Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism

By Ernest William Talbert | Go to book overview
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Some General Considerations

THE PRESENT STUDY is concerned with Shakespeare's dramas written from about 1590 to 1595-96 and with some plays by his early contemporaries. Very few of them are negligible as dramatic art. The point of view that will be preserved in the following pages is based essentially upon a single consideration. Before these dramas could be read in quarto or folio, they were seen and heard in performance; and thus their authors must have been concerned with the likely effect of their art upon an Elizabethan audience. As a result, the intricate discussions of possible strata in the dramas and the many revealing studies of their sources are not considered in any detail. In the first place, others have pointed out the well-founded objections to the theory of continuous copy. Here it is assumed, for example, that each play by Shakespeare, as it has survived in a form other than that given by the bad quartos, represents a dramatic development that was determined by him or at least acceptable to him. 1 In the second place, it is assumed that an Elizabethan audience, however aware it might be of the result, would not be aware, in general, of the way in which the authors followed or changed their sources, even though an individual spectator might be familiar with that material. The basic point of view of the following chapters is that for drama especially, "literature exists not only in expressing a thing; it equally exists in the receiving of the thing expressed." 2 At least Shakespeare, who was an actor as well as a playwright, must have been aware of this. Certainly he, as well as some of his early contemporaries, pleased Elizabethan audiences and molded their expectations.

At the outset, then, it seems well to note a few characteristics of the age that were so general and so obviously pertinent to the drama that they need little discussion. Elizabethan patriotism and Elizabethan animosity toward Rome could be useful tools for creating enthusiasm or hatred of situations and characters; and upon such grounds some of the following discussions of particular scenes rest. 3

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