The rich intellectual life in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is reflected in literary works of the period. The Renaissance, with its accompanying movements, the new Humanism and the Reformation, brought with it a consciousness of artistic beauty and a love of learning little known since the days of classical Greece and Rome. From the days of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), poetry bloomed in this favorable climate—a poetry different in mood and subject from that of the earlier medieval poets. Prose fiction, too, took tentative steps toward the novel as the stories people had to tell began to expand beyond the boundaries of rhyme and meter, but it was drama that overshadowed all other literary forms from the beginning to the end of the Renaissance.
The rebirth of arts and learning that came to England during the Renaissance brought with it the great drama of classical Greece and Rome. The guidance of Aristotle and the models of Sophocles, Aristophanes, Seneca, Plautus, Terence, and others brought to the Renaissance Englishman a view of humankind, of the world, and of human beings’ relationship with the world in many respects different from the medieval view. Long before the introduction of classical drama into England, the citizens of cities and villages were acquainted with drama associated with the Church. The transition from native English mystery, morality, and folk plays to what is generally called “regular” English drama came about slowly from approximately the middle of the sixteenth century. The happy marriage of classical and native English drama gave birth to a hybrid type of literature.
Classical influence was strong during the Renaissance. In the early sixteenth century, Seneca ’s tragedies were translated into English and served as a model for regular English tragedy . The five-act structure; the observance of the unities of time, place, and action; the emphasis on character; and the use of the ghost were Senecan devices employed by English Renaissance writers of tragedy. For comedy, the works of the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence , with their clear plot development, wit, use of proverbs, and natural dialogue, served as models. Elizabethan dramatists adopted the five-act structure almost completely, but they did not slavishly follow classical models in observing the dramatic unities. Native English settings and humor remained dominant in drama, but they were regularized and modified somewhat by the classical models.
A Period of Transition
The period from about 1550 to 1580 may be thought of as a period of transition from mystery, morality, folk plays, and interludes to regular English drama. Classical influence was strong during this period, because those scholars who were writing and producing the plays were the same scholars who had introduced the literary works of classical Greece and Rome into England. Nicholas Udall , for example, who wrote the first regular English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister (pr. c. 1552), was an Oxford scholar and headmaster at Eton who studied and translated Terence. Seneca’s tragedies had been translated into English by 1580 and served as an example for English tragedy.
One can see in Jack Juggler (pr. c. 1553-1558), perhaps by Udall, an excellent example of how Plautus was used in an English setting. The English dramatist takes the opening scene of Plautus’s Amphitruo (186 b.c.e.; Amphitryon, 1694) and transforms it into London farce. Jack Juggler, however, is not a full comedy, only an interlude. Not until Ralph Roister Doister does one see a full English comedy composed according to the classical rules. It is divided into acts and scenes and has a consistent plot with a beginning, middle, and end. The characters Ralph Roister Doister and Matthew Merrygreek are patterned after the Roman miles gloriosus and parasite, respectively. Although the pattern is classical, the setting is English. The play depicts middle-class life in London, with Dame Christian Custance and her...
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