Jacobean Drama Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Jacobean Drama

The ascension of James I to the English throne in 1603 marked an era of social and philosophical transition that was reflected in the increasingly dark and ambiguous drama of the period. While a Christian humanist conception of the universe prevailed during the Elizabethan age, the scientific movement of the seventeenth century cast doubt upon earlier views of the cosmos as a highly moral environment governed by God. Astronomical discoveries, for example, along with the publication of Sir Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning in 1605, contributed to a new analytical mode of thinking that marked the separation of philosophical and artistic thought from the realm of religion and morality.

The transition between the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages was reflected in drama in varying degrees. With the exception of such late tragedies as Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare, for example, is generally associated with the Elizabethan sensibility. Most of his works display a sense of providential justice; a sense that the ravages of evil will ultimately be overcome by an inevitable movement of the cosmos toward moral harmony. The works of several of Shakespeare's noted Jacobean contemporaries including Webster and Middleton, however, depart from the Elizabethan sense of moral order through depictions of corruption and violence that do not suggest divine retribution and the ultimate triumph of good. Critics do not consider Jacobean drama to be amoral, however: many of the tragedies seek to affirm human dignity and honor in the face of suffering and injustice. Irving Ribner described Jacobean tragedy as the search "to find a basis for morality in a world in which the traditional bases no longer seem to have validity."

While extensive critical commentary has focused on the tragedies of the Jacobean period, by far the most popular and frequently performed dramas of the era were the tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher. Although lauded in the seventeenth century, nineteenthand twentieth-century critics have frequently criticized the Fletcherian tragicomedies for sensationalism, contrived plots, and the use of merely entertaining dramatic devices at the expense of integrity and meaning. Some have blamed the growth of private theaters during the seventeenth century and the resulting rise of special interests among audiences for the perceived emphasis on escapist entertainment over meaningful artistic commentary. Others, such as Jacqueline Pearson, have defended the artistic significance and dramatic skill of the tragicomedies. Pearson comments: "Behind the clear-cut structure of sharp contrasts, surprise and suspense, lurks a teasing double-vision, a critical ability to see events simultaneously in very different ways." Also popular during the Jacobean period were masques, which became highly fashionable in the court of King James. Predominantly written by the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, the Jacobean masques are noted for lavish set designs and musical scores provided by the major artists and musicians of the period. The focus of the performances was most often the glorification of nobility and right rule, presented in the context of an allegorical, mythological framework. Pat Rogers commented: "The masque can be seen as conspicuous consumption, a sign of decadence, or as the apotheosis of the arts."