Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century

By Kent Cartwright | Go to book overview

4
Time, tyranny, and suspense in political drama
of the 1560s

The early 1560s mark a watershed in Tudor drama, when both popular and humanist theatre exploit an affective, psychological dramaturgy. In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot, in The Boke named the Gouernour, argued that literary images of virtue can so inflame the heart as to stir readers to moral emulation. By the 1580s, however, antitheatricalists such as Stephen Gosson could charge that drama's excitement of spectator' passions outstrips its influence upon their ethics. That new distrust of drama's emotive power may have been well founded, for English playwrights in the 1560s elaborated audience-arousing strategies: variety; fantasy; wish fulfillment; spectacle; and, not least, time-related devices such as anticipation, retrospection, and expansion or compression of action–leading to a new quality of suspense. Emotional and psychological effects become increasingly important to theatrical meaning, a change that includes both popular and humanist drama and suggests that these presumably separate traditions may share affective common ground.

The 1560s, of course, mark a watershed in Tudor history: Elizabeth's ascension; the reinstitution of Protestantism; the end of religious burnings; the Marian exile' return; the expansion of humanism; and the emergence of political, religious, and intellectual leaders of a new generation. These realignments encouraged political reconsiderations on the stage. Thus one common theme of early Elizabethan plays–including Cambisesc. 1561), Gorboduc (1562), Appius and Virginiac. 1564), Damon and Pithias (1564), Jocasta (1566), Gismond of Salernec. 1566), and Horestes (S. R. 1567)–is tyranny. 1 With the exploration of tyranny comes a collateral dramatic interest in court counsellors, trials, executions, and moral dilemmas about civic responsibility in a monarchy. Released from Mary's regime, Elizabethans embraced a new sense

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