English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare

English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare

English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare

English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare


Shakespeare is usually set apart from his contemporaries, in kind no less than quality. This book, the long-awaited final volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, sees Elizabethan drama as drawn together by a shared need to deal with contradictory pressures from heterogeneous audiences, censorious authorities, profit driven managers, and authors looking for classic status and social esteem. Hunter follows the compromises and contradictions of the Elizabethan repertory, examining how Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were able to move easily from vulgar realism to poetic transcendence.


This present volume completes the Oxford History of English Literature Series, the earliest volumes of which were published in 1945. The space of time between the first volume and the last has seen a revolution (or even a series of revolutions) in the notion of what literary history is or should be about (if it is allowed that it should exist at all), so that it may be in order (without engaging in a retrospective survey) to give some explanation how the present volume relates to a context that could not have been envisaged by the originators.

The first author designated for this volume was ProfessorF. P. Wilson . When Wilsondied in 1963, I was asked if I would see through the press the interconnected chapters he had written (which I did) and then if I would consider carrying on the project from 1586 to 1642. The latter I declined to do. Some twenty years later the Press asked me to reconsider my decision, and this led me to wonder if the contradictions between history and literature (as I had seen it) could be understood as a challenge rather than an impasse. I believed that, sheltering under the aegis of Tolstoy rather than Ranke, I could use a plurality of historical perspectives to fit together the plays I had to consider, without glossing over their particular and diverse functions as art and entertainment.

Wishing to give proper space to these functions, I have used terms that allow for continuity in aesthetic interest between that time and this. I have allowed anachronistic words like 'theatre' and 'author' to intermingle with the more accurate 'playhouse' and (poet'. I have used the word 'Elizabethan' to refer to the whole period from 1584 to 1642. Dates are regularized from 'Old Style' to 'New Style'. Quotations are everywhere modernized. The presence of Shakespeare in the company I have to deal with has, of course, threatened to unbalance the whole enterprise. I have therefore assumed a general knowledge of his wuvre and used his plays as a means of delineating what he shared with the whole movement to which he belonged rather than as philosophical or political statements to be elucidated out of the historical context.

G. K. H.

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