Of Plays and Playwrights in Elizabethan England

by Jim Farrar (1986)

It is generally agreed that the Elizabethan age, along with the golden age of Athens, forms the world's great period of dramatic writing. A bare wooden platform, the only tool at the Elizabethan dramatist's disposal, was truly an inconvenience, but it was also a great challenge, and a handful of great writers rose to meet that challenge with an astonishingly large number of superb plays.

By 1590, in fact, the English theatre had been transformed. Miracle plays and interludes were replaced by tragedies and comedies.

In addition, prior to the 1570's, plays had been performed in no specific place, or, rather, they were being performed in any place that they could be performed, such as innyards or even town squares.

It was James Burbage who legitimized the English theatre, so to speak, by obtaining royal permission to build a permanent theater at Shoreditch in 1576 (Fido 23).

As a result of Burbage's efforts, the theater became a vital entity that demanded a talented force of writers to sustain. The void was filled by a group of young whose Oxford education and brilliance had given them the name "the University Wits." They dictated the form of British Drama, developing during the 1580's the flexible instrument of blank verse, grand rhetoric, low comedy, and banter that Shakespeare would inherit and take to even greater heights.

The Oxford men among the Wits were Jon Lyly, George Peele, and Thomas Lodge. Among the Cambridge men were Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe (Fido 26).

By all accounts, Marlowe was the most important writer of pre-Shakespearean drama. Young, freethinking, ambitious (not to mention homosexual), Marlowe astounded London theatergoers with spectacle and Machiavellian politics in Tamburlaine the Great (Fido 26).

Another writer who made a major contribution to the drama that Shakespeare came upon was Thomas Kyd.

Kyd was not a great writer. His most successful play was The Spanish Tragedy, remarkable only for its incapacity to restrain sensationalism from degenerating into pathos. Ghosts, murders, distraught lovers, madness, and revenge were all packed into this play--it would inspire Shakespeare to write Hamlet several years later--which remained immensly popular for almost fifteen years after its premiere in 1592 (Drabble 924).

Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, Ben Jonson was probably his most successful professional rival. Jonson was a robust and vigourous man. A good friend of Shakespeare's, he was considered by most contemporaries to be the better writer of the two (Fido 81). He had a talent that Shakespeare could not match for creating farcical situation comedy. What he lacked, however, was Shakespeare's hint of melancholy, his realism and humanity, beneath the surface of his comedy, which combine to give an ethereal quality to much of his work.

Critics will tell you that Jonson's characters are closer to caricature than are Shakespeare's. Good farce, powered by lust and avarice was Jonson's talent (Fido 81). Idyllic comedy revolving around love and misunderstanding was Shakespeare's.

Stage plays were most certainly the most popular form of entertainment in Elizabethan England. Thousands of them were written between the opening of Burbage's first theater, just outside of London, in 1576, and the closing of the second Globe Theatre in 1642.

Most Elizabethan playhouses were crude affairs, with no scenery to speak of to embellish the scenes that were presented upon them.

As a result, Elizabethan playwrights conceived and wrote their dramas in terms of the peculiarities of the theater in which they worked. This dictated the structure of Elizabethan plays in several important ways.

Since there was no curtain that could cut off the stage from the audience, there was no way of separating scene from scene so that the audience might prepare itself for a change of locale or a lapse of time. Because of this, Elizabethan playwrights employed "separation scenes," which were basically short scenes designed to indicate the passage of time between two longer, more important scenes, the function of which was to allow the audience to envision or feel a change of locale or a lapse of time (Grebanier 298). Had Shakespeare had at his disposal the use of the modern curtain, odds are he probably would never have written many of his shorter scenes.

Also, the soliloquy became an expedient means of communicating private information to the audience (Grebanier 298). This was because the audience was, by its very proximity to the actors on the stage, very much a part of the play. Aside from the fact that the actors could see the spectators, the absence of artificial lighting dictating that plays be performed during the daylight hours, the audience was also an acknowledged part of the action of the drama being performed. An actor had only to move to the front of the apron and talk directly to the people standing directly below him as if taking them into his confidence. At the end of each soliloquy he had but to take a few steps back to resume the action of the play.

Since there was no scenery, the Elizabethan dramatist seems, more often than not, not to have asked himself whether any given scene was taking place in a particular room or street. Why should he? Stage directions in Shakespeare's plays have been added by latter-day editors. It seems that Shakespeare, as well as his contemporaries, was totally unconcerned about where a particular scene (although there are a few exceptions, which is implied or directly stated in his characters' language) was taking place, which, it can be argued, gives Shakespeare's plays in particular, their peculiar feeling of openness and timelessness.

Because of this absence of a curtain in Elizabethan drama, scene followed scene without intermission (Grebanier 299). In this respect, the Elizabethan stage had the advantage over our contemporary stage in that it allowed its plays to proceed without interruption. The plays would feed upon themselves, in a sense, gathering power as they did so, which is an aspect that seems particularly effective when considering the nature of tragedy and what it is supposed to do to an audience, which, namely, is to evoke a strong emotional response. Something can be said for relentlessness in this regard, which is why many modern dramatists are returning to this more traditional form (all things being relative) of writing plays without an intermission and, to a lesser extent, I suppose, it also accounts for the popularity and emotive power of the one-act play.

For the same reason, since there was no scenery to change, there was no reason why there should not be a limited number of scenes in any given act. When the inner stage was needed, no time was wasted, for all that had to be done was to open the inner stage curtain, and at the conclusion of that scene close it again.

In essence, then, the limitations of the Elizabethan stage dictated the structure of the plays that were performed upon them. This has always been the case with drama, more or less. Even today, plays are often written in accordance or consideration of the type of theater, as well as its technical capabilities, in which it will be performed.

Works Cited

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Fido, Martin. Shakespeare. Maplewood, NJ: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1978.

Grebanier, Bernard. Playwriting: How to Write for the Theater. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1961.

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