Theatre in the 16th Century England

The theatre’s transition from the medieval to the Renaissance is more readily apparent in England than in Italy or France. As the rediscovered classics gradually found their way to England, English plays did begin to reflect their influence. Religious and political controversies and religious strife between Catholic and Protestant following the separation of England from the Catholic Church by Henry VII in 1534, were the forces shaping the mid 16th century English drama. However, when Elizabeth came to throne in 1588 she wanted no religious dissention and outlawed drama of a religious nature.

At the start of Elizabeth’s reign noblemen might maintain a group of actors; otherwise actors were very much considered vagabonds. In 1559, Elizabeth decreed a license was also required to perform plays. Thus acting became a profession, the English theatre directly under the control of the government, and the licensed acting companies still in the patronage of wealthy nobles. This essentially made acting more secure, with daily performances stimulating the building of permanent theatres and the assembling of larger companies.

“The University Wits” and their contribution to Drama

By the last decade of the 16th century acting had achieved a satisfactory level of financial and social stability. Actors were paid a yearly fee by the court plus other expenses. Most troupes self-governed themselves by sharing risk and profit. Some members of troupes owned theatre buildings, and were as ‘householders’, and hired ‘hirelings’ on salary. Troupes were all male, men or young playing women’s’ roles, and members might specialize in particular types of roles.

Such large repertories needed a supply of new plays. Some of these new plays came from ‘The University Wits’, an informal, well-educated group of Scholars cum-men of letters. All of them were actively associated with the theatre and the plays written by them mark a pronounced stage of development over the drama which existed before them. ‘The University Wits’ included-

  1. John Lyly
  2. Robert Greene
  3. George Peele
  4. Thomas Lodge
  5. Thomas Nashe
  6. Thomas Kyd
  7. Christopher Marlowe

They were termed as ‘The University Wits’ because they had training at one or other of the two Universities-Oxford and Cambridge. The only exception, and that a doubtful one, was Thomas Kyd. Apart from academic training, they had numerous characteristics in common. They were members of learned societies and rather liberal in their views concerning God and Morality.

Their Contribution to Drama

Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)

Marlowe, from the Cambridge University is today the most critically acclaimed of all ‘The University Wits’. His focus was on the protagonist, using episodic stories to illuminate complex motivations. Marlowe’s contribution to English tragedy is very vital and manifold. He himself seems to be aware of having scored an advance over the previous drama. His plays are:

  1. Tamburlaine, the Great;
  2. Doctor Faustus
  3. The Jew of Malta
  4. Edward, the Second, and
  5. Parts of the Massacre at Paris and Dido Queen of Carthage.

First of all, Marlowe exalted and varied the subject- matter of tragedy. For the Senecan motive of revenge he substituted the more interesting theme of ambition- ambition for power as in Tamburlaine, ambition for infinite knowledge as in Doctor Faustus, and ambition for gold as in The Jew of Malta.

Secondly, he put forward a new kind of the tragic hero. The medieval concept of tragedy was the fall of a great man. Marlowe revived the Aristotelian conception of the tragic hero in so far as he introduced a certain flaw or flaws in his character, mainly an over-weaning ambition.

Marlowe’s establishment of blank verse is an effective and pliant medium of tragic utterance. His blank verse is immensely superior to the blank verse of Gorboduc, the first tragedy which employed this measure. He found it wooden and mechanical, and substituted the end-stopped lines of Gorboduc with run on lines forming verse paragraphs. With Marlowe, indeed begins a new era in the history of English Drama.

Thomas Kyd

His only play The Spanish Tragedy is modeled on Seneca’s revenge tragedies which before Kyd had been initiated by some scholars. Of course there are murders and bloodshed, suicides and horrifying incidents like the biting off the man’s tongue by himself, the ghost and many others Senecan features, yet The Spanish Tragedy breaks away from the Senecan tradition on many points. For example, there is much of the action on the stage itself. Moreover, though, after Seneca, it has for its leitmotif revenge (Heironimo’s revenge for the murder of his son), yet there is external action.

Kyd’s contribution to English tragedy is twofold. First, he gave a new kind of tragic hero who was neither a royal personage nor a superman, but an ordinary person. Secondly, he introduced the element of introspection in the hero. Along with the external conflict in the play, the reader is conscious of a kind of introspective self- analysis within Heironimo himself. In this respect Kyd was paving the way for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Thomas Nashe (1588-1625)

Thomas Lodge (1567-1601)

Their dramatic work is inconsiderable. Lodge who was, according to Gosson,” little better than a vagrant, looser than liberty, lighter than vanity itself,” He has left only one play, The Wounds of Civil War. Both Nashe and Lodge are much more important for their fiction than dramatic art.

George Peele (1558-97)

The plays of Peele extant today are:

( i)The Arrangement of Paris (a pastoral play)

(ii)The Battle of Alcazar (a romantic tragedy)

(iii)The Famous Chronicle of King Edward, the first (a chronicle history)

(iv)The Love of King David and Fair Bathsheba (a kind of mystery play, for it has a biblical theme)

(v)The Old Wives Tale (a romantic satire on the current dramatic taste)

The list shows Peele’s versatility as a dramatist. However, his plays are not marked by any technical brilliance. What is of interest to us is his excellence as a poet.

Robert Greene (1558-92)

Greene wrote some five plays in all;

(i)The Comical History of Alphonsus king of Aragon

(ii)A Looking Glass for London and England

 (iii)The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

(iv)The History of Orlando Furioso

(v)The Scottish History of James, the Fourth

Out of the most important and interesting are Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Greene contributed substantially towards the establishment of romantic comedy.

John Lyly

Lyly is better known for his prose romance Euphues than his dramatic productions. It must be remembered that he himself was a courtier and wrote for the discerning courtiers. He had no intention to charm the eyes and ears of the masses or to win their acclamation. His plays are rather of the nature of masques which were very popular with the queen and the court. He gave comedy a touch of sophistication and intellectual tone lacking in the native comedy which was predominantly of the nature of rough-and-tumble farce. Lyly wrote eight plays in all out of which Campaspe, Endimion, and Gallathea are the best known.

In his plays, Lyly used a mixture of verse and prose. This mixing of the two is suggestive of his mixing of the world of reality and the world of romance. “The same fusion”, observes Nicoll, “is to be discovered in As You Like It. Lyly found a suitable blank verse for comedy as Marlowe did for tragedy. Whereas Marlowe’s blank verse is characterized by consuming intensity and mouth filling bombast, Lyly’s is by its lightness of touch suitable for comedy.

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