The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The age of Shakespeare was an exciting one in which to be a dramatist. The sixteenth century witnessed an explosion in the dramatic arts, with new styles of theatre emerging.
Theatre in the middle ages was quite unlike the theatre of Shakespeare’s day. Folk plays, or ‘mummings’, about heroes like St George, battles and dragons, treated secular themes, but much other medieval drama had a strong religious ethos. Medieval mystery plays, for example, dramatised Biblical events, while morality plays allegorised the human struggle to choose between vice and virtue. Drama could be associated with Christian feast days, and was not performed in permanent theatres, but in public or private buildings, in open spaces like churchyards, on temporary structures like ‘scaffolds’ and pageant wagons, or in the street. Plays were often of composite or anonymous authorship, and some plays, like the mystery plays and the mummings, were performed not by professional actors but by ordinary townsfolk.
During and after the Reformation, the drama began to change. Genres like tragedy, comedy and satire replaced the mystery and morality plays of the middle ages. Playwrights experimented with forms borrowed from classical authors, studying the tragedies of Seneca and the comedies of Terence and Plautus. Plots and characters were taken from a range of sources. Shakespeare, for example, read medieval chronicles, classical drama and poetry, narratives of travel and the colonisation of the New World, and the romances and legends of earlier centuries, mining them for material he could recycle into dramatic form. In this period, the identity of the individual playwright became important, and dramatists like Kyd, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson were developing their own distinctive writing styles.
New themes appeared as well. Love between men and women was a theme adaptable either to comedy, or to tragedies such as Othello or Antony and Cleopatra. History and politics were also of great interest in an age of strong rulers, Elizabeth I and James VI and I. Ideas about the power of monarchs and the burdens and dangers of kingship were explored in history plays, or in tragedies like King Lear. Jacobean revenge drama examined not only the ethics but also the psychology of revenge and aggression. The shift in focus from religious to humanist values led to the creation of the flawed hero, embodied in characters like Hamlet, Lear and Othello, and the Machiavellian villain, as for example Iago or Edmund.
As it expanded and gained prominence, the drama required spaces of its own. Theatres like Burbage’s Theatre and the Globe were built in London, reflecting the new status of and interest in dramatic performance. In their turn, the theatres created a demand for new plays to be performed in them, and this helped support the careers of the playwrights. The appearance of the theatres and the existence of professional acting companies (composed, until the latter half of the seventeenth century, only of men and boys), showed that plays, players and playwrights had become an established part of the contemporary scene.
Happé, Peter, English Drama Before Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1999)