secular professional playwright. University Wits: they were writers graduating at Oxford or Cambridge who had no patrons for their literary activities, but they did not want to enter the Church → they turned to playwriting as making a living. They made Elizabethan popular drama more literary and more dramatic; they were the first people to associate English drama permanently with literature. They fused the popular (morality plays) and the learned (the classics) traditions – they used the form of the classicists, and the interest and movement of the popular tradition
The most significant representatives: Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe
Thomas Kyd (1558-1594): the inventor of ‘romantic tragedy’ – love, conspiracy, murder, revenge; heavy influence of Senecan tragedy. The Spanish Tragedy
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593): the most impressive playwright before Shakespeare; he made great advancements in blank verse and used the most exciting themes of the Elizabethan imagination. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
(8) The Shakespearean Comedy
William Shakespeare (1564-1616): a man of the theatre, a poet, an expert of human passions – characterised by a brilliant handling of stagecraft and the perfect control of his medium; all in all a universal genius of the highest order, with an intuitive understanding of human psychology. He remained perfectly hidden behind his creation
Comedy: drama provoking laughter at human behaviour, usually involving romantic love, with a happy ending for the main characters. Shakespeare’s influences: University Wits (mixing folk rituals and courtly elements) and Italian influences (mixing of genres, exotic places and people). Comedy is everywhere in Shakespeare; he never devoted himself exclusively to the writing of comedy; comedies appeared during the whole course of his career.
Shakespearean comedy is distinguished by its structure. The starting point is some kind of challenge which presents itself like a blow of fate or sudden turn of fortune’s wheel. Whereas tragedies are centred on an isolated individual, comedies always concern groups of people. The conventional ending is the death of the hero in the tragedy, but there is a double or triple wedding in a comedy. Tragic heroes die without children, but comic figures bind their lives together in marriage, suggesting the possibility of children. The initial calamity arrives without explanation or motive (e.g. a storm). Characters meet this challenge with energy and imagination; they turn fate into providence and fall in love. Groups of contrasting characters are brought through adverse circumstances to a closer and more lasting relationship with one another. There is dramatic irony, word-play and exuberant language, and Shakespeare creates characters of convincing depth and detail
Early comedies: The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Transitional: Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Romantic/mature comedies: Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night. Problem plays: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well. Romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, (The Two Noble Kinsmen – with Fletcher). Problem plays and romances somewhat different – combining elements of comedy and tragedy
(9) The Chronicle Plays: Shakespearean History
History play: a genre not altogether self-defining or self-explanatory, it emerged in the earlier 16th century from the morality form. History plays were motivated by various factors: Tudor Englishmen had an interest in historical matters, there was commercial pressure (demand for plays with the opening of the permanent theatres; history offered itself as a ready source of plots), the late 16th century was characterised by fear of civil war and anarchy (especially pressing as Elizabeth I did not have an heir) and England was the leading Protestant state in conflict with the great Catholic powers of Counter-Reformation Europe (France, Spain); all these led to tremendous patriotism among all classes (reaching its peak with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588)
Shakespeare wrote history plays because of his fascination with politics. History is an exploration of human political behaviour, of desire for power, of man’s response to gaining it and then to being deprived of it. Power in English history meant kingship, so the plays essentially focus on kings as central characters. Shakespeare was preoccupied with the value of order in society – this is already present in his earliest works as well but it becomes the most apparent in the history plays. Shakespeare’s use of history: he selected, shaped, amplified and frequently added to chronicle material in order to intensify the concentration on political issues and on their human consequences (= writing plays and not history)
The plays have a political central theme – they are concerned with the gain and loss of power but they move beyond that to attempt a definition of the perfect king. They offer a consideration of kingly virtues and present the psychology of political leaders. The political problem of power is also shown from a moral angle through the influence on society of the moral quality of its leaders. Perhaps the main consideration is the question of legitimacy, that is, the lawfulness of the king, as it is the basis of order in a society
English histories and Roman histories. English plays: minor tetralogy – 1, 2 and 3 Henry VI and Richard III; King John; major tetralogy – Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, Henry V; Henry VIII – perhaps in collaboration with Fletcher
(10) The Shakespearean Tragedy
Tragedy: noble action of noble characters; a noble protagonist in a highly stressful situation leading to a disastrous, usually fatal conclusion. The Shakespearean tragedy: it is the story of one person, encompassing the troubled part of the hero’s life and his death. These plays are stories of exceptional suffering and calamity, which lead to the death of a dominant figure of high social standing – the fate of such a character affects the welfare of a whole nation, his fall produces a sense of contrast between the powerlessness of man and the omnipotence of Fortune or Fate. The characters of the Shakespearean tragedy are exceptional beings, raised much above the average level of humanity but are still human: they have a marked one-sidedness, a fatal tendency to identify their whole being with one interest. They demonstrate the nobility of the human spirit – though catastrophic errors are made, these are not motivated by evil – evil actions derive from human weakness as the human being is essentially flawed (in a tragic universe we are all flawed because we are human)
Ten plays: Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens. The Great Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – variations on the theme that humanity’s weaknesses must be recognised as our inevitable fate
(11) The Shakespearean Romance
Last plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – problematic status concerning the genre. They are tragicomedies – in the broadest sense of the term as they contain elements of tragedy but have the resolution of comedy; they mix tragic and comic elements in a framework of magic and exoticism – romances
These plays share a number of themes such as the separation and reunion of family members and the related idea of exile, the banished characters are restored to their rightful homes at the play’s end and jealousy is involved. The plays stress the need for patience in adversity and the importance of providence in human affairs. Realistic characterisation is relatively weak; the symbolic meaning of characters is more pronounced. There are episodic plots, improbable events and exotic locales, characters are frequently subjected to long journeys and shipwrecks are often involved. There are seemingly magical developments, sometimes real sorcery is present, and various supernatural beings also appear.
There is an insistence on the patient acceptance of fate as a necessary element for survival. Shipwrecks reflect the impersonal violence of the sea which is beyond human influence. Characters are passive and helpless, they cannot improve their situations; their strength in adversity is supported by their faith – only providence can bring about the destined resolution through strange turns of fate; the improbability of fate stresses the irrelevance of human desires. Acting with mercy is necessary – revenge for earlier actions is replaced by forgiveness (acknowledging human limitations)
(12) The Drama Besides / After Shakespeare: Ben Jonson (and others)
Shakespeare and Jonson are the two giants of English Renaissance drama; there are many other playwrights with great works but they remain minor figures compared to Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing for the theatre was a means of gaining popular acclaim and economic satisfaction. Acted plays were really influential; the audience was not large enough to make long runs possible – creating a continuous demand for new plays. Sources of various kinds – anything allowing the presentation of emotional and physical violence, the absurdities and wonders of which a passionate man is capable were good for plays. The period ended in 1642 with the closing of the theatres by the Puritan government – but by that time the form of poetic drama developed by the Elizabethans had completely run its course, there was no further road that way
Ben Jonson (1573-1637): he had a claim on the literary men of his time that Shakespeare did not have – Jonson’s plays were more amenable for criticism. Compared to Shakespeare Jonson was more learned, he was deeply concerned with the classical precedent. He used classical models for his plays; he knew in advance of the function of comedy, suiting the humour to it. He is the great example of the Renaissance Humanist turned dramatist and poet. At the same time he was also a rugged Englishman, with a boisterous and even cruel sense of humour. He showed originality even when following classical models. His sardonic view of human nature owed nothing to classical sources; his lyrical gift reflected an important facet of his personality. His most well-known work is Volpone, or the Fox (a satirical comedy)
(13) Poetry in the 16th Century
The basic assumption of Elizabethan poetry: poetry teaches by delight. It is a poetry which is neither ‘classical’ nor ‘romantic’. A major feature is decorum, that is, a correspondence between the style and the subject matter. Nature is the basis of art – but there is no conflict between them – ‘artificial’ can mean human ingenuity used to enhance nature, improving on something naturally beautiful. Models and conventions have a special importance – originality is not seen as an opposition to tradition, classical models are there to learn from, to transform and to surpass
Italian poetry provided examples for English poets – Italian models were used for the reformation of English poetry. Poets translated, borrowed from and imitated Italian poems to restore the combination of flexibility and regularity lost from English during the shift in the stage of the language from Middle English to Modern English in the course of the 15th century.
Modes of literature: pastoral, satirical, lyrical, tragic, mythological-erotic, heroic and lyrical. Lyrical: probably the most important mode of literature – because of the sonnet. The sonnet had its main conventions established by Petrarch; several Petrarchan sonnets were translated and used as starting points for English poems. The sonnet sequence also quickly became popular: the sonnet sequence explores contrary states of feeling, a love relationship between poet/lover and an unattainable lady, modelled on medieval courtly love.
Sequences: Sir Philip Sidney: Astrophel and Stella; Edmund Spenser: Amoretti. Shakespeare’s sonnets: a belated sequence of 154 poems, changing many elements of the convention (the poems are not ‘wooing’ sonnets, love returned and love unreturned; a triangle of love)