Elizabethan Drama Analysis

Historical Context

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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Movement Variations

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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Compare and Contrast

(Literary Movements for Students)

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.

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Topics for Further Study

(Literary Movements for Students)

Research the various aspects of Elizabethan costume. If you were a nobleman or noblewoman of the time, how would your costume be different than those of the lower classes? What are some of the elements of your dress that would indicate your social status?

What do you think a typical day was like for members of an Elizabethan acting troupe? What were some of the difficulties they might encounter in trying to prepare for a performance?

Elizabethan Drama gives some clues into the remedies, medicines and herbs used to cure ailments during that time period. What were some of these treatments? Do we still use any of them today?

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Representative Works

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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Media Adaptations

(Literary Movements for Students)

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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literary Movements for Students)

The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” was one of the worst natural disasters in history. Between 1347 and 1352, the plague swept through Europe causing widespread hysteria and death. One third of the population of Europe died from the outbreak. It affected many aspects of daily life and was also reflected in the art and literature of the time. Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death (1969) provides an in-depth look at this horrific catastrophe.

The Globe Theatre has been rebuilt in Bankside, London, just a few yards from the site where the original playhouse once stood. Theatrical entrepreneur Sam Wanamaker did extensive research in order to be as authentic as possible to the original. The story of the theatre’s...

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