Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Elizabethan Drama

The Elizabethan Theater

The early Elizabethan drama, before the regular playhouses were constructed, ' permeated a broad gamut of the social life of the times. Nicholas Udall's plays were school plays connected by the boys as part of the liberalized school curriculum. In spite of their amateur playing, the boys used to be requisitioned  to stage the plays before royal dignitaries or in the court itself. The early English tragedy had its advent at the Inns of the Court. Gorboduc was written and produced by two lawyers at the Inner Temple. Oxford and Cambridge became  important centers for staging Latin drama. So much so that even Queen Elizabeth used to visit the universities to witness the performances.John Lyly staged several comedies for Queen Elizabeth and established the genre of Elizabethan comedy. Tragedy, however, could not find patronage either at the royal court or in London. It had to await the advent of adult acting companies and the erection of Public theatres on the outskirts of London. It is in these theatres like the Curtain, the Rose, and the Globe, that the Elizabethan stage came into being, a stage that introduced the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. While the growth of Elizabethan drama as a native tradition was a steady one moving self-assuredly without meekly copying classical models, the same would not have been possible without Elizabethan Drama registering itself as significant European theatre since the Greek drama of the fifth century B.C. In its European phase, Elizabethan theatre not only integrated within itself various elements of classical drama hilt also the Greek formulations about comedy and tragedy. The task for the Elizabethans was not only to be forcefully English but also thoughtfully European and distinctively Elizabethan

Miracle and Mystery plays

What began as a religious performance by the clergy extended itself to include lay performers. As the performances gradually became buoyant during the festivals, the clergy came to be excluded from participating in such joyous celebrations. The exclusion of clergy entailed the relaxation of church control over such performances, leading to the secular growth of, what is essentially, a Christian drama. This religious tradition of theater became popular in England by the fourteenth century as Mystery and Miracle plays, the former dealing with biblical stories and the' latter with the lives of the Christian saints. In course of time, cycles of plays evolved presenting various stories but with a singular theme. Though composed by the clergy, with a certain secular composition, in iambic verse, the theatrical organization went into the hands of social and trade guilds associated with towns like York, Chester, Coventry, Wakefield and Lincoln. These cycles, largely bereft of any lasting literary value, facilitated the replacement of Latin by the vernacular as the medium of religion, the shift of theatrical activity from cathedrals to open public places, arid in theatrical experience, a change from a sense of religious solemnity to the pursuit of popular taste. A significant development for the later Elizabethan drama was the mixing up of the solemn religious practices with the comic frivolities inherent in day to clay life.

Morality Plays

The later advances of English religious drama was in the form of a morality play which was, in turn, followed by interludes, the non-allegorical religious plays about earthly characters with a predominant satirical tone. The morality tradition is significant for the abstract characterization of several qualities, both good and vicious. The dramatic story is an allegory of the interplay of the forces of good and evil. The dramatic conflict, essentially between good and evil, leads to the inevitable victory of the good over evil, the former characterized by the strength of religion and the latter smarting under a comic impotence. The morality plays have a long history in England beginning with the fifteenth century and lasting the whole of the sixteenth century. The plays had to reckon with the growth of English nationalism, its political and economic power. More importantly, they had to come to terms with the tides of classical revival and the new humanist learning from Italy. The representative morality plays of the early Tudor period, like The Castle of Perseverance (1425), The  Pride of Life(1425) and Everyman(1 500) (translated from Dutch, the authors anonymous) survey human life from birth to death through the conflicts occurring between one of the cardinal virtues and the seven deadly sins. Social reality of human life was beneath the concern of the early morality play. Plays of the late period like impatient Poverty (anonymous, 1547-58), Lewis Wager's Mary Magdalene (1490), Nathaniel Woodes' The Conflicts of Conscience (1581 ), John Rastell's The Nature of the Four Elements (1517-27) largely dispense with the allegorical form, assume a protestant stance and deal with the issues of the upbringing  of the youth and the evils of social corruption. Significantly, these morality plays betray an awareness of the new age of Renaissance. its affluence and learning,  though the awareness particularizes the Christian formulation of the essential fallibility of man. The plays are substantially dramatic unlike the early morality plays and display, forcefully, the tenor of the English language.

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Rise of Elizabethan Tragedy and Comedy

The long years of the morality tradition, through the vicissitudes of church doctrine and the pressures of the new age, led to the evolution of the Elizabethan dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy. Though  biblical tradition presented dual  perspectives on the predicament of man, either of the comical insignificance or of sufferings,paralleling the generic perspectives of the subsequent comedy and tragedy, the Elizabethan tragedy or comedy, in the making, came to increasingly bear the secular burden of the times. The concern with human condition is the chief characteristic of Elizabethan drama. The growth of the new classicism or learning is definitely a major contributory factor but, more importantly, the socioeconomic and cultural growth of the nation made the focus on human material possible. If we look at the earliest English comedy, Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (1553) or the earliest tragedy written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, Gorboduc (1561), the Tudor setting and ethos is particularly striking notwithstanding the classical dramatically through which the plays take shape. The new blank verse, having unburdened metrical rigor generates a new literary freedom hitherto unknown. The new verse presents a heroic spirit in language, emotion and action.

Elizabethan Comedy

The Latin form, with its division into five acts, of the plays of Terence and Plautus structured English romantic comedy right from Ralph Roister Doister. The plays abounded in classical themes like love, intrigue and friendship and character types like the braggart lover, the parasite servant, and the scheming old man. The comedy developed into two distinct traditions of the romantic and the critical comedy. comedies like Udall's  Ralph Roister Doister, at that time romantic comedy grows through the court plays like Mother Bombie (1590) and Endimion (1583) and Lyly like Compaspe (1581), and Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1590) and culminates in Shakespeare's comedies like A Midsummer Night's Dreams (1595), As You Like It (1600) and Twelfth Night (1601). Primarily meant for aristocratic entertainment, romantic comedy pursues the theme of love--love as a blend of sentiment, foible, eccentricity, artifice, dedication and self-centeredness, Romantic love is more in the nature of the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. 

Melodramatic to the core and farcical in treatment, this comedy, set in a pastoral or old world ambience, evokes a romantic mood and an atmosphere of exhilaration, celebration, chivalry and enchantment. With song and imaginative idealism, romantic comedy provides an escape route into a world of fancy and imagination from the realities of life. The other tradition of comedy belongs to the redoubtable Ben Jonson who presented what are called the comedies of humour like Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). Essentially city comedies, Jonson evolves his plays as social purgatives to the prevalent moral degradation. Funny yet serious, the laughter evoked is carefully controlled. Falling back on the tradition of rogue fiction, Jonson's protagonists are rogues who succeed until the end b,y their ability to gull others for their avaricious needs. Their eventual failure is a moral corrective driven home forcefully by the playwright.

Elizabethan tragedy : THE SENECAN

The earliest inspiration for the English tragedy were the Latin plays of Seneca.The stage soliloquy of the Senecan plays that made certain plays of Thomas Kyd, Marlowe and Shakespeare extremely popular with the Elizabethan audience. The appeal of the blood letting Seneca to the Elizabethans, bred on the Christian morality tradition, is apparently strange and curious. But the Elizabethans were found a satisfying relation between the traditions of that time. F.P. Wilson sums up the Senecan appeal to the devout Elizabethans. The extent of his influence on English tragedy, academic and popular, would have not been so great if the themes, the doctrine and the form have not proved congenial. The Elizabethans would enjoy the impression which his tragedies gave that crime meets its punishment in this life. They had the same appetite, or at least the same stomach, for sensational incident and violent passion . . . Also they shared with him a taste for moral statement, for pity sentimental and love of rhetoric. His doctrine, it might be thought would have repelled a Christian audience but this was not so. The medieval contemptus mundi had held that we are born in sin linked to it before we are able to sin.. .'

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