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Shakespeare Writes His Dramas

(Timeline of European History)

Article abstract: Shakespeare writes his dramas, creating a literary legacy that transcends cultural and temporal barriers.

Summary of Event

After the sixth century Catholic Church had exerted its influence to close down the decadent theater of the late Roman Empire, theater did not officially exist in western Europe for the following four centuries. Ironically, the Catholic Church sponsored the beginnings of a new dramatic form within the church liturgy in the tenth century. Semidramatic and dramatic representations of the events of Easter evolved by the end of the twelfth century into complex and lengthy dramas dealing with other festivals in the liturgical calendar.

In the early fourteenth century, drama moved out of the churches and into the streets. Various craft guilds of certain towns began to present cycles of plays depicting biblical stories from the account of Creation and the Garden of Eden to the ascension of Christ; these plays were known as Corpus Christi plays because they were associated with the midsummer feast of Corpus Christi. Saints’ plays, focusing on the lives of the saints, and morality plays, which presented allegorical renditions of humanity’s spiritual journey through life, were also widely current in England. Morality plays were performed by wandering troupes of actors, contained stock characters and low comedy, and were intended to entertain as well as to instruct.

These plays survived into the late sixteenth century and had an appreciable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare probably saw Corpus Christi plays as a youth. In the early sixteenth century, teachers and schoolboys began to produce plays based on Roman comedy but adapted to English customs and mores. Tragedy based on classical models, particularly Seneca, began to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. The most influential Renaissance playwrights who preceded Shakespeare were Robert Greene, who opened up for Shakespeare the work of Greek romance; John Lyly, known for his elaborate, courtly language and a sensitive portrayal of the psychology of love; Thomas Kyd, whose play, The Spanish Tragedy, was probably the most frequently performed play in the sixteenth century; and Christopher Marlowe, whose “mighty lines,” tragic seriousness, and spirit of aspiration were very influential on subsequent dramatists.

When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580’s, the city proper and its suburbs had a population of approximately two hundred thousand inhabitants, making it the largest city in Europe. The city stretched along the north bank of the Thames River from the old Tower of London on the east to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Fleet Ditch on the west. Visitors approaching London from the south bank of the Thames (the Bankside) crossed London Bridge to enter the city. London authorities frowned on large public gatherings because they believed such gatherings made both crime and spread of the bubonic plague more likely. Consequently, public theaters were constructed in the suburbs in order to escape the stringent regulations imposed by the lord mayor and council of aldermen.

The first public theater, known as the Theatre, was built in Finsbury Fields by James Burbage in 1576. The Curtain was built the following year and the Rose, the first playhouse on the Bankside, was built about ten years later. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of James, dismantled the Theatre in 1599 because of trouble about the lease of the land. They rebuilt the theater on the Bankside and renamed it the Globe. These public theaters held about two to three thousand people. Smaller private theaters, based on the great halls of Tudor houses, flourished in the city proper during the 1580’s and again in 1598-1599. The prices charged at these theaters were higher, the accommodations were more comfortable, and the audiences were more elite than at the larger venues. The plays written for these select audiences tended to be more satirical and...

(The entire section is 2,573 words.)