Part One discusses the characteristics of the Elizabethan-Jacobean style of playwriting. Next we will look at the theatres, the acting and the direction of plays in this period. This is followed by a review of the life and works of William Shakespeare, other major writers of this time and their most famous plays.
Two great influences, the medieval and the classical, converged in England in the sixteenth century to affect the plays written by Elizabethans. To explain how this came about, let’s start in the Dark Ages when there was no theatre to speak of in Europe. There may have been traveling entertainers who roamed the countryside performing their specialties (juggling, singing, dancing, storytelling and so forth) but little is known of their activities.
We do know that about A.D. 925 liturgical drama was developing in Europe. At first these religious plays were produced inside cathedrals, monasteries and churches and were acted by the clergy or choir boys in Latin; but by the thirteenth century secular organizations were assisting in the presentation of elaborate outside productions performed by laymen in the local language. These productions grew in size until they were often spectacular with expensive special effects, stage machinery and flying devices that attracted large crowds.
In the British Isles, amateurs in more than one hundred towns produced religious plays, probably with the help of a few experienced professionals. Some of the presentations were on fixed stages but others were on pageant wagons, which may have had two levels above the wagon wheels. In 1558, however, Queen Elizabeth expressed her disapproval of these religious productions and, thereafter, they diminished in popularity.
The following types of religious presentations were done: mystery plays (from the French word mystère meaning “trade” for the trade guilds which produced them) were based on the Bible (e.g., Abraham and Isaac); miracle plays depicted the lives of saints (e.g., The Conversion of St. Paul), and morality plays, of which the most famous is Everyman (c. 1500), demonstrated the struggle between virtues and vices for possession of man’s body and soul. These three, along with folk plays (e.g., The Play of Robin and Marion, which was written about 1283), farces (e.g., The Second Shepherds Play, written about 1400 which grew out of a religious play) and secular interludes, which could be serious or comic (e.g., Fulgens and Lucrece, written in 1497 by Henry Medwall), comprise the medieval influence.
From viewing these productions, Elizabethan writers learned to use a loosely organized plot and no unities of time, place or action (the play could cover days, months