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English Renaissance Drama Essay

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 structure, the play is most important as the first English play to be in blank verse. Blank verse, non-rhyming lines in iambic pentameter, was introduced into English literature by sonneteers Wyatt and Surrey in the 1530’s. Its use in a work of dramatic literature paved the way for “Marlowe’s mighty line” and the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse. With a new ruler on the throne, Queen Elizabeth I, who enjoyed and encouraged the theatrical arts, the stage was set for the body of dramatic literature we today call Elizabethan Drama.

The Social and Political Climate

In 1600, the city of London had a population of 245,000 people, twice the size of Paris or Amsterdam. Playwriting was the least personal form of writing, but clearly the most profitable for literary men since the demand was so great: 15,000 people attended the playhouses weekly. What is often exploited in the plays is the tension between a Court culture and a commercial culture, which in turn reflected the tension between the City government and the Crown. The period from 1576 (date of the first public theatre in London) to 1642 (date that the Puritans closed the theatres) is unparalleled in its output and quality of literature in English.

The monarchy rested on two claims: that it was of divine origin and that it governed by consent of the people. The period was one of great transition. This period of history is generally regarded as the English Renaissance, which took place approximately 100 years later than on the continent. The period also coincides with the Reformation, and the two eras are of course mutually related.

Imposed upon the Elizabethans was a social hierarchy of order and degree—very much medieval concepts that existed more in form than in substance. The society of Shakespeare’s time had in many ways broken free of these rigidities. It was not that people were rejecting the past; rather, a new more rigid order was replacing the old. This was set into motion during Henry VIII’s reign in the 1530s when he assumed more power than had hitherto been known to the monarchy. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 gave to Henry the power of the Church as well as temporal power.

By Shakespeare’s time the state had asserted its right in attempting to gain authority in secular and spiritual matters alike. The so-called “Tudor myth” had sought to justify actions by the crown, and selections for the monarchy, as God-sanctioned: to thwart those decisions was to sin, because these people were selected by God.

The population of the City quadrupled from Henry VIII’s reign to the end of Shakespeare’s life (1616), thus adding to the necessity for civil control and law. The dissolution of the monasteries had caused much civil unrest, and the dispossessed monks and nuns had been forced to enter the work force. Thus the employment, or unemployment, problem was severe.

Puritanism, which first emerged early in Elizabeth’s reign, was a minority force of churchmen, Members of Parliament, and others who felt that the Anglican Reformation had stopped short of its goal. Puritans used the Bible as a guide to conduct, not simply to faith, but to political and social life, and since they could read it in their own language, it took on for them a greater importance than it had ever held. They stressed particularly the idea of remembering the Sabbath day. The conflict between the Puritans and the “players” of the theatre—who performed for the larger crowds that would turn out for productions on the Sabbath—was established early.

The Elizabethan Worldview

The English Renaissance began with the importation of Italian art and philosophy, Humanism, during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, imported and translated classical writings, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, the first English work to use Blank Verse. Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt in their sonnets also imitated classical writers such as Petrarch, and are credited as “Fathers of the English Sonnet.”

While the “Great Chain of Being” (an idea suggested from antiquity; all that exists is in a created order, from the lowest possible grade to perfection, God Himself) was still asserted, the opposite, the reality of disorder, was just as prevalent. Not surprisingly, a favorite metaphor in Shakespeare’s works is the world upside down, much as Hamlet presents.

The analogical mode was the prevailing intellectual concept for the era, which was inherited from the Middle Ages: the analogical habit of mind, with its correspondences, hierarchies, and microcosmic-macrocosmic relationships, survived from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Levels of existence, including human and cosmic, were habitually correlated, and correspondences and resemblances were perceived everywhere. Man was a mediator between himself and the universe. An “analogy of being” likened man to God; however, the Reformation sought to change this view, emphasizing man’s fallen nature and darkness of reason. The analogy can be seen in the London theatre, correlating the disparate planes of earth (the stage), hell (the cellarage), and heaven (the “heavens,” projecting above the top of the stage). Degree, priority, and place were afforded all elements, depending on their distance from perfection, God.

Because he possessed both soul and body, man had a unique place in the chain—the extremes of human potential are everywhere evident in the drama of the English Renaissance. Natural degeneration, in contrast to our optimistic idea of progress, was everywhere in evidence too—the primitive Edenic “golden age” was irrecoverable, and the predicted end of the world was imminent. With changes in the ways that man looked at his universe, disturbing discoveries suggested mutability and corruption: the terrifying effect of new stars, comets, etc., added to a pessimism that anticipated signs of decay as apocalyptic portents of approaching universal dissolution.

Hierarchically, the human soul was threefold: the highest, or rational soul, which man on earth possessed uniquely; the sensual, or appetitive soul, which man shared with lower animals; and the lowest, or vegetative (vegetable; nutritive) soul, concerned mainly with reproduction and growth. The soul was facilitated in its work by the body’s three main organs, liver, heart, and brain: the liver served the soul’s vegetal, the heart its vital, and the brain its animal faculties—motive, principal virtues, etc.

Man himself was formed by a natural combination of the four elements: the dull elements of earth and water—both tending to fall to the center of the universe—and air and fire—both tending to rise. When the elements mixed they shaped man’s temperament. Each element possessed two of the four primary qualities which combined into a “humour” or human temperament: earth (cold and dry: melancholy), water (cold and moist: phlegmatic); air (hot and moist: sanguine); fire (hot and dry: choleric).

Like his soul and his humours, man’s body possessed cosmic affinities: the brain with the Moon; the liver with the planet Jupiter; the spleen with the planet Saturn. Assigned to each of the stars and the sphere of fixed stars was a hierarchy of incorporeal spirits, angels or daemons. On earth, the fallen angels and Satan, along with such occult forces as witches, continued to tempt man and lead him on to sin.

Familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries were the Aristotelian four causes: the final cause, or purpose or end for which a change is made; the efficient cause, or that by which some change is made; the material cause, or that in which a change is made; and formal cause, or that into which something is changed. Renaissance concern with causation may be seen in Polonius’ laboring of the efficient “cause” of Hamlet’s madness, “For this effect defective comes by cause” (2.2.101-03).

In the Aristotelian view, change involves a unity between potential matter and actualized form. Change is thus a process of becoming, affected by a cause which acts determinately towards a goal to produce a result. Implicit in the Elizabethan worldview was the Aristotelian idea of causation as encompassing potentiality and act, matter and mind. The London dramatist’s pre-Cartesian universe, indeed, tended to retain a sense of the purposefulness of natural objects and their place in the divine scheme.

Towards the mid-seventeenth century a major cleft between the medieval-Renaissance world-view and the modern world view took place, effected by Renee Descartes (1596-1650). Cartesian dualism separated off mind from matter, and soul from body—not a new idea, but reformulated so that the theologians’ doctrines became the philosophers’; the problems of Predestination were suddenly the problems of Determinism.

For Descartes, all nature was to be explained as either thought or extension; hence, the mind became a purely thinking substance, the body a soulless mechanical system. Descartes’ philosophy held that one can know only one’s own clear and distinct ideas. Objects are important only insofar as man brings his own judgments to bear upon them. Cartesian skepticism and subjectivism led to the rejection of the previous centuries’ Aristotelian perspectives, as meaningless or obscure. According to Aristotle, to know the cause of things was to know their nature.

For the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, objects influenced each other through mutual affinities and antipathies. Elizabethans accepted the correspondences of sympathies and antipathies in nature, including a homeopathic notion that “like cures like.” Well into the seventeenth century, alchemical, hermetical, astrological, and other pre-scientific beliefs continued to exert, even on the minds of distinguished scientists, a discernible influence.

Concerned with the need to believe, in an age of incipient doubt, theatre audiences often witnessed in tragedies such struggles to sustain belief: Hamlet has a need to trust the Ghost; Lear has a wracked concern for heavenly powers; and Othello feels a desperate necessity to preserve his belief in Desdemona—”when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (3.3.92-3). For Othello and Lear, belief is sanity.

Theologically, in the later sixteenth century, divine providence seemed increasingly to be questioned, or at least to be regarded as more bafflingly inscrutable. The medieval sense of security was in a process of transformation. Those changes coincided with such circumstances as the Renaissance revival of Epicureanism, which stressed the indifference of the powers above to man’s concerns. In its place was a special personal power, which was emphasized in the works of Machiavelli (1469-1527) and other Renaissance writers.

Such changes in the relations of man and his deity inevitably provided a climate for tragedy, wherein both divine justice (as in King Lear) and meaningful action (as in Hamlet) seemed equally unattainable. Lear appears to question the forces above man’s life, and Hamlet the powers beyond his death. Hamlet’s task is further complicated, for example, by his meaningless quest for action—from a Reformation standpoint—of works toward salvation. The path to salvation, of great concern to most Elizabethans, was not through works or merit but by inscrutable divine election.

The post-Reformation man, alienated from the objective structure of the traditional Church, as well as from the release of the confessional, with a burdened and isolated conscience, turned his guilt inward.

The Renaissance epistemological crisis emphasized the notion of the relativity of perception, present in the appearance-versus-reality motif recurrent through Renaissance drama. The Renaissance dramatists’ works mark a transition between absolute natural law bestowed by God, and relativistic natural law, recognized by man.

The Playhouses

The old Medieval stage of “place-and-scaffolds,” still in use in Scotland in the early sixteenth century, had fallen into disuse; the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England about 1575 was the booth stage of the marketplace—a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and “open” in the sense of being surrounded by spectators on three sides.

The stage proper of the booth stage generally measured from 15 to 25 ft. in width and from 10 to 15 ft. in depth; its height above the ground averaged a bout 5 ft. 6 in., with extremes ranging as low as 4 ft. and as high as 8 ft.; and it was backed by a cloth-covered booth, usually open at the top, which served as a tiring-house (short for “attiring house,” where the actors dressed).

In the England of 1575 there were two kinds of buildings, designed for functions other than the acting of plays, which were adapted by the players as temporary outdoor playhouses: the animal-baiting rings or “game houses” (e.g. Bear Garden) and the inns. Presumably, a booth stage was set up against a wall at one side of the yard, with the audience standing in the yard surrounding the stage on three sides. Out of these “natural” playhouses grew two major classes of permanent Elizabethan playhouse, “public” and “private.” In general, the public playhouses were large outdoor theatres, whereas the private playhouses were smaller indoor theatres. The maximum capacity of a typical public playhouse (e.g., the Swan) was about 3,000 spectators; that of a typical private playhouse (e.g., the Second Blackfriars), about 700 spectators.

At the public playhouses the majority of spectators were “groundlings” who stood in the dirt yard for a penny; the remainder were sitting in galleries and boxes for two pence or more. At the private playhouses all spectators were seated (in pit, galleries, and boxes) and paid sixpence or more. In the beginning, the private playhouses were used exclusively by Boys’ companies, but this distinction disappeared about 1609 when the King’s Men, in residence at the Globe in the summer, began using the Blackfriars in winter.

Originally the private playhouses were found only within the City of London (the Paul’s Playhouse, the First and Second Blackfriars), the public playhouses only in the suburbs (the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, the Globe, the Fortune, the Red Bull); but this distinction disappeared about 1606 with the opening of the Whitefriars Playhouse to the west of Ludgate.

Public-theatre audiences, though socially heterogeneous, were drawn mainly from the lower classes—a situation that has caused modern scholars to refer to the public-theatre audiences as “popular”; whereas private-theatre audiences tended to consist of gentlemen (those who were university educated) and nobility; “select” is the word most usually opposed to “popular” in this respect.

James Burbage, father to the famous actor Richard Burbage of Shakespeare’s company, built the first permanent theatre in London, the Theatre, in 1576. He probably merely adapted the form of the baiting-house to theatrical needs. To do so he built a large round structure very much like a baiting-house but with five major innovations in the received form.

First, he paved the ring with brick or stone, thus paving the pit into a “yard.”

Second, Burbage erected a stage in the yard—his model was the booth stage of the marketplace, larger than used before, with posts rather than trestles.

Third, he erected a permanent tiring-house in place of the booth. Here his chief model was the passage screens of the Tudor domestic hall. They were modified to withstand the weather by the insertion of doors in the doorways. Presumably the tiring-house, as a permanent structure, was inset into the frame of the playhouse rather than, as in the older temporary situation of the booth stage, set up against the frame of a baiting-house. The gallery over the tiring-house (presumably divided into boxes) was capable of serving variously as a “Lord’s room” for privileged or high-paying spectators, as a music-room, and as a station for the occasional performance of action “above” as, for example, Juliet’s balcony.

Fourth, Burbage built a “cover” over the rear part of the stage, called “the Heavens”, supported by posts rising from the yard and surmounted by a “hut.”

And fifth, Burbage added a third gallery to the frame. The theory of origin and development suggested in the preceding accords with our chief pictorial source of information about the Elizabethan stage, the “De Witt” drawing of the interior of the Swan Playhouse (c. 1596).

It seems likely that most of the round public playhouses—specifically, the Theatre (1576), the Swan (1595), the First Globe (1599), the Hope (1614), and the Second Globe (1614)—were of about the same size.

The Second Blackfriars Playhouse of 1596 was designed by James Burbage, and he built his playhouse in the upper-story Parliament Chamber of the Upper Frater of the priory. The Parliament Chamber measured 100 ft. in length, but for the playhouse Burbage used only two-thirds of this length. The room in question, after the removal of partitions dividing it into apartments, measured 46 ft. in width and 66 ft. in length. The stage probably measured 29 ft. in width and 18 ft. 6 in. in depth.

The Staging Conventions

In the private theatres, act-intervals and music between acts were customary from the beginning. A music-room was at first lacking in the public playhouses, since public-theatre performances did not originally employ act-intervals and inter-act music. About 1609, however, after the King’s men had begun performing at the Blackfriars as well as at the Globe, the custom of inter-act music seems to have spread from the private to the public playhouses, and with it apparently came the custom of using one of the tiring-house boxes over the stage as a music-room.

The drama was conventional, not realistic: poetry was the most obvious convention, others included asides, soliloquies, boys playing the roles of women, battles (with only a few participants), the daylight convention (many scenes are set at night, though the plays took place in mid-afternoon under the sky), a convention of time (the clock and calendar are used only at the dramatist’s discretion), the convention of “eavesdropping” (many characters overhear others, which the audience is privy to but the overheard characters are not), and movement from place to place as suggested by the script and the audience’s imagination.

Exits were strong, and when everyone departed the stage, a change of scene was indicated. There was relatively little scenery. Scenery was mostly suggestive; for example, one or two trees standing in for a whole forest. The elaborate costumes—for which companies paid a great deal of money—supplied the color and pageantry. Minimal scenery and limited costume changes made the transitions between scenes lightning-fast and kept the story moving.

There was often dancing before and after the play—at times, during, like the peasants’ dance in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Jigs were often given at the end of performances, a custom preserved still today at Shakespeare’s Globe. The jigs at the theatre were not always mere dances, they were sometimes comprised of songs and bawdy knockabout farces filled with commentaries on current events. Perhaps the most famous jig was the one performed by Will Kemp, the clown in Shakespeare’s company, over a nine day period in 1599, on the road from London to Norwich. It was published in 1600 as Kemps nine daies wonder. After 1600, the bawdy jigs fell into derision and contempt and were only performed at theatres such as the Red Bull, which catered to an audience appreciative of the lowest humor and most violent action.

The clowns were the great headliners of the Elizabethan stage prior to the rise of the famed tragedians of the late 1580s, such as Edward (Ned) Alleyn and Richard Burbage. Every company had a top clown along with the tragedian桽hakespeare抯 company was no exception: Richard Tarleton was the clown until his death in 1588, Will Kemp was the clown until forced out of the company in 1599, to be replaced by another famous clown, Robin Armin. The clowns not only performed the aforementioned jigs, but also played many of the great comic characters; Kemp most likely played Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Armin the parts of Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear.

From contemporary documents, we know there were over a thousand actors in England between 1580-1642*. Most were poor, “starving actors”, but a few dozen were able to make names for themselves and become shareholders in their respective companies, and make a good living. The repertory system was demanding esides playing six days a week, a company would be in continual rehearsal in order to add new plays and to refresh old ones in their schedule. A player would probably learn a new role every week, with thirty to forty roles in his head. No minor feat, especially considering that an actor would only get his lines and cues (in a rolled up parchment, his “roll”, from which we get the word “role”), not a whole script! Over a period of three years, a tragedian such as Edward Alleyn, lead player for the Admiral’s Men, would learn not only fifty new parts but also retain twenty or more old roles.


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