Drama in the Elizabethan Age

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Drama in the Elizabethan Age: the prose and poetry of the Renaissance were intended for intellectual and refined people; for this reason they didn’t come “popular” literature. Instead drama became the national literary manifestation of the time, thanks to numerous elements:
-The Theatres were open to everybody, both aristocratic classes and lower ones;
-People who were unable to read and write could understand the plays;
-the theatre-going habit was widespread;
-Humanism had introduced a new interest in classical drama;
-there were many talented playwrights;
-the commercial potential of the theatre was very great;
-the theatre was patronized by the court and the aristocracy;
-the shape of the theatre and stage was functional from a dramatic point of view;
-the language used in plays was more direct and alive than that of poetry and prose;
-Elizabethan England was in itself quite “theatrical”; besides the theatre was considered a true mirror of society.
Society: during the Elizabethan Age, the society was characterized by a great variety of people: Catholics, Puritans, scientists, nobles, merchants, etc. Each class played an important part which was connected with its individual social status.
The old conception was even more necessary thanks to the need for order and stability in the Elizabethan Age. Society had to mirror the divine order of the universe, inside which man had to respect a precise hierarchy, at the top of which was God, followed by angels, men, animals, and inanimate objects. This model was riproduced in every “kingdom” of life, in each of which there was a “god”: the king among men, the lion among animals, the rose among flowers, gold among metals, etc.
Man and nature: this idea of a social order in imitation of the divine one was the basis of the world’s vision presents in Elizabethan theatre. In fact drama derived from the breaking of this order, since any action, that upset the harmonius balance of the universe was “dramatic” in itself.
The new Elizabethan “hero”, full of passion and doubts, replaced the old allegorical character, providing new material for drama. In this way the relationship between the laws of man and those of nature was strongly emphasized.
For example storms and other prodigious phenomena, that symbolized disharmony in the universe, now represented a consequence of criminal actions which brought chaos and anarchy to society.
Language: even the language was influenced by the concept of hierarchy. For example to compare a monarch to the sun or to lion meant under-lined his precise role stressing his power.
The use of metaphors was very diffused in the Elizabethan theatre, which had borrowed them from poetry with blank verse, which became the verse form most frequently used for plays.The blank verse, thanks to the use of stichomythia, sounded like real speech. This was very important because, unlike the French and Italian plays of the time, which were written to be read, the English ones were written to be performed, and performance needed convincing language.
Theatre: up to 1576 plays were acted at inns, on a platform raised in the yard, which was surrounded by galleries.
These performances were very successful, and so in 1576 the actor and carpenter James Burbage decided to build the first public playhouse, called “the theatre”. After that, Burbage’s theatre was followed by many other, the most famous of theese was “ The Globe”.
Stage: the theatres had certain main features in common. They were designed as large wooden structures, circular or ortogonal in shape, with three tiers of galleries which surrounded a yard, open to the sky. Into this yard was a roofed stage (Outer stage) raised about five feet from the ground, where most of the action was performed. Behind this was a curtain which could be drown revealing a second stage (Inner stage) for smaller scenes. Over the back of the outer stage there was a third space (Upper stage) used by musicians or to represent a balcony or the walls of a town. The characters entered and disappeared through two doors on either side of the curtain, or through a trap-door opening on the floor of the outer stage. There could be simple objects which symbolized a place or the role of an actor: a table stood for a room; a bush in a vase for a forest; a crown for a king.
Audience: performances started at two o’ clock in the afternoon because needed light of sun and lasted about for two hours. To go and stand in the yard cost 1 penny, and sit in one of the galleries cost 2 pennies. The nobles, who paid 12 pence, could sit on the stage, while the “groundlings”, who paid one penny, united around its three open sides.
Advantages: this had many advantages:
-the large audience’s attention wasn’t distracted by the setting, but was concentred on the play;
-the playwright was able to introduce scenes that didn’t need to change the scenary;
-the audience were personally involved in the performance: in fact they could imagine what was not provided by the scenary;
-there was comunication between audience and actors.
Although an Act of 1572 still classed actors as vagabonds, they were usually real professionals, able to play more than one role, since their companies were small in size.
Women were replaced by boy-actors, because they weren’t admitted on the stage. The costumes were wonderful and expensive 16th-century dresses, worn even in roles such as Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra.
The same Act of 1572 also stated that all actors had to have a patron, whom they found among nobles or in the person of the queen herself. The playwrights were able to produce plays which enjoyed both their patrons and the crowd, that filled the theatres.
Besides they fused the classical tradition of Plautus, Terence and Seneca with the national one of moralities and interludes.
Plautus influenced comedy. The first English comedy written by Nicholas Udall , was in fact based on Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus. Instead Seneca influenced the tragedy. The Elizabethan tragedy was influenced also by Machiavelli.
The most important Senecan characteristics are:
-division of the play into 5 acts;
-the presence of sticomythia;
-sanguinary plots and bloody scenes;
-an atmosphere of horror and the presence of ghosts;
-tragic declamation and long monologues.
University Wits: durino the Elizabethan Age there was the dramatic production of a great number of playwrights who transformed the old medieval plays into new forms. They were young men who had a university education from Oxford and Cambridge bunched under the name of the University Wits. The most important of them was Christopher Marlowe.
-The Elizabethan theatre was the product of a perfect fusion of traditional elements, thanks to the influence of medieval drama, and classical elements through the influence of Seneca and Plauto.
-There was a mixture of comic and tragic elements in the same play;
-Drama lost its old function of catharsis, and became more deeply concentrated on the moral conflict between good and evil;
-The fate was replaced by free and personal chiose, according to the new spirit of the time.
Life: Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564. He studied at Canterbury and then at Cambridge. After that he almost certainly became a secret agent for the Qeen.
After leaving Cambridge, he went to live in London, where he made connections with a group of young intellectuals. Accused of murder, he was imprisoned but soon released.
Because of his dissolute life, his freethinking and his alleged profession of atheism, he was considered dangerous: for this reason the Privy Council decided to arrest him. Before he could be arrested Marlowe was killed in a tavern in 1593. Many persons believed that his death was not accidental but “planned” for political reasons.
- Tamburlaine The Great
- Doctor Faustus
-The jew of Malta
- Edward II
- Hero and Leander (long epic poem unfinished).
Translation from Ovid and Lucan.
The Themes present in Marlowe’s plays are:
-Thirsty of power, which can be reached through political greatness or unlimited knowledge or immense wealth;
-The aspiration to surpass human limits, becoming a superman;
-The rebellion against institutions;
-Unlimited ambition without any sense of morality;
-The final sense of solitude;
-The ideal of beauty.
Features:the main features of Marlowe’s works:
-His characters present normally one facet only; they show passionate exaltation through their hostile attitude of rebellion against human limits;
-He made better blank verse; he evaded the monotony of plays varying the stresses, and breaking up the lines with rhythmic pauses;
-He gave form and stability to the drama: in fact he united different scenes with a logical trend forming in this way the complete parabola of a man’s life (following a logical trend from the initial search for power to the climax of ambition and ultimate destruction; these were no longer isolated scenes, but formed the complete parabola of a man’s life);
-He appreciated the effects of colour and, like a painter, described such effects as the brillians of precious stones, the glitter of gold;
-Because of his passional nature, he used a language sometimes turgid, rich in iperbole, although generally characterized by a deep artistic instinct;
-He was the first writer to interpret the discovery of the New World in philosophical terms.
Tamburlaine:is divided into two parts. In the first the author describes Tamburlaine’s rise from poor Scythian shepherd to conqueror of the world through his force of character but also by massacres and other forms of cruelty. This part ends with hero’s triumph.
The second part, written after the success of the first, shows other horrors and excesses, after the death of Tamburlaine’s wife. In the end Tamburlaine burns the Koran and dares Mahomet to come on the Earth to revenge himself. After that Tamburlaine feels “distempered” and dies, regretting what still remains of the world to be discovered and conquered.