Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The period from about 1550 to 1580 may be thought of as a period of transition from mystery, morality, folk plays, and interludes to regular English drama. Classical influence was strong during this period, because those scholars who were writing and producing the plays were the same scholars who had introduced the literary works of classical Greece and Rome into England. Nicholas Udall , for example, who wrote the first regular English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister (pr. c. 1552), was an Oxford scholar and headmaster at Eton who studied and translated Terence. Seneca’s tragedies had been translated into English by 1580 and served as an example for English tragedy.

One can see in Jack Juggler (pr. c. 1553-1558), perhaps by Udall, an excellent example of how Plautus was used in an English setting. The English dramatist takes the opening scene of Plautus’s Amphitruo (186 b.c.e.; Amphitryon, 1694) and transforms it into London farce. Jack Juggler, however, is not a full comedy, only an interlude. Not until Ralph Roister Doister does one see a full English comedy composed according to the classical rules. It is divided into acts and scenes and has a consistent plot with a beginning, middle, and end. The characters Ralph Roister Doister and Matthew Merrygreek are patterned after the Roman miles gloriosus and parasite, respectively. Although the pattern is classical, the setting is English. The play depicts middle-class life in London, with Dame Christian Custance and her 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...

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The Rise of Elizabethan Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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University Wits

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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....

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Christopher Marlowe

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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William Shakespeare

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Ben Jonson

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Drama after Jonson

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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George Chapman

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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),...

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Thomas Dekker

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Thomas Middleton

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

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John Webster

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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John Ford

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Other Jacobeans

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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