyman in His Humour
Ben Jonson’s Everyman in His Humour was first produced in 1598 by Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It is Jonson’s first important play and is also the first play to be labeled a “comedy of humours.” Humours were bodily fluids that were believed to control a person’s temperament. If an individual had too much of any one humour, he would exhibit that characteristic to excess. In the play, Jonson emphasizes these “humours” and achieves his comic effect by exaggerating each character’s quirks, almost to the point of caricature. The play was extremely popular and raised Jonson to the position of a celebrity. Because of its popularity, other playwrights also began to copy the style. Everyman in His Humour was originally published in 1601, and a revised version appeared as one of the plays in Jonson’s folio of 1616.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most well-loved play, Hamlet was first produced around 1600 with Richard Burbage, the leading actor of Shakespeare’s company, in the title role. It is believed that Shakespeare himself played the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy that tells the story of the melancholy Prince of Denmark, who vows to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle, the king. It was well received by Elizabethan audiences who were probably already somewhat familiar with the story. Hamlet was first published as a quarto in 1603. Hamlet has been the subject of much discussion and writing and is still considered, by many, to be the finest play Shakespeare ever wrote.

The Jew of MaltaThe Jew of Malta, first produced in 1592, is Christopher Marlowe’s play of Machiavellian policy. Though it is described on the title page of the 1633 edition as a tragedy, it is really a dark, satirical comedy. The play recounts how Barabas, a rich Jew, is deprived of his wealth by Farnese, the Christian governor of Malta, in order that some long-overdue tribute money is paid. Farnese justifies this extortion by saying that Malta is accursed Title page from The Plays of Christopher Marlowe for harboring Jews at all, and he gives Barabas the choice of becoming a Christian and giving up only half his wealth or remaining a Jew and losing it all. Barabas chooses the latter. This was a very important play for Marlowe. As Robert E. Knoll notes in his article presented in Christopher Marlowe of the Twayne’s Authors Series, “Written in the chronological middle of his career, The Jew of Malta is a benchmark in Marlowe’s development and is an important play for several reasons; it exhibits the direction of his growth, and, in addition, it had a notable influence on Marlowe’s greatest contemporaries.” Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is said to have been directly influenced by this play. While popular with audiences from the beginning, the success of The Jew of Malta was increased in 1594 when Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish doctor was executed on the charge of trying to poison her. This inflamed anti-Semitism among the Elizabethan people, and they flocked to the theatre to see the evil Barabas get his due. The play was first published in a quarto edition in 1633.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday
Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday is based upon three tales about shoemakers from Thomas Deloney’s book, The Gentle Craft (1598). It is a delightful domestic comedy that depicts the pleasant, simple lives of apprentices and tradesmen. In it, a young nobleman courts the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London, disguised as a Dutch shoemaker. Elizabethan audiences were delighted by the depiction of the everyday lives of contemporary Londoners. This was Dekker’s best play and remained a favorite among Londoners for many years. The first published edition appeared in 1600, but the play was so popular that it was republished in 1610, 1618, 1624, 1637, and 1657.

The Spanish Tragedy
Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy was wildly successful and propelled Kyd into fame. The story deals with a father’s desire to avenge his son’s death. Although this was not a new story in Elizabethan Drama, the style of The Spanish Tragedy was something that was relatively new to London. Instead of having the violence narrated in the traditional fashion, Kyd moves it onstage; most of the carnage and brutality take place right in front of the audience. This was an innovation that sparked an entirely new genre in England that came to be known as “blood tragedy.” As William Green notes in his essay “Elizabethan Drama,” Kyd “set a pattern for playwrights who invigorated the drama with their ‘unclassical’ shows of violence on the stage.” It was not only the violence, however, that made Kyd’s play unique and popular. The piece also contains skillful rhetoric that serves to sustain the tension. The rhetoric actually functions as action within the play and is an example of Kyd’s great skill with language and poetry. References by other playwrights and parodies of The Spanish Tragedy indicate that the play was popular from its first staged edition in 1586 through about 1615. The earliest published edition available to us is from 1592. It claims, however, to be a corrected edition of an earlier published version.

Tamburlaine the Great
Part one of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great was produced circa 1587. The play was so successful that Marlowe immediately wrote a sequel. Both parts were published in 1590. These were the only published works of Marlowe during his brief lifetime. The story is based upon the career of the Mongolian conqueror Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, who overthrew the Turkish Empire in 1402. Tamburlaine is an ambitious character who overcomes all resistance through the use of both arms and rhetoric. Throughout the course of the play, he gains allies, conquers kings, and succeeds in winning the affection of the woman of his dreams. While the Elizabethan audiences appreciated the story of Tamburlaine, it was the poetry that really set this play apart from other plays. Previous drama had often been halting and didactic in its speech, but with this production, Marlowe took Elizabethan Drama to a higher level of eloquence and sophistication. As R. C. Bald notes in his introduction to Six Elizabethan Plays, “Before his time dramatic verse had usually been rhymed, but Marlowe’s sense of style gave the new measure a strength and dignity previously lacking in dramatic verse.”

A Woman Killed with Kindness
Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness was first produced in 1603. The play dealt with contemporary English life and is recognized as one of the finest examples of domestic tragedy in English drama. English audiences appreciated stories that depicted elements of their everyday lives and thus were charmed by Heywood’s play. In it, a devout husband, Frankford, is betrayed by his wife when she is unfaithful to him by surrendering her honor to a house guest. She repents, however, and confesses her evil deed. Instead of seeking vengeance and retribution, Frankford continues to treat her with kindness. She is eventually so overcome by guilt and sorrow that she punishes herself and dies of remorse. Therefore, instead of being killed by her husband’s wrath, she is ultimately killed by his kindness. The play is considered Heywood’s masterpiece, due to his skillful handling of a story that has a unique twist. Heywood preserves sympathy for his heroine throughout the play while still delivering the proper moral message. The first known printed edition of the play appeared in 1607.

Media Adaptations

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Hamlet was adapted to film by Laurence Olivier in 1948. Many still consider this the best version of the play ever recorded. Olivier gives a stunning performance in the title role. The film was released by Universal-International and is now available on home video.

The British Broadcasting Company has produced several excellent audio book versions of Shakespearean plays. Their version of Hamlet is performed by Kenneth Branagh and features Derek Jacobi. It is published by Bantam Doubleday Dell. This audio book contains the fulllength, unabridged version of the play.

Christopher Marlowe’s epic work Tamburlaine the Great has been recorded on audio cassette by The Center for Cassette Studies.

The Marlowe Society maintains a website on Christopher Marlowe at http://www.marlowesociety. org with comprehensive information on Marlowe’s life, a newsletter, and links to other interesting information.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bald, R. C., Introduction, in Six Elizabethan Plays, Houghton Mifflin, 1963, pp. vii–xvii.

Bentley, Gerald Eades, “Regulation and Censorship,” in The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642, Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 145–96.

Brockett, Oscar G., “English Theatre from the Middle Ages to 1642,” in History of the Theatre, 3d ed., Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, pp. 161–88.

—, “Theatre and Drama in the Late Middle Ages,” in History of the Theatre, 3d ed., Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, pp. 117–21.

Doran, Madeleine, “Common Plots in Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by Laura K. Egendorf, Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Egendorf, Laura K., “A Historical Overview of Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by Laura K. Egendorf, Greenhaven Press, 2000, p. 22.

Gassner, John, “Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by John Gassner and William Green, Applause Theatre Books, 1967, pp. xi–xxii.

Green, William, “The Spanish Tragedy,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by John Gassner and William Green, Applause Theatre Books, 1967, pp. 73–77.

Knoll, Robert E., “Theatricalism in The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris,” in Christopher Marlowe, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 91–109.

Palmer, D. J., “Elizabethan Tragic Heroes,” in Elizabethan Theatre, St. Martin’s Press, 1967, p. 11.

Riley, Dick, and Pam McAllister, The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Shakespeare, Continuum, 2001.

Singman, Jeffrey L., “Entertainments,” in Daily Life in Elizabethan England, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 149–52.

Symonds, John Addington, “Theatres, Playwrights, Actors and Playgoers,” in Shakespeare’s Predecessors in the English Drama, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913, pp. 170–252.

Yancey, Diane, Life in the Elizabethan Theater, Lucent Books, 1997.

Further Reading
Graham, Rob, Shakespeare: A Crash Course, Watson-Guptill, 2000. This concise volume is filled with fun facts and information about Shakespeare and his plays. It is filled with color photographs and plates. The information is all presented in small snippets, making the book informative and very easy to read.

Gurr, Andrew, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 2d ed., Cambridge University Press, 1996. This is a thoroughly researched, in-depth look at the lives of the Elizabethan people who attended the playhouses. It contains a list of documented playgoers and a list of references to playgoing that have been found in historical sources.

Sales, Roger, Christopher Marlowe, St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This biography presents a fascinating look at Marlowe’s brief life. In addition, it contains critical essays on Marlowe’s major works and an extensive bibliography.

Weir, Alison, The Life of Elizabeth I, Ballantine, 1998. This is a clearly written, thoroughly researched biography of England’s greatest queen. Noted historian Alison Weir does an excellent job of bringing the time period to life for the reader. The book contains numerous plates and full genealogical tables of the royal family.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide