Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama

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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

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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...

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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 English servants replacing the Roman courtesan and her entourage.

Another English comedy of this period is Gammer Gurton’s Needle (pr. c. 1562), probably by the Cambridge scholar William Stevenson . Like Ralph Roister Doister, Gammer Gurton’s Needle is divided into acts and scenes and has a well-conceived, complex plot in the classical manner, but although the pattern is classical, the substance of the play is native English. Even Diccon, the most Roman of the characters, reminiscent of the intriguing slave of Roman comedy, is transformed into a distinctively English character. Whereas the setting of Ralph Roister Doister is urban, Gammer Gurton’s Needle is set in a village. The dialogue, full of dialect and earthy language, helps to make the play more realistically English than any other early regular English drama. Its author was clearly a scholar of Roman comedy, but he was writing about and for English people.

One of the better Italian adaptations of Plautus and Terence, Ludovico Ariosto ’s I suppositi (pr. 1509; The Pretenders, 1566), was translated into English as Supposes and presented at Gray’s Inn by George Gascoigne in 1566. Best known as a source for William Shakespeare’s Lucentio-Bianca plot in The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594), Gascoigne’s translation is also important for having made available in English a comedy that, while modeled on the major Roman comedy writers, eliminated the classical characters of the slave, courtesan, and pander and built the plot around a love story, as though the inspiration for the play were more from Giovanni Boccaccio or Chaucer than from Plautus or Terence.

The influence of classical tragedy can also be seen in early sixteenth century England. Gorboduc (pr. 1561; also as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, pb. 1570), by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville , the first regular English tragedy, is directly modeled on Senecan tragedy. It has five acts, observes the unities, avoids comic situations, and employs a chorus. Violence, and indeed almost all the action, takes place offstage, as in classical models, but even here the theme is English, not Greek or Roman. The play’s didactic purpose is to warn Queen Elizabeth of the dangers of leaving the kingdom without an heir to rule. Taking as its plot the story from legendary British history of old King Gorboduc, who, like the legendary King Lear, divided the kingdom between his two offspring, the play would presumably offer the potential for exciting stage action involving murder, intrigue, revenge, revolution, and love. In fact, little occurs onstage except long reports of offstage action, inexplicable dumb shows, and almost endless, dull speeches. Although the play may strike the modern reader as tedious, its historical importance cannot be overstated. Not only does Gorboduc set the form for later Renaissance tragedy but also, and more important, the play is written in blank verse , a meter introduced into English some few years earlier by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The meter was used with good results by Thomas Kyd, refined by Christopher Marlowe into the “mighty line,” and immortalized by Shakespeare.

Other adaptations of classical tragedy in English include Jocasta (pr. 1566) and The Misfortunes of Arthur (pr. 1588). Jocasta is a tragedy in blank verse in the Senecan style, adapted by Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe from Lodovico Dolce’s Giocasta (wr. 1549, an adaptation of a Latin translation of Euripides’ Phoinissai, c. 410 b.c.e.; The Phoenician Women, 1781). Jocasta offered nothing new to English tragedy. The same can be said of The Misfortunes of Arthur , by Thomas Hughes, also written in blank verse and exhibiting a marked Senecan influence. Hughes based his plot on ancient British legends from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory.

Another type of play introduced during the period of transition is the chronicle, or history, play . The plays in this category drew their subject matter, as did much of the prose and both folk and street ballads of the period, from the English chronicles. John Bale ’s King Johan (pr. c. 1539) showed future dramatists the way to move from morality plays to more modern ideological history plays. The play features such allegorical characters as Sedition, Dissimulation, Private Wealth, and Usurped Power, conspirators against the righteous monarch, Johan. The allegorical character Imperial Majesty (representing the Protestant monarch Henry VIII) finally sets things right. Richardus Tertius (pr. 1579), by Thomas Legge, although a Latin play, is noteworthy as a transitional play because it uses recent English history. The Famous Victories of Henry V (pr. c. 1588) also uses recent national history as its subject. It neglects classical models almost completely, patterning its form more on the medieval miracle play. It is the earliest example of a play based on a popular rather than a scholarly view of history. In introducing Sir John Oldcastle (the prototype of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff) and many episodes involving Prince Hal in his madcap days, the anonymous playwright provided in rough form the material Shakespeare was later to use in creating his famous political plays involving Henry IV and Henry V.

Other chronicle plays that may be called transitional in the sense that they showed the way for later, better representatives of the type are The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England (pr. c. 1591), King Leir and His Three Daughters (pr. c. 1594), The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine (pb. 1595), and The First Part of the Tragical Raigne of Selimus (pr. 1594). The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, perhaps written by George Peele or Christopher Marlowe, is a rather loosely constructed play written at the height of anti-Catholic sentiment. It served as the primary source for Shakespeare’s King John (pr. c. 1596-1597). King Leir and His Three Daughters is more nearly a dramatic presentation of the story taken from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) than it is a Senecan tragedy. Shakespeare’s later treatment of the Lear legend has overshadowed the considerable value of its predecessor, but although the anonymous playwright provides neither the panorama nor many of the specific, sensual elements of Shakespeare’s greater work, King Leir and His Three Daughters is a well-written and moving chronicle play. The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine (by “W. S.”, perhaps William Stevenson) combines both Senecan machinery and rather crude English humor in a history play. The First Part of the Tragical Raigne of Selimus echoes many lines from The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine and uses many of the same sensational devices introduced by Seneca, but similarities end there. The First Part of the Tragical Raigne of Selimus takes its plot from Turkish, not British, history and features extravagant passions presumably calculated to appeal to unsophisticated theatergoers.

The Rise of Elizabethan Drama

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During the latter part of the sixteenth century, the popularity of dramatic productions increased among all segments of the English population, from the rustics, who, as Hamlet tells the players, “for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise,” to the educated middle class to the nobility. Plays on almost every conceivable subject were written to appeal to some segment of the population, and a few were able to include something for everyone. What had begun in the Church and developed in the schools had now become so popular that both the writing and the acting of drama became a business enterprise. Tropes (passages or sequences for parsing the Mass) had expanded into medieval mystery and morality plays, and those, in turn, given the stimulus of classical thought and forms, had evolved into school drama. So successful had drama been in delighting audiences while teaching them Christian morality and Humanistic concepts that the next logical step in development was into the public realm.

In religious drama, the choir as stage had given way to the nave, the porch, and the churchyard; the churchyard, in turn, had given way to the open field; and the field, to the flatbed wagons on which players performed at different locations. In secular drama there was a centuries-long period of evolution, similarly, culminating in the construction of public theaters expressly designed for the production of plays. In 1576, James Burbage (father of the renowned Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage) built The Theatre just outside the city boundaries of London. Although some evidence, in the form of municipal records, exists to indicate that an earlier public theater had been built and used, Burbage’s theater is generally considered to be the first major effort to establish a place where professional actors could practice their trade. The location of the public theater in Shoreditch, a name that adequately describes the area, allowed the acting companies to escape the jurisdiction of the unfriendly London authorities. When its lease ran out in 1596, The Theatre closed. The Curtain, built in the same general area, opened around 1577. From about 1592, when the Rose was refurbished there (it had been built in 1587), the Bankside, an area south of the Thames, just opposite the City but in the county of Surrey, became the “theater district” for London: The Swan was erected there around 1596, the Globe in 1599, and the Fortune in 1600.

These public theaters were built primarily for the production of plays, but they were all nevertheless built on the plan of the innyard. The roofless auditorium offered only standing room for the mob, or the “groundlings,” and seats in the roofed galleries for those who could pay more. These theaters were three stories high and either round or octagonal. The front of the stage extended out into the pit. Above the stage, beginning about half way back, was a balcony supported by two columns. Above this, set back somewhat, was a second balcony. Under the first balcony and in line with the second balcony was an upper stage, and behind that was a curtained-off inner stage.

Theaters built inside London had to claim that they were “private” playhouses catering to a special clientele, usually a wealthy and influential one. The first attempt to open a theater in London, in the Blackfriars district, was made in 1596 by the same man who had built the original Theatre, James Burbage, but after much time and expense, the city authorities refused Burbage permission to open the Blackfriars. The second attempt to open the Blackfriars , in 1600, was successful, but not without great difficulty. Private theaters in Stuart times, however, proliferated because of the comfortable seating, artificial lighting, and elaborate stage machinery.

The actors in early religious plays had been amateurs, controlled first by the Church and later by the trade guilds, and even after troupes of professional actors began touring England presenting interludes in the houses and castles of great families, much drama was being performed by child actors, both in school drama and in the homes of nobility. That child actors were serious rivals to the adult acting companies is illustrated by Hamlet’s referring to them as “an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for ‘t.” In 1574, a royal permit was given to Lord Leicester’s Men , allowing them to act throughout the realm, but not until 1576, when Burbage built the first public theater, did professional companies have a place especially established for them to present their plays. Given the generally medieval view of morality of the time, the acting companies were composed entirely of men and boys, with women’s roles being taken by the boys.

There were two prominent adult professional acting companies during the latter part of the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century: Lord Leicester’s Men and the Admiral’s Men . The latter group was headed by the notable Elizabethan financier Philip Henslowe, whose diary is an invaluable aid to scholars as a window to the daily operations of early theater management. Henslowe’s son-in-law, the great actor Edward Alleyn, was co-owner. The company, which gained its name and reputation from its patron, the Lord High Admiral, owned two theaters, the Fortune and the Hope. The company was later known as the Earl of Worcester’s Men , then as the Queen’s Men , and then as the Prince’s Men .

The second company was considerably more famous, having as one of its members William Shakespeare . Lord Leicester’s Men, managed by Richard Burbage, took its name from the patron Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Its theaters were The Theatre, the Globe, and Blackfriars. At the death of Dudley, the company came under the patronage of Lord Strange, becoming Lord Strange’s Men and later, when he became Lord Derby, Derby’s Men . The company went on to have more patrons and therefore different names: Lord Hunsdon’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men , and then, in 1603, the King’s Men .

University Wits

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Elizabethan drama evolved quite naturally from the intellectual climate of the times and was accompanied by the growth of acting as a profession. The increasing popularity of drama led to acting companies, special theaters, and the need for new material to enact. The new playwrights were not the Church scholars of medieval times or the schoolmasters of the middle sixteenth century. Rather, a new occupation developed, that of the professional playwright. Educated young men from Oxford and Cambridge, passionate young minds excited by the Humanistic spirit who had no inheritance or patrons to support their literary efforts, found in drama a way to mold language and ideas into a form that would support them. This group of educated young men, known as the University Wits , included John Lyly, Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe. Because these men not only were familiar with classical models but also were trendsetters in developing a distinctively English literature, they lent to the evolving drama both a form and dignity borrowed from the Aristotelian mold and an immediacy in language and idea sparked by an awareness of the political, social, moral, and economic problems of sixteenth century England.

Others in the new profession of acting learned from the University Wits and, in some notable cases, improved on them. Often the acting companies, both adult and children’s companies, contracted with a professional dramatist to have a play written, but so hungry for material were the companies that their members, individually or in cooperation with others, would revise old plays to suit present needs or would fashion plots from old plays, poems, or tales into new dramas. These practical dramatists could often create works that combined the best of Humanistic ideas with the most practical dramatic techniques.

The predecessors of Shakespeare, therefore, built a tradition of excellence that would have given the Elizabethan age a luster had Shakespeare himself never written a word. Lyly, although he wrote not for professional adult companies but for children’s companies, nevertheless had considerable influence on later playwrights. He carried the extravagant language of his Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) over into his drama with an effect thoroughly new in English drama. Many modern audiences find Lyly’s style tedious and almost unreadable, marked as it is by heavy use of alliteration, antithesis, and elaborate similes and catalogs of fictitious authority to support insignificant arguments. Lyly’s work is nevertheless a landmark in the history of English literature, setting a standard that showed the age that the English language was capable of art and grace. Shakespeare mocked the excesses of the euphuistic style in such works as Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595), Henry IV, Part I (pr. c.1597-1598), and King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), but his plays reveal the devotion to style, the confidence in the resources of the language, that informed Lyly’s works. Excessive as Lyly’s rhetoric was, he illustrated the richness of English.

Through his witty dialogue, Lyly emphasized the intellectual comedy of wit rather than farcical comedy of situation. Lyly’s best play is Endymion, the Man in the Moon (pr. 1588), an allegory praising Queen Elizabeth and the earl of Leicester. Elizabeth is portrayed as Cynthia, the chaste huntress, and Leicester is the faithful lover Endymion. Other plays by Lyly are Campaspe (pr. 1584), a prose comedy based on the classical story of Alexander, the beautiful Campaspe, and her artist-lover Apelles. In Sapho and Phao (pr. 1584) and Midas (pr. c. 1589), Lyly uses the old allegorical devices, while in Galathea (pr. c. 1585) and Love’s Metamorphosis (pr. c. 1589), he employs pastoral elements. Mother Bombie (pr. c. 1589) is fashioned on the style of Plautus, with mistaken identity serving as its complication; The Woman in the Moon (pr. c. 1593), written in blank verse, satirizes women. All are pretty plays but slender in plot and significant ideas. As pieces of highly ornamental lace, Lyly’s plays did not stand up well on the vigorous Elizabethan stage, but they served as models for the greatest drama the world has known.

If Lyly’s plays are overly refined, those of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) are frank, often bombastic, full of blood and thunder. Although Kyd’s sensationalism often overpowers the more truly tragic elements of his plays, his realism in language and action nevertheless gave a vigor to drama theretofore unknown on such a large scale. Lyly may have showed Marlowe and Shakespeare the way to delicate artistry, but Kyd showed them how to use raw power to grab the attention of the audience. Strongly influenced by Seneca, Kyd introduced revenge tragedy to English drama. Most scholars believe that Kyd wrote an early version of Hamlet, called the Ur-Hamlet (from the German Ur, “origin” or “source”). His reputation, however, rests on The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589), the quintessential revenge tragedy. Here, Kyd introduces a ghost, insanity, and a play-within-the-play—all elements employed by Shakespeare in Hamlet—and, unlike the authors of Gorboduc, he presents violent action on the stage.

Greene is perhaps as well known for his prose as for his drama; like most of the professional writers of the age, Greene tried his hand at almost every type of writing that might bring him income. Educated at Cambridge, Greene expected to acquire fame as well as fortune, but both eluded him during his lifetime, and posterity has been only slightly kinder. Because he was not an actor himself, he merely wrote for others, a task that he did not entirely enjoy. In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), he calls actors “apes,” “peasants,” “painted monsters,” and puppets “that speak from our mouths.” Shakespeare is “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” He advises his fellow University Wits—probably Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele—to stop writing for actors, “for it is a pity men of such rate wits should be subject to the pleasure of such rude grooms.”

Nevertheless, Greene wrote drama. A Looking Glass for London and England (pr. c. 1588-1589), written in collaboration with Lodge, resembles earlier religious drama rather than the secular drama of its own time. Orlando furioso (pr. c. 1588), based on Ariosto’s work of the same title, is a play of lighter tone, but not completely successful. James IV (pr. c. 1591), not a history play but a serious comedy taken from a story by the Italian writer Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio, is perhaps most important for introducing Oberon, king of the fairies, to the English stage. Greene’s best play is Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (pr. c. 1589), a romantic comedy. The play draws on the legends that had grown around the thirteenth century philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, whose thinking was so far in advance of his time that he was credited with magical powers. Greene shows that the magic of love is as inexplicable as the “magic” of Friar Bacon.

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay was the first full romantic comedy on a pattern that Shakespeare was soon to immortalize—a pattern that was to be followed by all later writers of romantic comedy. The character of Margaret sets the ideal of the Renaissance woman: Greene’s Margaret is a bright, vivacious, virtuous, and charming woman who can hold her own in dealing with any man. Whether Greene intended to help show the way to “apes” and “puppets,” he did so anyway.

As another of the University Wits, Peele wrote poetry and drama in a vain attempt to earn a living by his literary skills. Although some scholars have suggested that Peele spent some time as an actor, little evidence exists to support this contention; indeed, Peele’s plays show scant knowledge of how to combine plot and character with ideas in a manner attractive to an audience. Those plays usually attributed to Peele are The Arraignment of Paris (pr. c. 1584), The Battle of Alcazar (pr. c. 1589), David and Bethsabe (pr. c. 1593-1594), Edward I (pr. c. 1590-1591), and The Old Wives’ Tale (pr. c. 1591-1594). His contribution to the development of English drama is to be found in the verse employed in his plays: He softens without destroying the mighty line of Marlowe’s blank verse and makes it fit for romantic drama.

The contribution of Lodge to drama is much less than to prose romance. Along with his poems and pamphlets, Lodge wrote the pleasant prose romance Rosalynde: Or, Euphues Golden Legacy (1590) used by Shakespeare as a source for As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600). Like the other University Wits, Lodge extended his literary experiments into drama. He collaborated with Greene in A Looking Glass for London and England and wrote at least one play independently, The Wounds of Civill War (pr. c. 1586), dealing with the civil strife between the Romans Marius and Sulla. Although the play is interesting as an early treatment of Roman history on the English stage, it suffers from ponderous speeches and a confused plot.

Thomas Nashe is best known for a series of pamphlets written during the famous Martin Marprelate controversy and for his anti-romantic prose narrative The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton (1594), a precursor of the English novel. In The Isle of Dogs (pr. 1597), Nashe collaborated with Ben Jonson on a comedy that so pointedly portrayed the abuses of the state that Jonson was sent to jail. Nashe’s only complete extant play is Summer’s Last Will and Testament (pr. 1592), a play of courtly compliment that includes some of Nashe’s characteristic satiric thrusts. The play has very little plot or action, but it has some vigorous moments and some surprisingly good poetry.

Christopher Marlowe

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Marlowe, Shakespeare’s famous contemporary, is remembered not only for his poetry and drama but also for his colorful, often violent life and his mysterious death in a tavern brawl. In contrast to his fellow University Wits, he seemed less interested in establishing his reputation as a writer or in earning a living than in pushing life and ideas to the limits. In particular, the philosophical and political ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli fascinated Marlowe, and in his plays, he takes those ideas to their logical conclusion.

Marlowe’s skepticism concerning the reigning medieval conception of human beings’ place in the cosmos is implicit in his obsessive preoccupation with the nature of power. Some critics believe that Marlowe’s skepticism is ultimately resolved on the testing ground of the plays; in their view, Marlowe should be read as a Christian Humanist. Other critics argue that Marlowe (who was accused of atheism by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, with whom he had been living) clearly rejected the Christian worldview; according to their reading of the plays, Marlowe identifies with his proud, defiant, overreaching protagonists.

Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (Part I, pr. c. 1587; Part II, pr. 1587), based on the story of the Tartar king Timur Lenk, examines the nature of power as exhibited in the title character, Tamburlaine, who, as a young shepherd enamored of the riches and trappings of power, sets out to rule the world. This intoxication with power leads him to overcome all earthly adversaries, and he becomes an absolute monarch. The young Tamburlaine ignores the medieval concepts of divine intervention into worldly affairs and sets out to be his own god by becoming king; as his follower Theridamas says, “A god is not so glorious as a king.” When the ruler’s captive, the Turkish emperor Bajazeth, whom Tamburlaine wants to control absolutely, takes his own life, the man who would be god discovers that a power greater than his exists. Although he can take or spare life, he cannot, after all, control life and death. In the second part of the play, after defying the gods, Mahomet, and the Koran (Qur՚an), the great Tamburlaine dies.

In Doctor Faustus (pr. c. 1588, pb. 1604), Marlowe analyzes yet another search for power, perhaps the most universal of human desires. Like Marlowe himself, Faustus is an educated man, a master of philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, but he is “still Faustus, and a man,” still unresolved of the ambiguities of life. Finding no absolute answers in traditional studies, Faustus decides to try his brains “to gain a deity.” He turns to magic, some scholars say to science, as humankind’s way to know all things; as Faustus says, “A sound magician is a mighty god.” Faustus finds, as did Tamburlaine earlier and as does Macbeth later, that no activity of humankind is infinite. Although he learns a number of fascinating tricks, Faustus is still merely a human being.

The Jew of Malta (pr. c. 1589) provides another Machiavellian character, at least as the Elizabethans generally understood Machiavelli. Barabas the Jew seeks power and wealth with no regard for values that might be dictated by a morally ordered universe. Because Barabas is so outrageous in his ideas and actions, so much so that Machiavelli himself would doubtless have detested him, his characterization often descends to bathos.

In Edward II (pr. c. 1592), however, the protagonist is a more convincing figure. Marlowe’s Edward, unlike the typical Marlovian protagonist, is a weak and vacillating man. As Edward’s power decreases, the audience’s sympathy for him increases, and as young Mortimer’s power increases, the audience’s sympathy for him decreases, much as in Shakespeare’s treatment of the weak Richard II and the strong Bolingbroke in Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596). In Edward II, Marlowe created a complex, well-crafted tragedy based on an application of Aristotelian principles to English history rather than on the Senecan model. Shakespeare was to use and build on Marlowe’s model in the plays of his second tetralogy.

Although the themes and forms of Marlowe’s drama were widely influential, it was the poetry of his plays that had the greatest impact. The “mighty line” that Ben Jonson and all succeeding critics saw in the blank verse of Tamburlaine the Great set the standard poetic form for the majestic speeches characteristic of Renaissance drama. To speculate on what Marlowe might have achieved had he lived past his twenties is irresistible but ultimately futile. This much, however, is certain: No dramatist other than Shakespeare has shown more promise in his early works.

William Shakespeare

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With Marlowe, the foundations of great Elizabethan drama had been laid—or rather, with Marlowe and the early works of Shakespeare, for in his early works Shakespeare was learning the trade of playwright. By 1595, the marriage of classical ideas and forms with native English literature and culture was consummated and secure.

William Shakespeare , from the village of Stratford-upon-Avon, learned his craft not from studies at Oxford or Cambridge but from his own reading of classical literature, from earlier English dramatists and poets, from his connection with the professional theater as an actor, and from his extraordinary perception of human nature.

Shakespeare has been justly praised for his perception of human motivations and for the genius that allowed him to mirror these amazing perceptions in dramatic works of unparalleled power and linguistic virtuosity. Still, Shakespeare was not a dramatist who descended fully developed from Mount Olympus. He was a working dramatist of the professional theater as it was taking shape in Elizabethan England. He was, without question, the greatest dramatic poet of his time, but he was also the heir of a tradition of great poetry.

It is likely that Shakespeare saw himself primarily as a working dramatist who wrote drama because his company needed plays to act, for he made no great effort to protect his plays for posterity. Sixteen texts of his plays appeared in quarto form during his lifetime, but Shakespeare himself appears not to have been involved in their publication. The result is that such quartos are of uneven quality. Some are from the author’s foul papers (the texts actors used for actual performance of the plays), considered “good” quartos even though they have the kinds of errors one might expect to find in a copy when the author does not read and correct galley proofs. Other quarto publications were pirated in one way or another and show the kind of corruption of text one might expect from such “bad” quartos. Many of Shakespeare’s plays remained unpublished until seven years after his death, when two of his fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, collected his dramatic works (with the exception of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, pr. c. 1607-1608) in 1623 and published them in folio form. Of the thirty-six plays in this 1623 First Folio, eighteen had never been printed before. Even in the case of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, although the poet had promised his patron in Sonnet 18, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” the poems were not published until 1609, and some question exists about whether Shakespeare authorized the publication.

Since 1623, scholars have busied themselves with finding internal and external evidence to use in dating Shakespeare’s plays. Once a chronology was established (insofar as any scholarly question concerning Shakespeare is ever “established”), certain patterns of the development of Shakespeare as a dramatist began to emerge. His plays may be categorized into four periods for the purpose of highlighting certain elements of his artistic development. Shakespeare did not so categorize his plays, nor did Heminge and Condell, and scholars can find fault with any attempt at categorization. The problems of the literary historian are compounded by the fact that Shakespeare did not limit himself to any single dramatic genre during any period of his career; he wrote comedies, histories, tragedies, and combinations and variations throughout his literary life. With these caveats posted, one may reasonably discuss Shakespeare’s dramatic works in four periods of development.

The first period covers about five years, from 1590 to 1594, when, in order to supply his company with material to perform, Shakespeare began to adapt the plots and devices of earlier dramatists. He borrowed from Plautus, Terence, Lodge, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, and others; his purpose seems to have been to provide his fellows with a well-structured script that dealt with a subject already approved by audiences. During this time, Shakespeare was learning his craft, experimenting with presenting plot exposition in dialogue, with problems of characterization, with language, and with all that his predecessors had taught him. Although this first period was a time of experimentation and imitation, the plays nevertheless reveal glimpses of Shakespeare’s poetic genius and his clear perception of human behavior and motivation.

To this first period also belong the poems Venus and Adonis (1593), which the author called “the first heir of my invention,” and the more mature The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Some of the sonnets were at this time being circulated in manuscript form, but it is not certain which ones or when they were written. The plays of the first period represent all the popular types—comedy, history, and tragedy—and they are imitative and flawed.

Which play is Shakespeare’s first has been the subject of much conjecture, but evidence is inadequate to lead to any secure conclusion. Titus Andronicus (pr. 1594) was certainly one of Shakespeare’s first plays and clearly a melodrama. It is a bloody play, closer to Senecan tragedy than is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. The motif of eating human flesh, for example, derives from act 4 of Seneca’s Thyestes (English translation, 1581). Because the play includes such horrors as rape, mutilation, murder, and cannibalism, some critics want to deny that Shakespeare wrote it, but in fact Titus Andronicus shows a great talent for effective presentation of plot so as to achieve suspense and an acceptable conclusion. Shakespeare’s purpose in this early attempt at tragedy was almost certainly to provide for his company a play that would capitalize on the public’s taste for sensational material presented with some degree of realism on the stage, and the play accomplishes that limited purpose, but in delivering a popular play to his company, Shakespeare also improved on his source.

The comedies in this first period are reflections of what Shakespeare had seen and read in the academic theater influenced by Plautus and Terence, the courtly drama of Lyly, and the popular comedy of Greene and Peele. The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594), which was an adaptation of Plautus’s Menaechmi (of the late third or early second century b.c.e.; The Twin Menaechmi, 1595), is a farce involving two sets of identical twins separated at an early age and brought together by chance as adults. Shakespeare’s play, though a farce, has a structure more complicated than and superior to that of Plautus, and although dialogue irrelevant to the plot and emotive speeches unprepared for in characterization detract from the play’s artistic unity and coherence, this early comedy presents in the marital conflict between Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana, his wife, a good analysis of the intricacies of human relationships. In Love’s Labour’s Lost , the influence of Lyly is more clearly seen than in any other play of the period. The source of the comedy is not known, but the play at once uses and satirizes the romantic subjects and euphuistic style of Lyly. Beneath the witty dialogue and jests, however, is the serious contrast of nature with the artificiality of society. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (pr. c. 1594-1595) presents a love story that is less contrived than that of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the characters are less caricatured, but Shakespeare’s attempt to make his characters more individualized and more believable causes some problems, because the plot itself is not realistic but romantic.

The history plays of this early period were doubtless written to capitalize on the great spirit of nationalism that flourished after the English defeat of the powerful Spanish Armada in 1588. Only three authentic chronicle plays had been written before 1590, but soon history, especially English history, was to become an important subject for all types of literature. Shakespeare’s early efforts at historical drama presented the story much as he found it in his sources, with characterization being subordinate to plot, but under the influence of Marlowe and prompted by his own interest in individual psychology, Shakespeare soon learned to use the stories and characters he found in history to write plays analyzing politics, love, hate, revenge, and other elements of the human condition.

The three parts of Henry VI (pr. c. 1590-1592) are uneven, lacking unity and coherence, but with the last play in the tetralogy, Richard III , Shakespeare had learned to escape the dramatic problems of episodic history by concentrating on a single character and a single theme, complex though they both might be. Here, the clash between the ideas of divine and Machiavellian power that so fascinated Marlowe is taken up and analyzed minutely and realistically; as in Tamburlaine the Great, the Machiavellian Richard runs afoul of the natural order and is defeated. In King John , Shakespeare continues his movement away from mere episodic history to concentration on theme—here, the theme of patriotism. Some scholars see this play as a rewrite, commissioned by his acting company, of an earlier play perhaps by Marlowe or Peele, The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, but Shakespeare’s treatment of the story is more than a mere rewrite. Here, he personalizes history, analyzing contemporary political concepts, an exercise he was to develop more fully in his history plays of the second period.

In his second period, from about 1595 to 1600, Shakespeare was no longer an apprentice dramatist imitating the work of others to produce plays for his company; rather, he had become a journeyman, able to plan his own work and create artistic works based on his understanding of his material, his audience, and his perceptions of human behavior. The plays of his second tetralogy derive from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and from an earlier drama, The Famous Victories of Henry V (pr. c. 1588), but these sources serve merely as a vehicle for exploring the major question of political theory: whether power derives from divine right or from military power. To serve his purpose, Shakespeare felt free to change the historical age of Richard II’s queen from that of a child to that of a mature woman, of Prince Hal from a boy of fifteen to a young warrior, of Hotspur from a man of about forty-five to one about the same age as Hal. The playwright moves armies about to suit his dramatic purposes and introduces pumps, gunpowder, and cannons into early fifteenth century England, where these devices were not yet in use.

In Richard II , Shakespeare continues his inquiry into the nature of kingship, showing the political folly of one who depends wholly on divine power to protect his authority: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea,” Richard shouts, “can wash the balm off from an anointed king,” yet he discovers that vaporous angels are no match for Bolingbroke’s army. The play ends with Richard’s descent from monarchical power and high-flown illusions (exquisitely mirrored in the play’s language and imagery) as Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, takes his place and the cycle of rise and fall begins anew.

The two parts of Henry IV (pr. c. 1597-1598) center on the political troubles of King Henry IV, who depends on military strength to attain and keep the crown, and the political development of Prince Hal (the future Henry V), whose grasp of the Machiavellian principle of situational ethics eventually surpasses that of his father. Indeed, the two plays focus less on their title character than they do on Hal and his personal and political maturation. This development culminates in Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599), which concerns the reign of England’s most successful king up to the time of Elizabeth. Having learned much about human nature and the requirements of kingship through the negative examples of the profligate rogue Falstaff and the hotheaded young nobleman Hotspur (in the plays about Henry IV), Hal uses Hotspur and Falstaff as Marlowe’s Tamburlaine used Bajazeth—as steps to the throne—and then rids himself of them when they are of no more political use. Unlike Tamburlaine, however, Hal acts on the basis of a mature comprehension of his place as the representative, rather than the embodiment, of divine will. His understanding of his central role as monarch in the Elizabethan hierarchy of being—responsible both to the people of his nation and to God—makes him in many ways Shakespeare’s ideal ruler.

The second period of Shakespeare’s dramatic development contains more festive comedies than any other type of play. The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594) derives from George Gascoigne’s Supposes, from an old tale in a medieval English jestbook, and perhaps from a comedy of about the same time as Shakespeare’s, with an almost identical title, The Taming of a Shrew. Shakespeare builds on his analysis of male-female relationships begun in The Comedy of Errors by contrasting the love affair of the romantic young lovers Lucentio and Bianca with that of the more mature Petruchio and Katherina. Here Shakespeare turns the farcical elements he found in his sources into a carefully drawn comedy in which Kate (as she is called in the play) learns what love is. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), written for private presentation rather than for the public theater, continues the theme of love. The five plots taken from various sources are carefully woven into a unified masterpiece showing that “the course of true love never did run smooth”—primarily because, as Puck remarks, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

In The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599), As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), and Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602), Shakespeare’s technical talents, clear perception of human relationships, and humor are developed to the point of mastery. All these plays treat love as the noblest of human attributes and reveal an optimistic view of humankind’s ability to work through conflicts to the natural harmony that love brings to human beings.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare contrasts the honorable friendships between Antonio and Bassanio, Bassiano and Portia, and several other pairs of lovers with the unnatural hatred of the Jewish moneylender Shylock—a figure suggested by Marlowe’s Barabas. Shakespeare’s villain, however, is no unmotivated monster; rather, he is a man poorly treated by the Christian characters in the play, a man who does not understand the natural model of mercy or love. The play is dominated by the clever Portia, who does understand the model and who has the intelligence and force of personality to establish it in the midst of conflict.

Much Ado About Nothing continues the optimistic spirit of romantic comedy and again features a witty woman who helps to bring natural order to chaotic situations. The relationship between Benedick and the witty Beatrice is contrasted to that between Claudio and Hero. When the two major characters learn that they love each other, they combine to make right the evil engineered by the hateful Don John. Beatrice, aware of the benefits of love and justice, leads the successful efforts to reestablish harmony among members of society; all, one is given to understand, live happily ever after.

In As You Like It , a wise young woman again leads the way through conflict to order. Shakespeare borrowed the plot from Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde: Or, Euphues Golden Legacy, but the play uses only Lodge’s names and settings, not his characterization. Once again, the villains, whose greed brings suffering and hardship, are pitted against a discerning young woman who orchestrates the return to order. Shakespeare’s Rosalind understands that the courtly love tradition is mere nonsense and that secure love comes not from glandular secretion but from trust won by understanding.

In Twelfth Night , it is young Viola, shipwrecked on the shores of the fictive kingdom of Illyria, who teaches the lovesick Orsino and the morbid Olivia what love is and what it can do. There are no villains here, except for the puritanical Malvolio, who is more churl than villain, but there are clowns aplenty, as in the other comedies. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are buffoons in the tradition of Bottom, Launcelot Gobbo, Dogberry, and Touchstone—the play’s true clowns—whereas the ostensible clown, Feste, who “wears not motley in his brain,” anticipates the wise fool of King Lear in his position as truthteller by means of parody.

Although common themes and similar devices run through all of these comedies, each play has its own flavor and emphasis. They are all examples of “high comedy,” plays in which the situations, wit, humor, and developments are generated from the characters rather than the other way around. Taking traditional devices from others and adding his own understanding of human nature and of the theater, Shakespeare created romantic comedy of unsurpassed quality.

Another play of this period, The Merry Wives of Windsor (pr. 1597), is different in many respects from the other comedies written at about the same time, as are the characters it borrows from the second-period history plays. Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote this comedy at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see a dramatic presentation of Falstaff in love, but because Falstaff was created specifically to fulfill a thematic purpose in the last three plays of the second tetralogy, he is in most respects a different character. The result is a low comedy, producing much fun but little of the serious thought of the other comedies of the period.

The only tragedy of the second period is different from both earlier and later tragedies. In his Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), Shakespeare presents the story of two young people who discover the glory of honest, natural love. The English interest in romance can be deduced from the popularity of the many prose romances and from the hundreds of love poems of the period, including the source of Shakespeare’s play, the poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet (1562), by Arthur Brooke. Here, Shakespeare shuns the vagueness of sentimental courtly love to dramatize the discovery of true love that he was to use as the theme in his great romantic comedies of the second period, as well as in the sonnets and many of the tragedies and comedies of later periods. The love of Romeo and Juliet is contrasted throughout the play to other concepts of love and marriage: the youthful infatuation that Romeo had for the aloof Rosaline; the effeminate emotion that Mercutio scorns; the proper alliance between families that old Capulet seeks to arrange; the essence of decorum that Paris desires; and the sexual satisfaction that the earthy nurse believes love to be. When Friar Lawrence chides Romeo for loving Rosaline one day and Juliet the next, Romeo explains to him the difference: Juliet loves him back, honestly and without reservation. Their love is celebrated in magnificent poetry; the sonnet, epithalamium, and aubade express the couple’s love in the clearest possible terms. The young lovers are impetuous and overhasty in their relationship, and they are sometimes unthinking; their immaturity is displayed not in their love for each other but in their reactions to events not of their making. The play does not indict their relationship; on the contrary, their love, because it is so natural and honest, is perhaps too pure to survive in a flawed world, and thus they must die. Nevertheless, the deaths of the “star-cross’d lovers” result in a sense of pathos rather than the sense of fear and awe that the later tragedies evoke.

The third period of Shakespeare’s development, from 1600 to about 1608, is commonly referred to as his “great period,” his “tragic period,” or his “bitter period.” The great tragedies and dark comedies written during this period analyze the most difficult problems concerning humankind, the cosmos, and human beings’ relationship with the cosmos; they show the greatness of people in constant conflict with their darker nature.

The comedies of this period begin with All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603), a play that ends with Bertram promising to love and cherish his wife, Helena, but this comic ending has been reached by a tortuous path. Bertram, forced by the King of France to marry Helena, promptly leaves his bride with this contemptuous message: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, than call me husband. . . .” Instead of appealing to the kind of love Benedick has for Beatrice or Orlando has for Rosalind, Helena must rely on trickery to fulfill the requirements of her husband. Taking the place of Bertram’s new mistress, Diana, in her husband’s bed, she gets the ring and gets a child. The order of marriage is preserved by the so-called bed trick rather than by the dignity of human love. There is no purifying Forest of Arden here, no musical Illyria.

Neither is the world of Measure for Measure (pr. 1604) a happy place. The unyielding justice sought by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice becomes here the driving force of the play. The rule of Vienna is left by Duke Vincentio to his deputy, Angelo, who seeks by puritanical law to force morality on immoral man. He orders Claudio, a young gentleman, to be executed for seducing his betrothed, Juliet, yet when Claudio’s sister, Isabella, appeals to the deputy to be merciful to her brother, Angelo agrees to do so only if Isabella will yield her body to him. Isabella, as extreme in her prudishness as Angelo is in his hypocrisy, refuses to give up her maidenhead to save the life of her brother, much to Claudio’s distress. The play is saved as a comedy only when the rampant immorality of the citizens of Vienna is controlled by Vincentio, who has been observing the situation disguised as a friar.

The third comedy of the period, Troilus and Cressida (pr. c. 1601-1602), is perhaps the most bitter of all, so much so that scholars have for years been undecided whether to call it a comedy or a tragedy. In the 1623 folio, Heminge and Condell gave it the title The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida, but in most surviving copies of that collection the play is placed without pagination between Henry VIII (pr. 1613), the last of the histories, and Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608), the first in the section of tragedies. There is a love story here, that of Troilus and Cressida, but Troilus is a lovesick young fool in the Petrarchan tradition, and Cressida is little better than a prostitute. The story of the Trojan War offers material to present humankind’s nobility, but Shakespeare’s treatment is anything but ennobling. Homer’s great story is set in the mire, amid the petty squabbling of the Greeks and the irrationality and immorality of the Trojans. Hector is the most likely candidate to represent noble man, but after delivering a clear and rational argument to his brothers Paris and Troilus on why they should seek the high moral ground by returning Helen to the Greeks and thus end the bloodshed, he abruptly tosses godlike reason aside and agrees to continue the war. The deformed and scurrilous Thersites best expresses the theme of the play in his several remarks on what motivates man: “Lechery, lechery! still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion.”

Shakespeare’s analysis of human beings’ darker nature finds its greatest expression in the tragedies of the period. Political power, a subject that he had analyzed from a historical point of view in the second tetralogy, is presented darkly in the tragedies of this period. Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), based on Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), continues to use the chronicles as a source, as do many of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, but here the emphasis is on individual human tragedy rather than history or politics, as is the case with Richard III, Richard II, and the other history plays with tragic overtones.

What A. C. Bradley calls “the four principal tragedies of Shakespeare” belong to this third period: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604), King Lear, and Macbeth (pr. 1606). In each of these plays, Shakespeare shows how the private virtues of great characters are, in the political and social contexts of the action, flaws leading to great suffering.

Hamlet , like the biblical character Job, finds that his expectation of a morally ordered universe causes him to hesitate to act when faced with the horror of insensitivity and injustice surrounding him in Denmark. Only late in the play does he decide that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends” regardless of the chaos existing in society, at which time he acts as a minister of heaven to restore order, but such action in the midst of evil destroys this good man as well.

The life and death of the great general Othello follows a similar pattern. Because he is a man “who thinks men honest that but seem to be so,” he is easy prey to the brilliant villain Iago, who seems to be honest but is not so. The innocence of both Othello and Desdemona in an evil plot concocted by Iago causes their virtues to work against them. Desdemona’s desire to help her husband and their friend Cassio contributes circumstantial evidence to aid in persuading Othello that she is indeed the whore that Iago suggests that she is. Othello’s idealistic desire to protect the order of the cosmos then leads him paradoxically to contribute to the chaos of evil manufactured by Iago: He kills his beloved Desdemona. When, at the end of the play, Othello learns of the duplicity that led him to murder the one he held most dear, he also gains insight into the aspects of his personality that made him vulnerable to such duplicity. He is, as he recognizes before taking his own life, “one who loved not wisely, but too well.”

King Lear, too, is an essentially good man who learns that he lives in a world in which love and virtue can be aped by mere words used by Machiavellian characters to further their own selfish ends. Two of Lear’s three daughters, Goneril and Regan, “love” him only when he has power: When he gives up his power (by parceling out a third of his kingdom to each), they turn him out into the storm. He and, to a lesser extent, the earl of Gloucester learn that power in society comes not from virtue but from soldiers. Lear is, indeed, a man “more sinn’d against than sinning,” but “sin” has no real meaning for those who do not recognize a moral order. Nevertheless, Shakespeare in this play offers a tribute to the power and supremacy of love in the person of Cordelia, Lear’s third daughter, who, at the play’s beginning, had refused to substitute the “letter” of her love and respect for her father with the “spirit,” as expressed in her refusal to flatter her father with appropriate but empty words (as had her sisters) in order to gain her third share of his kingdom. Enraged by her unwillingness to bow to his authority and astounded by the truths she expresses instead, Lear disowns the only one of his offspring who truly loves him. At the play’s end, a much battered, maddened, yet wiser Lear acknowledges his wrong, and father and daughter are reconciled in one of the most touching and humanly true scenes of Shakespeare’s entire canon.

The consequences of flouting the moral order are further examined in Macbeth, but the pattern is somewhat different, for here good and evil coexist in the same characters. Macbeth fully understands the implications of disorder in the lives of men, as he demonstrates when he tells King Duncan that “the service and loyalty I owe,/ In doing it pays itself” and again when he tells Lady Macbeth, “I dare do all that may become a man./ Who dares do more is none,” but his and his lady’s lust for power eclipses his understanding, and they murder Duncan in order to gain the throne. Like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, Macbeth becomes less than a man by trying to be more than a man; like Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are tragically aware of the consequences of their actions. Lady Macbeth’s conscience catches up with her, and Macbeth knows that in an ordered existence, he should have “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,” whereas through his unnatural deed he has gained only “curses” and “mouth honor” in their stead. Macduff, in killing Macbeth, executes the inexorable fate due to those who deny the universal order.

The fabric of these great tragedies is so rich and varied that no literary historian can do more than select a few generalities of many to indicate the importance of these works in Western culture. They show one of the greatest minds of all time analyzing philosophical problems that all thinking people consider at some time during their intellectual development, and they present these ideas in the finest dramatic poetry the world has to offer. Shakespeare’s view of humanity is not always pleasant, but it is accurate, and dark though the tones and settings of the plays may be, in every case the worth and dignity of humankind is affirmed at the conclusion of the play.

The other three tragedies belonging to this period have never been accepted by scholars as of the same intellectual and artistic quality as the four principal tragedies described above. Perhaps they show the beginnings of Shakespeare’s period of experimentation, but they are close enough to the great tragedies to warrant considering them alongside the others. Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607) contains neither the horror of the proportions presented in earlier tragedies nor any hero of the stature of Hamlet, Othello, Lear, or Macbeth. Some scholars have a difficult time seeing Antony and Cleopatra as heroes at all, for, as Antony’s soldiers believe, Antony is here in his “dotage” and Cleopatra is revealed as merely a capricious woman. Nevertheless, they are noble characters in conflict with others who are less noble. Antony is no Hamlet, nor was he meant to be, but neither is he merely an attendant lord. The play’s only villain—and that is too strong a word—is Octavius Caesar, whose villainy consists in his wanting to be landlord of the world, a desire shared by much of the world’s population. Antony and Cleopatra have discovered that “the nobleness of life” lies not in building an empire but in love, and in their struggle to live in a world that does not understand such a nonmaterialistic goal, they die.

In Coriolanus , a similar idea is presented. Coriolanus is an idealistic man of great talents, a nonpolitical man lured into the political world described by Machiavelli. Because he shuns the situational ethics required by anyone who operates in such an arena, he is destroyed. Similarly, Timon in Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608) is a generous man forced to flee society because of the greed and ingratitude of other people. Timon dies hating all humankind, but Alcibiades, who was also banished by the ungrateful leaders of Athens, returns to conquer Athens and restore order to society. Shakespeare’s “bitter period,” thus, appears from this perspective to reflect a realistic view of human beings’ actions coupled with an optimistic belief in human beings’ potential.

The plays of the fourth period, from about 1608 to 1613, appear to be experimental works. Shakespeare had left London for Stratford sometime in 1611, but even before that time he seems to have left the harshness of reality for the more pleasant realm of romance. Indeed, four plays of his final period are romances. These late plays still contain evil, guilt, and suffering, but mythology and magic are ever present to set things right in a way that does not occur in reality. Some scholars have suggested that the late romances indicate that Shakespeare had found a new faith in the goodness of humankind, but in fact the darkness in humankind presented in these plays is not neutralized by rational action, as it is in the plays of the third period, but by magic or improbable chance. In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611), and The Tempest (pr. 1611), evil is transcended rather than confronted.

In The Tempest , the best of the late plays, the Machiavellian concept of life is represented by Antonio, the usurping duke of Milan, and Sebastian, his brother, who will murder their own kin to further their ambitions. No moral values guide their actions; as Antonio says, “I feel not/ This deity in my bosom.” On another level of the action, there is a counterpoint between the bestial Caliban and the airy spirit Ariel. The action is controlled by Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, exiled by his usurping brother, Antonio. Prospero, who can call up spirits to do his bidding, is generally regarded as a figure for the artist; his genial magic suggests the prevailing tone of the late plays.

In the last years of his life, Shakespeare wrote no plays by himself, but on two occasions he did lend his talents to plays by his friend John Fletcher . Shakespeare’s contribution to The Two Noble Kinsmen (pr. c. 1612-1613) appears to have been limited to a few scenes, which Fletcher reworked and placed into the play in appropriate places. In Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s part is largely a matter of conjecture, but the largest part has been attributed to Fletcher. Scholars believe, on the other hand, that the character of Queen Katherine, who is the best developed character in the play, is Shakespeare’s.

The place of Shakespeare’s plays in the history of Elizabethan drama is, therefore, at the peak. He was clearly influenced by his predecessors, who gave him the tools to practice his craft, but he sharpened the tools and created from the material of life works of art that have never been surpassed. As Shakespeare’s famous contemporary Ben Jonson said of him, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”

Ben Jonson

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Ben Jonson is second only to Shakespeare as a giant of the period. The two were in many ways very different kinds of dramatists. In his An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), John Dryden said of Jonson, “If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. . . . I admire him, but I love Shakespeare,” a view not uncommon among later scholars.

Jonson’s best plays are his comedies, created, in the tradition of Plautus and Terence, to ridicule human foibles. If Shakespeare presented the mystery and complexity of human life, Jonson concentrated on human folly. His Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598), with its well-constructed plot, stands as the first important comedy of humors on the English stage. In this genre, of which Jonson was the major exponent, human foibles are examined as a product of excessive personality traits (which, in medieval times, had been thought to result from an imbalance in the four bodily humors), concentrated in individual characters. A companion play, Every Man Out of His Humour (pr. 1599), has a more complex plot and suggests that humors are cured by their own excesses. Other early Jonson comedies are allegorical and satiric. The Case Is Altered (pr. 1597), based on a plot by Plautus, is a rather romantic comedy set in modern Italy, but the two other early comedies contain much more satire: Cynthia’s Revels: Or, The Fountain of Self-Love (pr. c. 1600-1601) is a complex allegory praising Queen Elizabeth and satirizing some of Jonson’s contemporaries, while Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment (pr. 1601) has a Roman setting and contains scathing attacks on the dramatist’s adversaries.

The comedies written between about 1605 and 1614 are generally considered to be Jonson’s best, most mature comedies. Volpone: Or, The Fox (pr. 1605), perhaps the greatest satiric comedy in English, shows the effects of greed on individual characters and society in general. Epicne: Or, The Silent Woman (pr. 1609), thought by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be the most entertaining of Jonson’s comedies, is not so biting in its satire of humanity generally as Volpone; the gulling of the old recluse Morose is all in a kind of fun in which no one gets hurt. Greed and other human foibles are again satirized in The Alchemist (pr. 1610), a play relying on the medieval belief in alchemy to show how the human desire to solve complex problems with quick, simple answers makes people susceptible to quackery. Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614) uses a rather simple, though well-ordered, plot to present a realistic pageant of colorful London characters—a veritable circus of pickpockets, mountebanks, confidence men, religious hypocrites, ballad mongers, puppetmasters, and many others. The good fun ends with all characters being forgiven their transgressions.

The late comedies return to the allegorical and satiric form of some of Jonson’s earlier plays, with limited success. To this group belong The Devil Is an Ass (pr. 1616), The Staple of News (pr. 1626), The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart (pr. 1629), The Magnetic Lady: Or, Humours Reconciled (pr. 1632), and A Tale of a Tub (pr. 1633). The plots continue to be developed along the lines of classical comedy and are imaginatively drawn, but the characters remain mere emblems.

Jonson’s two tragedies, both on Roman themes, are different in several respects from those of Shakespeare. Jonson, perhaps to display his superior knowledge of classical history, chose as his subjects minor incidents from Roman history; he also took as his sources the original Latin works rather than English translations or dramatic adaptations. Sejanus His Fall (pr. 1603), which derives from Tacitus, stretches the unity of time; the play depicts the destruction of the powerful Sejanus by the Emperor Tiberius. The psychological analysis of the tyrant’s mind is well done both dramatically and intellectually, leading to the creation of Jonson’s great comic character Volpone. Catiline His Conspiracy (pr. 1611) uses classical sources and dramatic devices, including a ghost and chorus, to show how humankind’s bestial nature shapes political history. Characterization here, however, is weaker than in Sejanus His Fall.

Jonson wrote two pastoral plays, one of which, The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood (pb. 1640), employs exquisite poetry in a mixture of pastoral and realistic traditions. The play exists only as a fragment; Jonson’s other pastoral, “The May Lord,” is now lost.

Jonson’s poetical ability as a dramatist can be seen in the pastoral fragment The Sad Shepherd, but it is developed fully in his many masques written throughout his career. The masque is a highly ornamental type of drama written to provide entertainment at courtly functions and celebrations and different from the drama written for the public theater, for the companies of child actors, and for academic purposes. Jonson was the principal writer of masques during the reign of James I, and in these elaborate productions he replaced his satiric wit with his talent for writing carefully crafted poetry. Among the many masques he wrote for production at the court of James I are The Satyr (pr. 1603), The Penates (pr. 1604), The Masque of Blacknesse (pr. 1605), Hymenaei (pr. 1606), The Masque of Beauty (pr. 1608), Hue and Cry After Cupid (pr. 1608), The Masque of Queens (pr. 1609), Oberon (pr. 1611), The Golden Age Restored (pr. 1616), and Gypsies Metamorphosed (pr. 1621). These plays contain neither great character development nor profound ideas, for the purpose of masques was to provide not social commentary but courtly entertainment. What they do show is another side to this prolific and complex writer.

Like many of his colleagues, Jonson collaborated with other dramatists in writing plays. He had gone to jail for his part in writing The Isle of Dogs (pr. 1597) with Nashe, a play now lost. He had better luck with Eastward Ho! (pr. 1605), written in collaboration with George Chapman and John Marston . Scholars have been unable to determine with certainty which parts were written by which authors, for the play contains none of the biting satire of Jonson, the psychological analysis of Chapman, or the bitterness of Marston. The plot is realistic, presenting the virtues and pettiness in the lives of common tradesmen. The moral, if it can be taken at face value, is rather mundane, but the play is a pleasant comedy that presents middle-class London life in the style of Thomas Deloney or Thomas Dekker.

Drama after Jonson

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Had Shakespeare and Jonson never written drama, the history of the theater during the Renaissance would appear as a continuum from the late Elizabethan period through the early Jacobean period, or almost so. The tradition developed by the University Wits was continued by George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Ford, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. These men, individually or in collaboration, wrote plays superior to any written for two hundred years or more thereafter. Their relative obscurity is caused simply by their proximity to the greatest dramatists in our culture. Others, such as John Marston, Thomas Heywood, Philip Massinger, Cyril Tourneur, and James Shirley, were good dramatists whose works lie even deeper in the shadows of Shakespeare and Jonson.

George Chapman

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Chapman , perhaps best known in the twentieth century as the translator of Homer who impressed the English Romantic poet John Keats, was a leading literary figure in his day. He contributed both comedies and tragedies in response to the growing demand in London for new plays. His plots are generally more episodic than dramatic and are often exaggerated; his characters are distinctive and sometimes powerful, but seldom are their motives carefully analyzed. His comedies include The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (pr. 1596), An Humourous Day’s Mirth (pr. 1597), The Gentleman Usher (pr. c. 1602), All Fools (pr. 1604), Monsieur d’Olive (pr. 1604), The Widow’s Tears (pr. c. 1605), and May Day (pr. c. 1609). Three others were written in collaboration: Eastward Ho! with Jonson and Marston, and The Ball (pr. 1632) and Chabot, Admiral of France (pr. 1635) with James Shirley. The comedies develop interesting characters in usually improbable plots. The vulgarity of some of the subplots in May Day seems strange coming from the moral Chapman, but certainly the play offers a realistic treatment of its subject.

Chapman’s five tragedies offer an interesting study of the Renaissance view of Stoicism. Drawing primarily on French history rather than English, Chapman created strong heroes placed in stories of political intrigue. The protagonist of Bussy d’Ambois (pr. 1604), the best of his tragedies, is a character much like Shakespeare’s Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, Othello, Kent in King Lear, and Coriolanus. Bussy is a tested soldier out of place in the world of courtly intrigue. His tragedy is as much a result of his surprising passion for a married woman as of political intrigue. In The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois (pr. c. 1610), Bussy’s brother Clermont, more of the detached stoic character than Bussy, philosophizes with himself on the subject of morality, revenges the murder of his brother, and dies by his own hand. The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (pr. 1608) returns to the theme of Bussy d’Ambois to show a strong character whose passions lead to his destruction. Chapman’s last two tragedies, The Wars of Caesar and Pompey (pr. c. 1613) and Chabot, Admiral of France, both present heroes who react stoically to the problems that beset them. Chapman’s purpose throughout seems to be to use drama to present psychological studies of characters in the manner of Shakespeare before him and Webster after, and although his dramatic structure is often faulted by scholars, he was one of the most popular of the Jacobean dramatists.

Thomas Dekker

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Another important dramatist of the late Renaissance is Thomas Dekker , a man whose love of life is reflected in his comedies. He took part in the “war of the theaters” that erupted between Jonson and Marston, writing the comedy Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet (pr. 1601)—the humorous poet being Jonson. Dekker’s attack was not vitriolic, but Jonson soon realized that he was far too easy a target and withdrew from the “war.” Dekker is best known for The Shoemaker’s Holiday: Or, The Gentle Craft (pr. 1600), a pleasant comedy using a plot and characters borrowed from Thomas Deloney’s prose romance The Gentle Craft (1597). Other comedies by Dekker are The Whole History of Fortunatus (pr. 1599; commonly known as Old Fortunatus), the two parts of The Honest Whore (pr. 1604 and c. 1605 respectively), The Whore of Babylon (pr. c. 1606-1607), If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It (pr. c. 1610-1612; also as If It Be Not Good, the Devil Is in It), Match Me in London (pr. c. 1611-1612), and The Wonder of a Kingdom (pr. c. 1623). In addition, Dekker collaborated with other writers. His comedies are remarkable for their realistic portrayal of contemporary life and customs in essentially romantic plots. He excelled at the creation of individual scenes, although connections between the scenes are not always adequately provided.

Thomas Middleton

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A dramatist known to have collaborated with Dekker is Middleton who probably had a hand in writing The Honest Whore with Dekker. Middleton’s portrayal of London citizens in a decidedly unromantic manner is an interesting cross between Dekker and Jonson. His most important comedies among the many he wrote are The Phoenix (pr. 1604), Michaelmas Term (pr. c. 1606), A Trick to Catch the Old One (pr. c. 1605-1606), The Old Law: Or, A New Way to Please You (pr. c. 1618), and A Game at Chess (pr. 1624). Generally considered to be his best plays are A Trick to Catch the Old One and A Game at Chess. His comedies present life as he found it, in all of its coarseness, but his fine poetry and mastery of language attracted the attention of audiences during his day and of scholars since. Middleton also collaborated with Dekker on The Roaring Girl: Or, Moll Cutpurse (pr. c. 1610) and probably with Jonson and Fletcher on The Widow (pr. c. 1616). He wrote two tragedies in collaboration with William Rowley: A Fair Quarrel (pr. c. 1615-1617) and his best, The Changeling (pr. 1622), plays that contain good ideas well dramatized but that are marred by highly sensational, bloody scenes.

John Webster

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The plays of Webster are second only to those of Shakespeare in their analysis of the psychology of evil. Scholars have long admired the magnificence of Webster’s villains but condemned their motivations as obscure. Modern scholarship has argued that the characterizations in Webster’s two best plays, The White Devil (pr. c. 1609-1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (pr. 1614), are in fact complex, virtually clinical analyses of psychological disorders. The horrors visited on the virtuous Duchess of Malfi by her brother Ferdinand, for example, can be traced to the same source as his lycanthropy: his incestuous love for his sister and his inability to achieve his desires or even to admit them to himself.

Webster wrote only two other plays but collaborated on several others. Appius and Virginia (pr. c. 1634; with Thomas Heywood) is a Roman tragedy that lacks the analysis of horror found in his other tragedies. The Devil’s Law-Case (pr. c. 1619-1622) is a romantic comedy that illustrates Webster’s grasp of comic satire. Both plays have been neglected by scholars because they do not contain the startling portrayal of horror long thought to be Webster’s forte; they deserve to be reexamined in the light of modern scholarship. Webster collaborated on two plays with Rowley, A Cure for a Cuckold (pr. c. 1624-1625) and The Thracian Wonder (pr. c. 1617); he also collaborated with Dekker, notably on Westward Ho! (pr. 1604).

John Ford

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John Ford , like Webster, is known for his use of sensationalism. He explores frustrated love, as many of his colleagues did, but the problems that lead to the frustration are not the usual ones. Complex plots, as in The Broken Heart (pr. c. 1627-1631), lead the audience through a maze of sympathies and emphases. The play begins with a love triangle involving the unhappy heroine, Penthea; moves its focus to her brother, who is murdered by her lover; and ends by concentrating on Princess Calantha, who stoically receives the news of the death of her two friends and of her father the king long enough to set her affairs and those of the state in order before dying of a broken heart. In his best play, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (pr. c. 1629-1633), Ford uses the theme of incest, as Webster did in The Duchess of Malfi, but in Ford’s play incest is much more central to the plot and more explicitly treated. Indeed, so sympathetic is Ford’s treatment of the brother and sister, Giovanni and Annabella, whose incestuous love leads to their tragic deaths, that some critics have seen a conflict between the play’s apparently moral conclusion (sin is punished) and its inner logic.

Among Ford’s other contributions to drama are Perkin Warbeck (pr. c. 1622-1632), The Fancies Chast and Noble (pr. c. 1631), and The Lady’s Trial (pr. 1638). All the plays show clear construction and often scenes of intense passion and emotion. Perkin Warbeck is generally considered to be the best history play written after those of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Ford also collaborated with Dekker and Rowley on The Witch of Edmonton (pr. 1621) and with Webster on The Late Murther of the Son upon the Mother (pr. 1624). Several plays known to be by Ford are no longer extant.

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher

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The names of Beaumont (c. 1584-1616) and Fletcher , while they both wrote plays individually and Fletcher collaborated with several other dramatists, are almost always mentioned together because of the great success of the plays that they wrote in collaboration. The one play sometimes assigned solely to Beaumont is The Woman Hater (pr. c. 1606), a kind of burlesque comedy; some modern scholars believe that Beaumont was also the sole author of the mock-heroic satiric comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle (pr. 1607). About twenty plays are usually assigned to Fletcher alone, including the pastoral The Faithful Shepherdess (pr. c. 1608-1609), a play of excellent poetry and rich imagery. Fletcher collaborated on many other plays with such dramatists as Massinger, Rowley, Middleton, and perhaps even Shakespeare.

The best works of Beaumont and Fletcher, however, are to be found among the plays jointly written by them rather than in their solo efforts. Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (pr. c. 1609), one of the finest plays of its day, is a tragicomedy that achieves genuine pathos. The play was acted often during the seventeenth century and returned to the stage well into the nineteenth century. The Maid’s Tragedy (pr. c. 1611) suffers from sensationalism and sentimentality, but its well-constructed plot and vivid characterization made it a popular play during its day. Both Beaumont and Fletcher were men of good family and good education, giving them a familiarity with men and women of high social standing and a certain contempt for the common person. They were able to write interesting and successful plays that often achieve brilliant effects, but they seldom explored the basic questions of human psychology with the intensity of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, or Webster.

Other Jacobeans

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Marston, Heywood, Massinger, Tourneur, and Shirley are usually ranked somewhat lower than the Jacobean dramatists discussed above, although some noteworthy critics would disagree with this ranking in a given case. Marston began his literary career as a poet, turned playwright, and then gave it all up to become a priest. He entered the war of the theaters against Jonson with his Histriomastix: Or, The Player Whipt (pr. 1599) and was held up to ridicule as the character Crispinus in Jonson’s Poetaster, but the battle ended quickly, and Marston collaborated with Jonson and Chapman in Eastward Ho! in 1605. He even dedicated to Jonson his most famous play, The Malcontent (pr. 1604), the story of a virtuoso cynic. The deposed Duke Altofronto, disguised as the jester Malevole, roams the court commenting on immorality and injustice. In The Malcontent, however, as in Marston’s other plays, the characters’ motivations are often lost in the vigor of the action.

Heywood is usually listed as a major Jacobean dramatist on the strength of volume alone, for he wrote more than two hundred plays wholly or in part, many of which are no longer extant. His plays include histories, romantic comedies, realistic comedies, allegorical plays, and a number of pageants. The best of his plays are the domestic dramas, the ones in which specific elements of private life are dealt with interestingly and without undue sensationalism. Charles Lamb’s description of Heywood as a “prose Shakespeare” is certainly hyperbolic; Heywood was a professional writer turning out plays for actors on proven themes. His best play is A Woman Killed with Kindness (pr. 1603), a kind of domestic tragedy on the order of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. In Heywood’s play, the woman is guilty of adultery but repentant; her husband, controlling his rage and jealousy as Othello does not, banishes his wife to a manor “seven mile off,” there to live out her life. When she is near death, he goes to her side and forgives her. The English Traveler (pr. c. 1627) presents a similar theme of seduction, repentance, and death from shame. Most of Heywood’s plays present the same kind of delicate, thoughtful reactions to sin and a kind of quiet morality. Neither the sin, if that is what it is, nor the morality, if such exists, is analyzed as in the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and others.

Massinger , who spent his dramatic apprenticeship in collaboration with Fletcher and such other dramatists as Dekker and Rowley, wrote comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies. His plot construction is skillful and his characterization competent, but his prejudice in favor of the nobility causes his characters to have a kind of irritating predictability. His best play is A New Way to Pay Old Debts (pr. c. 1621-1622), with its interesting presentation of the political and financial kingmaker Sir Giles Overreach. Sir Giles is not uncommon as an overreacher—a rather usual character type in drama of the Renaissance—but Massinger presents in Sir Giles a more subtle type of empire builder than is usually analyzed. Massinger’s overreacher does not aspire to be ruler, a position dangerous because of its high profile; rather, he seeks to place others in position of power and wealth so as to secure his own position without the dangers faced by those in the forefront. So strict is the morality of Massinger’s plays that Sir Giles is caught in a trap created by his own greed, and he pays for his sins. The City Madam (pr. c. 1632), a play on a similar theme, is almost as lively and skillful, but its villain, Luke Frugal, does not quite measure up to Sir Giles in consistency and motive. Here again, the distrust that the noble audience of the private theater had of the middle class is at the heart of the plot.

Two plays are usually credited to Tourneur , a poet and dramatist about whose life little is known. The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607), regarded by some critics as one of the masterpieces of Jacobean drama, shows the corrupting power of revenge. Vindice, the protagonist, like his predecessor Hamlet, begins the play as a moral man caught up in a plot of lust and murder; unlike Hamlet, however, Tourneur’s revenger acts not as a minister of heaven but as a man who learns to plot and murder with glee. Vindice recognizes at the end of the play that he has been corrupted when he says, “’Tis time to die when we’re ourselves our foes.” Tourneur’s other play (if indeed he wrote either one—there is some question) is also a revenge tragedy, The Atheist’s Tragedy: Or, The Honest Man’s Revenge (pr. c. 1607). As in the earlier play, the dramatist here uses the revenge theme to express Christian virtues. A ghost is employed, as in many earlier revenge tragedies, but this time the ghost does not appear to direct revenge but to urge that revenge be left to God. The play thus offers an interesting addition to the usual revenge theme, but the idea is marred by the rather unrealistic application of reward for a moral life. Because he trusts in the moral order to set things right rather than taking the law into his own hands, Charlemont is rewarded with the same kind of material gain that has caused the villainy in the play. Interesting in the play is the presentation of the new materialism that came to late sixteenth century England.

One of the last dramatists of the period is Shirley , a professional playwright of whose works more than thirty plays are extant—more than any playwright of the period except Shakespeare and Fletcher. Shirley’s plays are consistently competent in structure and characterization, drawing as he did on the models of his contemporaries over a wide range of themes and plots. Of his six tragedies, The Cardinal (pr. 1641) is the best. It has all the trappings of revenge tragedy sensationally displayed, as they had been presented by Kyd and the great writers of revenge tragedy who followed him. There are echoes here of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, but Shirley is content to present the action without psychological probing. He wrote many more comedies than tragedies, the best being Hyde Park (pr. 1632) and The Lady of Pleasure (pr. 1635). The former is an early comedy of manners that looks forward to the drama of the Restoration. Shirley provides no hint that the pleasures of the aristocracy presented in this comedy would lead to the 1642 Civil War, only a few years away. The latter play presents a similar picture of an aristocracy for whom life is defined by their own pleasures and trivial concerns. The characters play at love in a sensual London, and the morality that is reaffirmed at the end of the play is little more than a witty refusal to sink completely into the mire.

Shirley was at the height of his career when, on September 2, 1642, the ruling Puritan administration proclaimed that “public stage-plays will cease and be foreborne,” thus putting an end to the greatest period of English drama the world has known. It had its origins in the ideas and structures of Greek and Roman drama and in the realism of native English drama and life. It was able to grow to maturity because the intellectual and social climate of England was such that citizens were free politically and economically to pursue those ideas wherever they led. That persons of rare genius such as Shakespeare and Jonson happened along during the development of drama elevated the achievement to a level that has enthralled succeeding generations, but even without their contributions, the high reputation of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama would be secure. Rarely before or since has literature of any type held such a clear mirror up to nature, and never with such consistency.


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Braunmuller, A. R., and Michael Hattaway, eds. The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Ten well-known scholars from Britain and North America contribute informative studies about the principal theaters, playwrights, and plays of the period between 1580 and 1642.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. 1984. Reprint. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. This work still stands as a major reinterpretation of Renaissance drama and a pioneering critical work.

Egendorf, Laura K., and Chris Smith. Elizabethan Drama. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000. Twenty essays devoted to elucidating the historical events and social circumstances that defined this era and affected theater. The book is divided into five sections: “A Historical Overview of Elizabethan Drama,” “The Characteristics of Elizabethan Drama,” “Elizabethan Drama as a Reflection of Elizabethan Society,” “An Examination of William Shakespeare,” and “Assessing Elizabethan Drama.”

Kastan, David Scott, and Peter Stallybrass, eds. Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. London: Routledge, 1990. Argues, in a number of essays by notable Renaissance critics, that the Elizabethan stage was an intersection for numerous cultural forces, which defined and redefined social meanings.

Leggatt, Alexander. Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999. Provides history and criticism of England’s theatrical comedies.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. In the Elizabethan era, tragedy was one of the principal instruments through which people could imagine their mortality. This collection of essays looks at death in this era through three lenses: a trope of apocalypse, the psychological and affective consequences, and the conventions and motifs borrowed from the funeral arts. Examines Othello, the Moor of Venice, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and The Duchess of Malfi.

Wiggins, Martin. Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time. London: Oxford University Press, 2000. Traces the intimate connection of Shakespeare’s plays with those of this contemporaries, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, and John Fletcher. Describes the principal audience fashions, artistic conventions, and professional circumstances that defined, and enabled, Shakespeare’s plays and those of his colleagues.