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The Evolution Of Elizabethan Drama Essay, Research Paper

A. Quem quaeritus in sepulchro, O Christicolae? M. Ihesum Nazarenun, crucifixumm o caelicola. A. Non est hic; surrexit a mortuis C. Alleluia! resurrexit DominusVenite et videte locum!Deum Laudemus!(Quem Quaeritus, from Regularis Concordia, Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchestercirca. 10th century A.D.) Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, but it was a long time before the ‘new drama’ appeared in full splendor on the public stage. In fact, the first quarter century or so after her accession is described as a period of transition in which the new influences were used to modify the old native drama and transformed it into what is now called “Elizabethan”. It is interesting to note that the very organization that denounced drama and dramatists as rouges and scoundrels, subject to hell in the afterlife, used the same conventions and techniques to foster a failing religious hold on the common people. The themes that gave rise to theatrical entertainment in England during the reign of Elizabeth are traceable to the Dark Ages of Europe and the liturgical dramas of the time. Although drama in England found its start with the Church, it eventually found its end, at least for a time, with the Church as well. But the period in between that showed the vibrant and multi-colored entity that was coalesced into what was the Elizabethan period. Riding the wave of the new humanism spawned by the Renaissance, theater became a celebration of what could be done in this life and was portrayed vigorously (much to the horror of the religious community). With the War of the Roses over, a sense of calm settled over the country, and with the strong government and patronage provided by Elizabeth, it was only a matter of time until drama in England exploded into popularity. The popularity of the theater as an entertainment medium is mostly in part to the playwrights of the time. The language of popular comedy in the period was plain, everyday English. There is an absence of the witty and gay word play that is characterized by later Elizabethan comedy. There is, however, an over-plus of profanity and humor of filth , sinking at times to gross obscenity. The first comedy in English was Ralph Roister Doister, by one Nicolas Udall, a schoolmaster, written c.1553. Remarkably free of the obscenities that mark so many of these plays, it has a complicated plot and is divided into the classical 5-act form, with rhymed couplets that flow smoothly into a satisfactory conclusion. The central figure is an English version of the Latin miles gloriosus; and his companion, Matthew Merrygeek, a combination of the classic parasite and the mischief-making Vice of popular tradition. The upward stab of English comedy from the obscene to the enlightened was aided by the academic nature of the playwright that was producing them. The 5-act form gave a plan to the author a basis for the plot, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Comparing the incoherent structure of most of the Morals, and the plotless nature of farces such as The Four P’s, with the work of Udall, and Stevenson (of Gammer Gurton’s Needle fame), it is easy to see comedy working to attain the heights later reached by Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. Comedy was not the only form of drama that was enjoyed by the people. Tragedy was also a very important part of the theater experience, and in truth, some of the best literature of its kind in the English language came from the Elizabethan era. English tragedy consisted of two types: popular, and classical. Popular tragedy consisted of homely English scenes (as in the murder plays), or brought distant scenes and characters home to the audience by giving them familiar dress. Classical tragedy, on the other hand, chose its themes from the legendary or mythological past. The ideal of the classics was, to quote Thomas Kyd, “Tragocedia cothurnata, fitting kings,Containing matter and not common things.” The academic tragedy is often spoken of as Senecan, since the Latin tragedian Seneca was at once inspiration and model for the Renaissance tragedy. Seneca’s plays appealed to the age of the Renaissance, due to his stress on the tragedy of the individual, and his sensationalism. Seneca was a pioneer in the field of psychological drama. His heroes indulge in long, self-revelatory soliloquies and take part in ’speech and reply’ in alternating lines called stichomythia. Seneca cared much for the passions and sentiments of his characters more then the sensationalism that became his hallmark. The first tragedy in the English language to represent this Senecan school was Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, by two members of the Inner Temple (one of the great London law-schools), Norton and Sackville. Produced at the Christmas feast, it met with great success, and it was promptly repeated in a demand performance for the Queen. Part of its popularity stemmed from the use of British history instead of one of Seneca’s classic themes. King Gorboduc leaves his kingdom to his sons Ferrex and Pollux, resulting in civil war. Ferrex is slain and the Queen murders Pollux in revenge, the people revolt and kill both the King and Queen. The nobles suppress the revolt, but not before the kingdom is laid to waste and open to foreign invasion. One would imagine that plenty of action would be occurring on stage, yet most of the play is talk. The theme is treated in Senecan fashion, with 5 acts, each preceded by a dumb show, and followed by “ancient men of Britain” as the chorus. Most important of all, the play is composed in blank verse, which some years before Surrey had introduced as a fit medium for translating Virgil. From the time of Gorboduc, blank verse became the customary form for Senecan tragedy. One particularly talented and popular group of writers existed at this time and is credited with creating the Elizabethan form, as we know it, the ‘university wits’. 12 Three of the more well known of these men are John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd. Beginning their attack on the London stage in the early 1580s, they held the boards for nearly a full decade before dropping from the scene. These new playwrights did not constitute a school with some definitive formula for creating drama. However, there were some similarities the unified their work. All of them were poets, not content to follow the beaten path of traditional drama. They had all enjoyed a sound background in classical education-all but Kyd were university graduates-which gave them a command of the classic sources, models, and dialogue of tragedy in the classical genre. Each of them was a professional dramatist writing for the public stage at a time when a man of letters would only earn his next meal by if his plays were successful. The oldest of this group and the first to achieve success was John Lyly (1554? -1606). An Oxford graduate, he caught the attention of the town and court in 1578 with his prose novel Euphues. A peg on which to hang a series of discourses on education, polite behavior, and courtly love, it was a new and fascinating style. Fifty years later, Blount, and editor of a collection of Lyly’s plays, declared: ” Our nation are in his debt for a new English which he taught them……all our ladies were then his scholars; and that beauty in court who could not parley Euphuism, was as little regarded as she who now there speaks not French.” The action in Lyly’s plays is not that exciting. His plots are drawn mostly from classical myth and legend, and are simple and regular, lacking the substance to fill up the 5-act form. To add to the material, Lyly would often incorporate the use of minor scenes in between the others, in which the less important characters divert the audience with dancing, songs, or a jest. A writer of comedy, he used nature as a main theme and wrote with an ideallic fancy and grace. Most of his characters are of a stock nature- the lover, the coy mistress, the friend, the intriguer- and the few exceptions were very eccentric and humorous characters that take little part in the action. He naturalized the gods and myths of ancient Greece on the Elizabethan stage, and completes the fusion of the native, classical, and the romantic drama that had been slowly going on during this period. Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) went into history as the author of the most popular play of the day, The Spanish Tragedy. This was the first English tragedy that had vigor and a strong plot. The son of a London scrivener, he attended the Merchant Taylor’s school, one of the best in England. There is no record of his attendance at a university, yet he had a sound grounding in the classics. “Seneca,” said one of his editors” was always at his fingers’ ends…”. The reason for the success of Tragedy is that it contains something for all the varied tastes of the time. From Seneca he drew a sense of structure, dividing the play into acts and scenes. The revengeful ghost, the chorus, and his free use of Latin quotations and paraphrases of the classics throughout the play delighted the scholars in the audience. The extreme sensationalism , murders, the madness of the hero, and the grim pursuit of revenge would have appealed to the ignorant as well. The last year of Kyd’s life was darkened when papers of his were seized by the Privy Council to discover the author of anti-alien propaganda. Among them were papers denying the divinity of Christ, enough to convict the writer of that “deadly thing, atheism.” Under torture, Kyd said that the papers belonged to Marlowe. Marlowe was arrested and released on parole, but Kyd was ruined. He died a year later in poverty. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), was the son of a Canterbury citizen and his wife, the daughter of a clergyman. He studied at the King’s School of Canterbury, and in 1581, he became a scholar at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Marlowe’s chief contribution was development of use of language to status of high lyrical expression. He did not, however, use this language for his characterization. As a Parker scholar (so named for the Archbishop Parker) he was expected to fill a post in the Church of England, but after his translation of Ovid’s Elegies was condemned to be burned in 1599, he no longer was considered a suitable candidate.

From 1587, when he earned his Master of Arts degree, to his death in 1593, Marlowe seems to have lived in or near London. His first play, Tambulaine was acted in 1587, and its instant success led to a second part. In the first line, Marlowe speaks of his scorn of the rhymed doggerel of the old Morals and Interludes, poor stuff composed by writers who had nothing but “mother wit”.”…From jigging veins of riming mother wits,and such conceits as clownage keeps his pay,We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war, Where you shall hear the Scythian TamburlaineThreatening the world with high astounding terms And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword….”(from Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe) Marlowe was in touch with the literary and political circles in the capital, and some of the people that he called acquaintances were less than respectable. It is asserted that he knew one Poole, a forger imprisoned in Newgate, who taught him how to coin money. This may be false, but it is known that Marlowe was a prisoner there in September of 1589, on a charge of homicide. On the day of his death, the three people that he was were all disreputable. Poley was a spy, Skeres was known as a pickpocket, and Frizer had been involved in shady transactions. Based on Kyd’s accusation, a warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest, with the provision that he report daily his whereabouts to the court. To escape the plague in London, Marlowe went to Deptford. On May 30, 1593, he spent the day with Poley, Skeres, and Frizer, and in the midst of an argument over the reckoning of the payment, Marlowe was stabbed. Though he was a young rebel who broke from the conventions of Elizabethan life, he also shattered the conventions of Elizabethan drama, paving the way for new and better plays. Prior to the advent of actual theater buildings, Elizabethans had to come up with creative ways to stage their shows amid the other entertainments. One solution to this was to use the courtyards of existing inns. In this way, the owner of the troupe was virtually guaranteed a place to play(as long as the innkeeper received a cut of the profits) free of the confinements of regulation. Since bear and bull baiting was a popular pastime in England at this time, a troupe could always perform in an arena not being used for this as well. Unfortunately, the bearbaiting and cockfighting was as popular, if not more so than the plays were. In fact, some of the bears attracted a following rivaling that of the players. Bears such as Harry Hunks and Sackerson were considered as worthy a spectacle as the actors next door. The Elizabethan period, however, is probably defined best by the building of theaters owned and played in by only one troupe. The first theater of this kind was the Theater. Built in 1576 by James Burbage, the Theater was the first building specifically designed for the staging of plays. Arguments with the Theater s landlord led to the early expiration of the lease in 1597 and Burbage bought the Blackfriars monastery as a replacement. The neighbors in close proximity complained to the Privy Council and the project was stopped. After James Burbage’s death in 1597, his sons tried to find a replacement for the original building. With the lease run out, and the Theater planned for dismantle, the brothers met on the night of December 28, 1598, to demolish it themselves and ferry it across the Thames. It wasn t just the politicians and the neighbors who were opposed to the theater. The clergy denounced playgoing as a dangerous diversion to from religious practice. London aldermen banned playhouses in the city proper, and confined the theater district to a suburban area known as Southwark (pronounced sutherk . The patrons could then choose from nine theaters, and the area as a whole possessed a seedy kind of glamour. The Globe itself, built from the timbers of the Theater, was best described as a wooden O . The stage consisted of three tiers, corresponding to Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Behind the stage were the tiring (or attiring) houses, where the actors dressed and the costumes were stored. Over the alcove was an upper stage, which had a curtain that could be drawn when not in use. Projecting from above the balcony stage, over the main stage, was a roof . This served to protect the actors and the main stage from the elements, and the space between its pillar supports allowed heavy properties and even actors impersonating gods (the ancient deux ex mechina) to be let down. The playhouse may have had as many as twenty sides, holding about three thousand spectators. Since the city fathers considered playgoing immoral, theater managers were forbidden to advertise their plays to attract patrons. To remedy this problem, a trumpet fanfare would be heard and a colored flag raised as the two o clock curtain time neared (Red meant history; black, tragedy; white, comedy). Vendors offered beer, water, nuts, apples, and oranges, all of which was occasionally thrown at the actors on stage. There was not producer for the show, as the actors were completely in charge, and since there were no copy-write laws, the actors owned the plays that they performed. Costumes were extravagant affairs, with spangles of gold, lace, silk and velvet, often the cast-offs of the aristocratic patron. Scenery and props were minimal, and settings were described through scene painting .(Horatio s But look, the morn in russet mantle clad . lets us know that it is dawn.) Rehearsal time was minimal, and a leading man might have to learn and retain over 70 roles in three years, memorizing nearly 800 lines a day. The Globe burned down in 1613, when a props cannon exploded during a first run of Henry VIII. One man s breeches were set afire, and were doused with beer, but the only other casualty was the theater itself. The Elizabethans did not create the conventions that they used to dictate what could and could not happen on stage. They were content to model their idea of what drama should be after the ancient Greek unities of time, place, and action. This is not to say that they didn t have their own variations, however, for by the late 1550s, a truly native style of comedy and tragedy was becoming prominent. There were two styles of tragedy that were performed for audiences of Renaissance England: Classical, and Native. Classical tragedy was modeled after the Senecan influence, with lofty ideals and a singular plan of action with only one plot, and closely observed the three unities. Native tragedy, however, dealt with the same high ideals, but involved sub-plots and comic relief that marked it as a clear innovation over the classical form that had been used for some two thousand years. Comedy was even more diverse, with four categories: Pastoral Romance (As You Like It, plays by Robert Greene), Magical( Midsummer Night s Dream, John Lyly), Bourgeois( dealing with the middle classes, Dekker plays), and Allegorical( satire, Ben Johnson). Also popular were the chronicle plays, that brought a mix of fact and entertainment to the masses. Themes with vengeful ghosts, murderous kings, historical figures, and legendary heroes, were brought to stage in new and original ways. As diverse as the many categories of plays may seem, there were some universal rules that playwrights adhered to. The characteristics of an Elizabethan play are as follows:1. Chronological organization2. Violence on-stage3. Placeless, timeless(able to switch at will)4. Emphasis on action5. Belief in Moral Order6. Early actionVerisimilitude also played an important part in Elizabethan drama. The appearance of truth was one of the most important components. The last period of Elizabethan drama coincides almost exactly with the reign of Charles I from 1625, to the outbreak of civil war and the closing of the theaters in 1642. Though the Globe, Fortune, the Red Bull, and other theaters still played, the growing trend was towards private theaters. The old chronicle play ceased to have any appeal to the audiences, being replaced by tragi-comedies. The high cost of licensing plays made it difficult for anyone but those few with court-connections to make a substantial living as a dramatist. Masques became the new standard of a playwright s success. The story of Elizabethan drama is essentially a story of native growth. It sprang from the liturgy of the Church, passed from the sacred Latin to universally intelligible English, and shook off Church control in the guild cycles and Morals. Influenced by the humanism of the Renaissance, its form was strengthened, its speech enriched and purified. It never, however, succumbed to subservience to classic models. Elizabethan drama was written for the stage and it was not until a relatively late period that it became accessible to a reading public. With the closing of the theaters, the publication of plays increased. But Elizabethan drama essentially lost its home upon the stage. It is from beginning to end a poetic drama, opening with the crashing chords of Marlowe, dying away in the melancholy music of Ford and Shirley. We only need to say to those who desire to learn Tolle, lege Take up and read.

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