This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625

This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625

This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625

This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625

Synopsis

The later years of Elizabeth and the reign of James I were the age of Shakespeare, but the age also of Sidney, Spenser, and Donne, of fellow dramatists Marlowe, Jonson, and Webster, and of the prose writers Nashe, Bacon, and Burton. This book examines the social conditions that produced this uniquely dazzling array of talent, and relates them closely to the literature of the period. Politically, 1580-1625 was a period of comparative stability, but men's lives were constantly threatened by plague, famine, or even casual violence; a sudden population rise added problems of inflation and unemployment. Writers struggling to earn a living needed either to please the court, with its wealthy and influential patrons, or else to score a popular success with London's new theatre-going public. The establishment itself was actively engaged in promoting ideals of order, hierarchy and centralized authority, while religious reformers urged men to heed the promptings of the spirit, and humanist schoolmasters introduced the young to the pagan culture of ancient Rome, its erotic poetry, and its republican sentiments. New ideas were in the air and sceptical, sometimes iconoclastic attitudes were widely expressed: a constant theme in the literature of the age was man's simultaneous greatness and littleness, the dramatic antitheses contained within him and acted out upon what Raleigh called `this stage-play world'. This extensively revised new edition also includes two new chapters which examine the role of women, the family, travellers and `outsiders' within the social and literary contexts of the period. It also contains textual notes and a fully updated bibliography.

Excerpt

This Stage-Play World was originally written to introduce students of Renaissance literature to its social, political, and cultural context, and to introduce history students to a literature that gives thrilling and powerful expression to thought and life in early modern England. My chief difficulty, then and now, lay in the substantial differences between the two subjects and their different methodologies, between 'two different kinds of categorization of human experience . . . unhomologous systematic constructions put upon interpenetrating subject-matters'. Since this book was first published in 1983, a great deal of critical attention has focused upon Renaissance texts and the conditions that produced them: in what follows, I have tried to give some impression of the main lines of argument.

To read Renaissance literature in the aftermath of New Criticism was to rediscover the importance of historical context, and the kind of insight it could give into the production and operation of literary texts. History offered political ideas and an engagement that had been exiled from critical practice: the radical sympathies of Christopher Hill, or the Cambridge history of ideas and political thought opened new perspectives on Shakespeare and Jacobean drama. At the same time, the history of early modern England was itself transformed in the 1970s by a series of invigorating new accounts, notably Peter Burke on popular culture (1978), Margaret Spufford on Protestantism and the reading public (1974, 1981), Quentin Skinner on political thought (1978), Lawrence Stone on education, the aristocracy and the family (1964, 1977), Sir Keith Thomas on religion and popular belief (1971), Keith Wrightson on social history (1982), and Penry Williams's overview of the Tudor regime (1979)--this list is by no means inclusive. While these books reflected a range of political attitudes, they shared a sense of the period as one of dynamic change working at a variety of levels within society . . .

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