English Renaissance Drama

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English Renaissance drama grew out of the established Medieval tradition of the mystery and morality plays. These public spectacles focused on religious subjects and were generally enacted by either choristers and monks, or a town's tradesmen (as later seen lovingly memorialized by Shakespeare's 'mechanicals' in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

At the end of the fifteenth century, a new type of play appeared. These short plays and revels were performed at noble households and at court, especially at holiday times. These short entertainments, called "Interludes", started the move away from the didactic nature of the earlier plays toward purely secular plays, and often added more comedy than was present in the medieval predecessors. Since most of these holiday revels were not documented and play texts have disappeared and been destroyed, the actual dating of the transition is difficult. The first extant purely secular play, Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres, was performed at the household of Cardinal Morton, where the young Thomas More was serving as a page. Early Tudor interludes soon grew more elaborate, incorporating music and dance, and some, especially those by John Heywood, were heavily influenced by French farce.

Not only were plays shifting emphasis from teaching to entertaining, they were also slowly changing focus from the religious towards the political. John Skelton's Magnyfycence (1515), for example, while on the face of it resembling the medieval allegory plays with its characters of Virtues and Vices, was a political satire against Cardinal Wolsey. Magnyfycence was so incendiary that Skelton had to move into the sanctuary of Westminster to escape the wrath of Wolsey.

The first history plays were written in the 1530's, the most notable of which was John Bale's King Johan. While it considered matters of morality and religion, these were handled in the light of the Reformation. These plays set the precedent of presenting history in the dramatic medium and laid the foundation for what would later be elevated by Marlowe and Shakespeare into the English History Play, or Chronicle Play, in the latter part of the century.

Not only was the Reformation taking hold in England, but the winds of Classical Humanism were sweeping in from the Continent. Interest grew in the classics and the plays of classical antiquity, especially in the universities. Latin texts were being "Englysshed" and latin poetry and plays began to be adapted into English plays. In 1553, a schoolmaster named Nicholas Udall wrote an English comedy titled "Ralph Roister Doister" based on the traditional Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence. The play was the first to introduce the Latin character type miles gloriosus ("braggart soldier") into English plays, honed to perfection later by Shakespeare in the character of Falstaff. Around the same time at Cambridge, the comedy "Gammer Gurton's Needle", possibly by William Stevens of Christ's College, was amusing the students. It paid closer attention to the structure of the Latin plays and was the first to adopt the five-act division.

Writers were also developing English tragedies for the first time, influenced by Greek and Latin writers. Among the first forays into English tragedy were Richard Edwards' Damon and Pythias (1564) and John Pickering's New Interlude of Vice Containing the History of Horestes (1567). The most influential writer of classical tragedies, however, was the Roman playwright Seneca, whose works were translated into English by Jasper Heywood, son of playwright John Heywood, in 1589. Seneca's plays incorporated rhetorical speeches, blood and violence, and often ghosts; components which were to figure prominently in both Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

The first prominent English tragedy in the Senecan mould was Gorboduc (1561), written by two lawyers, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, at the Inns of Court (schools of law). Apart from following Senecan conventions and...
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