Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama

Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama

Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama

Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama

Excerpt

Among the plays treated in this volume, Gammer Gurton's Needle and Cambises may be viewed as a kind of prologue, a promise of things to come. Within a few decades, the plays of Lyly and Marlowe began to appear on the London stage. An alert young man of twenty-one who, in 1584, saw the first performance of Lyly's first play, could have seen all the plays of Lyly, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, and Greene while still in his twenties, and the best of the plays of Jonson, Heywood, Dekker, Marston, Webster, Chapman, Middleton, Tourneur, and Beaumont and Fletcher before he had passed his forties. Meanwhile he could have seen all the plays of Shakespeare, and hundreds more by a score of other playwrights. The prime of Elizabethan drama fitted a span no longer than the prime of a single human life.

My task is to say something about the criticism of this drama, but first a word about its nature and early standing. After centuries of slow preparation, the sudden flowering of the 1580's and the teeming fruitfulness of the next few decades are a marvel of cultural history. This drama has sometimes proved too pungent for classical tastes, but no one has been able to deny at least its plenitude, vitality, and infinite variety. It is deadly to appraise art in terms of the average, since whatever endures is whatever excels the average, but an Elizabethan play chosen almost at random shows certain admirable traits. It will be "dramatic" in the root sense, full of "doings," full enough indeed to furnish out a dozen modern plays. It will be richly peopled, projecting many characters in sharp contrast with each other. It will be truly dialectal, in the sense that the speech will seem to . . .

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