Drama in England evolved, as in other countries, from different sources – religious practices, folk celebrations, other literary genres, also from dramatic traditions of other nations, ancient or contemporary, or from current political situation and propagandistic needs. N.P. Miller in his “The Origins of Greek Drama” compares the history of English drama with the history of Greek drama because the former is better documented and has less ambiguous origins than the latter. The history of English drama starts with the elaborate medieval church liturgy, whether it was “an attempt to present that liturgy more vividly to a simple congregation, or a more elaborate form of offering by the officiating clergy” (Miller 132). The Antiphons, a responsorial Christian ritual, were enriched with added melodies and by the ninth century “words fitted to these provided a form of dialogue” (Miller 133). By the second half of the tenth century it “became elaborated into a dramatic scene” – the dialogue of the ninth-century Easter Day trope “quem quaeritis” now did not take place “between the two halves of the choir, but between one brother acting the angel and three representing the women at the sepulchre” (Miller 133). This scene was acted, not just sung, and it included personal imitation - it was “in fact the first English drama” (Ibid.). It is interesting that back at the beginnings of the genre men – monks, actually – played women without triggering the criticism of inducing immoral thoughts that appeared later in the Early Modern era. Various episodes were later added to this scene, both from the Bible and from ordinary life, and “by the thirteenth century the quem queritis had become a regular play” (Miller 133). The liturgy for other festivals was treated similarly – “plays about the Christmas story, and episodes from the lives of various saints, became common” (Ibid.) The plays became more elaborate and the church choir was not spacious enough so the performances were moved to the nave and later outside the church – and the clergy handed the performance over to the guilds. It was a natural course because in those times the towns and especially town guilds were gaining more importance in the medieval society. It was a huge step in the genre development because the guild members added to the performances “the use of the vernacular, realism, the influence of already existing folk ceremonies, and an admixture of comedy” (Miller 133). From this mixture of religious and secular were created such plays as the Secunda Pastorum, The Second Shepherd’s Play, from the Wakefield Cycle from the fifteenth century. From the fourteenth century alongside these miracle plays developed also the Moralities – they had “much the same connexion with the homily that the miracle play had with the liturgy” (Ibid.) These Moralities dealt, in accordance with the evolution of philosophical thoughts, with human behaviour – nevertheless, this evolution did not go as far as the Humanist movement in the Renaissance, when the behaviour of men and women was treated in a less religious context, because the Moralities were still connected tightly to the Bible and the teachings of the Church. The characteristics of the morality are “allegory and spectacle” and “the most famous example of it” is Everyman (Miller 133). In the fifteenth century the classical drama was rediscovered (first the Latin drama and later also the Greek drama) and the first secular plays, Interludes, were “written for private performance, in great houses, schools, and universities” (Miller 134). The term Interlude was at first applied to “dramatic composition generally, because these amusements were employed to fill up the intervals of grand entertainments” (Child 7)22 but later was used in a narrower sense to describe “short pieces, having simple plots, free from the abstractions of Moralities, and possessing the attractions of some incidents, lively dialogue, and individuality of character” (Child 7). One of these Interludes, Jack Jugler, anonymous early dramatic piece written in vernacular in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, is based on a classical source – Amphitryon by Plautus. But the source story is modified to fit the genre of Interludes: “all dignity is stripped from the characters, every ridiculous feature is much exaggerated and the language and incidents are ingeniously vulgarized to reduce every thing to the grotesque” (Child 11). There are no gods in the story and the characters are changed to fit the period – even “the amiable Alcmena becomes a very cursed shrew” (Child 11). It also does not have any plot; it is only a series of incidents, resembling future picaresque novels. One of the authors of these Interludes was also John Heywood – a witty writer popular during the reign of Henry VIII and even more celebrated later during the reign of Mary I. Among his works belong The Play of the Wether, or The Play of Love and The Foure Ps. Although female characters appear in some of these Interludes, the total number of characters, both male and female, is usually very small – often only four actors are needed – and the characters resemble stock characters of the earlier Moralities. Thus, even though these female characters belong among the first ones created in English, they did not enrich the development of female dramatic personae in any significant – or better said positive – way. During the first half of Elizabeth’s reign the first real tragedies and comedies written in English appeared – not yet original works, but being written in the vernacular, they were still getting a step closer to the later Early Modern English drama. One of these plays was Jocasta by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmarsh. This play was performed at Gray’s Inn in 1566 and till 1879 it was supposed to be a modified translation of Euripides’ Phoenissae, but then it turned out to be “except in the choruses, a literal rendering of Dolce” (Cunliffe 4). The actual translator was Ludovico Dolce, an Italian playwright, who modified the original play into his Giocasta. Nevertheless, Jocasta is after Norton’s and Sackville’s first English tragedy called Gorboduc “the second blank-verse play, and, as far as is known, the first Greek play introduced on the English stage” (Child 30). Gascoigne was important also for the evolution of English comedy – he translated Ariosto’s Gli Suppositi as Supposes, which was performed and printed together with Jocasta, and as John Dover Wilson says, “it was more than a transcript; it was englished in the true sense of that word, in sentiment as well as in phrase. Its chief importance lies in the fact that it is written in prose, and is therefore the first prose comedy [in English]” (Wilson 80). It was a comedy created purely for entertainment, which differentiated it from all the University plays that will be discussed later. Wilson claims that the influence of this play on later English comedies is underestimated, and, although this supposition is not certain, at least it is proved that Shakespeare used this play when writing The Taming of the Shrew. Nevertheless, the original play was Italian and written by the author of above mentioned epic defence of women, which makes this English play an important point in the history of female characters of the Early Modern English drama. Another author who contributed to the development of female dramatic characters was Richard Edwardes. His play, Palamon and Arcite (not extant) was played in front of the Queen when she was visiting Oxford in 1566. The only play by Edwardes that survived the centuries was Damon and Pythias. His contribution to the case of female dramatic characters is not an obvious one – his play does not involve a single female character and the story is about a friendship of two men. Yet this comedy is, according to Wilson, foreshadowing “the romantic comedy – the comedy of sentiment, of love, the comedy which is at once serious and witty, and which contains the elements of tragedy” (Wilson 80). It was a huge step from the farcical Interludes and it was an original play, not a translation. It prepared the grounds for later authors, who added love and passion to the comedy – and with romance came the first fully developed female characters.
Yet before the greatest English playwrights of the Early Modern period appeared on the scene in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, important changes happened in the society – mainly concerning Reformation – which caused several shifts in the development of drama: “the miracle plays had been suppressed as papistical; public theatres had been opened, and their performances killed the Moralities; and the Act of Censorship of 1589 turned playwrights from religion and the state to a study of human nature” (Miller 134). To summarize the development, the plays of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan authors were created on the background of
the liturgy of the Church, medieval scholarship, sermons, folk-customs, the realism and humour of the members of the trade-guilds, the influence of classical, Italian, and French literature, the demand of the public to be entertained, individual genius, and the social and religious background of six hundred years (Miller 134).
Miller then attributes certain importance to the stages and influences: the Miracles and Moralities provided a way to keep the drama as a genre alive, even though in a religiously appropriate way that differed from the atmosphere of the pre-Christian Latin plays; the development of drama as a genre was connected tightly to the historical development of its social and religious background (influencing the genre by means of fashion, philosophy, the Reformation or politically induced censorship); and, at last, “with the Elizabethan Age the moment, the material, and the men combined to produce an apparently sudden growth of great drama” (Miller 134).