Elizabethan Drama

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Hatred of Jews prevailed in Elizabethan society, and this is reflected in plays of the period. Two of the strongest examples of plays containing strong anti-Semitism are Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In Marlowe’s play, Barabas, the Jew of Malta, is a cruel, egotistic, and greedy man. In Elizabethan times, he was played in a confrontational and somewhat comic manner, with the actor wearing a red wig and a long hooked nose. Shylock, the Jewish merchant in The Merchant of Venice, is also presented as a greedy, vindictive man. Shakespeare tempers his character, however, with a bit more humanity than is found in Barabas. Elizabethan anti-Semitism was fueled in 1594 when Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish doctor was executed on the charge of trying to poison her.

Disguise is a device that is used frequently by the characters in Elizabethan Drama. It is a way in which characters gain information that would be otherwise withheld from them. For example, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind discovers that her true love, Orlando, is indeed in love with her while she is disguised as a boy. Some critics also believe that disguising female characters in male garb afforded the men and boys who were playing these roles to spend part of the play in costumes that were more comfortable and familiar.

Elizabethan psychology was based on the theory of four bodily humours—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Proper physical and mental health supposedly depended upon a proper balance among these humours. A particular emotion or mood was associated with each, and it was believed that if a person had too much of one humour in his body, that particular emotion would be emphasized. With the production of 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.” The humours were prevalent forces in the tragedies as well. Hamlet is described as the “melancholy Dane,” thus implying that he has a slight mental imbalance.

Revenge is one of the most prominent themes in Elizabethan drama. In the plays, it is often motivated by the visitation of a ghost who delivers the story of his murder to the character who must now become the avenger. Such is the case in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, as the Ghost of Don Andrea recounts his death, calls for revenge, and then sits onstage to watch his enemies meet their fate. Revenge is also the motivator in Hamlet, as the Prince of Denmark vows to avenge his father’s murder. In her article “Common Plots in Elizabethan Drama,” Madeleine Doran reflects upon why the subject of revenge was so popular:

Why the motive of revenge should enjoy such popularity from the early days of Elizabethan down to Caroline times naturally provokes speculation. That it had deeply sympathetic affinities with the conditions of actual life we must suppose. Yet its very endurance, even after it had lost its vitality, as the commonest counter-motive in tragedy, suggests something besides imitative Realism. Its persistence may have been to some extent owing to its great usefulness for play construction in furnishing so practicable a method of counteraction.

The Supernatural
In Elizabethan times, people were very superstitious, and many people believed in the supernatural. Queen Elizabeth had a personal astrologer whom she would consult regularly; and, as Diane Yancey notes, “Almost every village had an old woman who could be persuaded to cast a spell to protect...

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cattle from illness or keep one’s lover faithful and true.” Given this context, it is not surprising that supernatural elements are found in many Elizabethan plays. Fairies, ghosts, and witches often figure prominently in the action. Ghosts are very important in revenge tragedies and are often used as a catalyst to spur the action. Several Elizabethan plays contain a ghost who recounts his own murder, thus beginning a cycle of revenge. Such is the case in Shakespeare’sHamlet and in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Sprites and fairies were also popular characters of the time. One only needs to read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to find a play that is populated with fantastical creatures.




Critical Essays