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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


The Elizabethan and Jacobean Eras

Picture of Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth I. (5.15)

Historians frequently draw a distinction between the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, was the last of the Tudor family; the first was her grandfather, Henry VII. Elizabeth never married, and as she aged, her failure to provide an heir to the throne increasingly troubled her subjects. Eventually, Elizabeth arranged for her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland, to become James I of England; he governed both countries until his death in 1625.

The Elizabethan era was a time of relative hope and confidence. In the early seventeenth century, however, the national mood seems to have become tense and anxious, partially because James was not as skillful a ruler as Elizabeth. This period, called Jacobean from the Latin form of James's name, also is known as the early Stuart era after James's family name. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a cultural product of the reign of Elizabeth, yet many of his greatest plays were composed during the Jacobean era and reflect its pessimistic spirit.

English Renaissance Drama and Its Debt to the Past

Despite his stature as one of the greatest poets of all time, Shakespeare was not an isolated genius, for he worked in an age of great dramatists. Christopher Marlowe set the model that Shakespeare followed in writing tragedy, and Ben Jonson was Shakespeare's best known contemporary rival as a writer of comedy. As well as being the great popular entertainment of the age, stage plays gave the occasion for the fullest expression of one of its major insights: that life is inherently theatrical and that to be human is to play a variety of roles.

Emphasizing rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion, the typical Renaissance education encouraged self-dramatization. Modern students read and write essays in composition courses; Renaissance students read and wrote speeches, learning to elaborate wittily on set topics and to improvise in different voices. The key to classical education was imitation; the theory was that imitating the great writers of the past improved one's own writing. Many of the model speeches Elizabethan schoolchildren imitated were Latin orations and dialogues. As a result, the curriculum planned by humanist scholars in the early days of Henry VIII trained students to think in terms of dramatic situations and seems to have contributed directly to the unprecedented outpouring of dramatic writing during Elizabeth's reign.

Outside the schoolroom, a homegrown dramatic heritage and nationalistic pride created a uniquely English age of great drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the Middle Ages, a native theatre developed. By the fifteenth century, sequences of plays representing biblical accounts of Christian religious history, from the creation of Adam and Eve through the Last Judgment, were performed annually by townspeople on portable stages set up in town streets. Craft guilds, the precursors of modern trade unions, produced plays which dealt with their professional skills, or mysteries.(1) Moving swiftly from episode to episode, these cycles of short plays shift scenes about from one end of the earth to the other, mixing comic and tragic material and high- and low-born characters as well as depicting physical agony. While Shakespeare's generation was growing up, the mystery cycles were still popular, and Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists clearly borrowed many structural elements from the genre. Thus Shakespeare and his contemporaries were influenced by the rhetoric of classical drama; at the same time, they largely rejected its structure.

Instead of observing the unities of action, place, and time, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama depends on the audience's ability to discover parallelisms in a variety of apparently unlike characters, events, and scenes. Audiences used to watching mystery plays understood a kind of unity different from that presented by the Greek drama in which the action of a single plot often takes place in one day in front of an unchanging palace. The Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences found unity in diversity; they understood that different plots unfolding simultaneously could still have a fundamental relation to one another.

Another kind of medieval drama, the morality play, influenced Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights too. Also religious in origin, moralities present allegorical characters who personify abstract qualities rather than individual human personalities. The most famous morality play, Everyman, demonstrates the special qualities of the form. At the beginning of the play, Death appears on the stage and summons Everyman. After failing to argue his way out of the unavoidable, Everyman seeks company on his journey to death. Only a character named Good Deeds descends with him into his grave. The moral is clear. Deserted by Goods, Beauty, Strength, and the like, every man must ultimately accept the responsibility for his life. The message seems grim, but, like the mystery plays, morality plays have humor and charm as well as a message. For example, when Everyman asks his friends and relatives to go with him, Fellowship offers instead to take him out drinking and Cousin gives a novel excuse: "No, by Our Lady! I have the cramp in my toe."

The Elizabethan Stage

Picture of The New Globe, London.
The New Globe, London. (5.16)

The physical conditions in which plays were first presented explain a great deal about their methods of representing reality; probably the most important fact about the theatres Shakespeare wrote for is that they promoted intimate contact between the spectators and the players. These theatres were many-sided wooden buildings containing several circular tiers of seats surrounding a huge platform stage(2) that extended far into the ground-floor area that Americans call the orchestra. Known as the pit, this section in Elizabethan theatres was empty and open to the skies; the roof of the theatre covered only the seats in the balconies around the perimeter of the building and the tiring house (for attiring), where actors changed clothes. The cheapest way to see a play was to stand in the pit: standees were called groundlings.

Picture of 19th Century conception of Juliet.
19th Century conception of Juliet. (5.17)

The playing area was multi-leveled, with at least two doors for exits and entrances on the main stage level, some sort of upper area (where characters enter "above," according to stage directions, as does Juliet onto her balcony), and an area underneath the stage floor accessible through one or more trapdoors (where, for example, the actor playing the Ghost of Hamlet's father walked while he called out "Swear"). These three levels were colloquially referred to as heaven, earth, and hell--traditionally the places of action in the medieval drama. The sense of life as a play was so basic to Renaissance thought and so concretely embodied in this theatrical model of the universe that the playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays was called the Globe.

Picture of Laurence Olivier as Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew.
Laurence Olivier as Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew. (5.18)

To modern theatregoers, the Globe might seem to have had very little to offer. The physical limitations of the Elizabethan theatre certainly would distract those in today's audiences who expect theatre to give an illusion of reality. For example, the theatre's open roof which illuminated the stage with natural light precluded any kind of special lighting effects. Surrounded by members of the audience, the stage had no curtain. Scenery, infrequently used to begin with, was quickly carried on and off before the eyes of the viewers. However, Shakespeare's plays, written for this non-illusionistic realm, capitalize on its palpable artificiality. To the Renaissance mind, a bare stage was an ideal medium for creation, an opportunity rather than a constraint. Members of the audience knew that paying close attention to every spoken line and every action would give them their bearings. The dialogue in Renaissance drama always carries clues about the locale of the action, while elaborate costumes and portable props also conveyed important scenic information. For example, kings in their formal robes were assumed to be in their courts. When characters came on stage in their nightgowns, or in traveling outfits, the audience mentally supplied the appropriate time or place.

The Globe had no place for passive spectators. Rather than relax in front of a screen, the audiences at Elizabethan and Jacobean performances were actively engaged in the drama. Although the viewers did not walk around on the stage, the vast platform in their midst involved them in the action and required them to exercise their imaginations. The audience and the players in effect cooperated, agreeing for a few hours to believe that the artificial was real, but without ever losing an awareness of the distinction between the two.

When an actor spoke an aside, three thousand people in the Globe heard him. Nevertheless, the audience, like the other actors on the stage, pretended that someone standing a foot away could not be hear the remark. Speaking out loud in asides and in soliloquies(3) exposed internal reactions, private plans, or musings, and, most importantly, involved audiences. If the audience collaborated with the actors, the characters reached out to the audience. Shakespearean actors frequently talked to the spectators, who were then involved in the actors' plans. Often referring to their fictional selves as actors or playwrights, Shakespearean characters created fictions within a fiction--a "mirror" held up to reflect "nature," as Hamlet suggests.

This interplay between art and nature provided a constant source of dramatic subjects for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. By modern standards, the most artificial element of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is the assumption of all female roles by boys or men, but costumes, wigs, and cosmetics made such transformations sufficiently convincing for audiences to accept the boy actors' characterizations. More to the point, however, the plays constantly exploit the tension between actor and role, reminding us (as a character in Shakespeare's As You Like It announces) that "all the world's a stage." In every era, in fact, theatergoers honor a set of conventions, or substitutions of the artificial for the real: for example, Sophocles' Oedipus wears a mask; Shakespeare's women are played by boys; on Broadway today, cats and railroad cars sing and dance. Audiences through the ages have learned to suspend disbelief.

The Language of Shakespeare

The most powerful Shakespearean device for creating theatrical illusion is language. When modern American students complain that Shakespeare's language "gets in the way," they express an understandable frustration. Renaissance English, that product of formal schooling in rhetoric, is certainly more ornate than modern English. Yet even in the Renaissance, no one ever spoke a language as complicated as Shakespearean verse.

Keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote for actors, not readers. In the theatre, one may miss verbal nuances or the meanings of whole sentences and still understand situations and characters. Individual words often are unintelligible; writing before the first English dictionary was published in 1604 and before definitions and grammar rules were firmly set, Shakespeare simply invented many words, some of which appear nowhere else. But the words are understandable because they occur in a context.

Although often an obstacle, the language of Shakespeare's plays ultimately transmits both the nature of the characters as individuals and the larger thematic implications of their actions. When we read an unfamiliar play, we try first to figure out the plot. Yet the storyline is actually the play's least Shakespearean component. In the Renaissance, artistic originality in itself was not important; Shakespeare and his contemporaries generally borrowed from existing narrative sources, often histories and biographies as well as popular tales, and sometimes adapted older plays. Observing the changes they introduced into their borrowed plots reminds us that dramatic storytelling differs significantly from its narrative counterpart. Playwrights can afford to sacrifice coherent circumstantial explanations. Theatre exists in time and in the midst of a performance, caught up in the action, audiences rarely stop to question motivation or probability. Dramatic characters express themselves by what they do before our eyes and say within our hearing. So we must both watch them closely and listen to them well.

To a certain extent, Shakespearean verbal techniques may be appreciated by listening sensitively to the speech of dramatic characters. If characters are unusually silent, or if their words and sentence constructions are complicated and difficult, there is probably a reason why. Although much can be understood simply from listening carefully, an analysis of Shakespearean dialogue requires more than common sense. The dialogue is often figurative rather than literal: characters speak in metaphors that must be deciphered to appreciate their meanings fully. In this sense, readers have some advantages over spectators, for readers can stop and re-read difficult passages, and study the effect created by substituting similes and metaphors for direct statements. Consider, for example, the peculiar metaphor used by King Lear's second daughter, Regan, when she and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, explain their unexpected late-night visit to the Duke of Gloucester's castle:

CORNWALL: You know not why we came to visit you,--
REGAN: Thus out of season, threading dark-eyed night. . .

Regan's phrase conjures up a horrifying image of a pierced eyeball; anyone who knows King Lear will immediately perceive that this fragment of a conversation creates an atmosphere for events yet to occur, in this case, the blinding of a sympathetic character. By beginning with "out of season," Regan's lines introduce a sense of untimely deeds breaking the accustomed order of nature; in addition, the lines express Regan's latent violence. Not only are Shakespearean characters revealed through their words, but also the imagery of their speeches contributes to a thematic design that transcends the characters' personalities.

The rapidly changing and growing English language of Shakespeare's times encouraged a taste for puns, like-sounding words with several meanings, each of which works in the sentence, often to contradictory effect. For instance, Hamlet's first line puns on his strange relationship to the uncle who is now his stepfather, who calls him both "cousin" and "son": "A little more than kin and less than kind." This one line sums up Hamlet's reaction to the man who usurped his father's place on the throne of Denmark and in his mother's bed. Hamlet's pun on "kind" (which in 1600 meant "natural" as well as "gentle" or "sympathetic"), signals his readiness to threaten Claudius with unkindness.

The Breakdown of Order

The two examples above each hint at something unnatural, a distortion of normal relationships that lies at the heart of Shakespearean tragedy. The great scientific discoveries of the Renaissance proved that the universe was more diverse and more difficult than had been thought previously. If heavenly bodies moved, if stars exploded, if whole continents suddenly could be discovered, then the world was an unstable place. Over and above the common European experience of political instability, the specific crises of English history, shocks to the political and religious systems that had seemed to guarantee order, added to the confusion. Newness may be exciting. It can also be frightening.

Written between 1601 and 1607, Shakespeare's major tragedies--Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth--address the questions that puzzled Jacobean England. The plays test both classical and biblical beliefs and focus on the dark side of Renaissance achievement. The Shakespearean tragic world harbors faithless lovers, corrupt courtiers, and treacherous politicians in an atmosphere so tainted with decay that no heroic exploit can achieve reform.

Threatening all the old virtues are villainous forces in whom the secular, rationalistic tendencies of the Renaissance flourish, unchecked by any spiritual grace. Evil characters, frequently called Machiavels, combine some English misconceptions of the historical Machiavelli with traces of the Lucifer of the mystery plays and the Vices (comic tempters opposed to Virtues) in the morality plays. Supremely rational beings, these characters know what they want and how to get it. With humor and energy, a Machiavel often confides his desires to the audience. At first he appears to be attractive; he seems direct, uncomplicated, down-to-earth, while around him are distracted, even muddled figures who seem not to know their own best interests.

Shakespeare's first version of this character type is Richard of Gloucester, who is introduced in an early series of plays about the turmoil that led to the accession of Henry Tudor. Shakespeare titled Richard III, the fourth and final play in this sequence, for this character. At the end of the previous play, Henry VI, Part Three, Richard explains himself to the audience. As Richard defines his talents, notice how, in typically Renaissance fashion, his speech assimilates classical and contemporary references:

Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.

3 Henry VI (3.2.182-95)

 What the Machiavel excels in is destruction. At the end of Shakespearean tragedy, many--Machiavels and heroes among them--lie dead. The sweep of time that led to the triumph of good over evil in the Last Judgment plays of the mystery cycles, however, seems to stop short. The question at the conclusion of King Lear may stand for the unanswerable questions that conclude the other tragedies too: "Is this the promised end?"


(1) The Shipwrights' Guild, for example, acted the play of Noah and his building of the Ark.

(2) Roughly 43 feet wide by 27 feet deep. These dimensions made it possible to suggest both great distance from events and close contact with them, according to where the actors stood.

(3) Speeches delivered by characters who are alone on stage.