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An Introduction to English Renaissance Drama

In recent posts, I’ve introduced some of the common forms of prose and poetry in Renaissance England and in this post, I’ll be exploring Renaissance drama. This post is going to be a little different to the others since there are fewer forms of drama: general plays, masques, academic drama, and closet drama. I’m sure there are more but these are the main ones. Of course, there are various genres but I’ve already written about popular theatrical genres and I don’t want to repeat myself.

I intend to write another post in the future, perhaps in October, about the various places in which plays were performed so I’m not going to dwell on that too much in this post.

General Plays

I’m calling this section ‘general plays’ because this is the form of drama we’re all familiar with. This section covers plays performed in outdoor playhouses, such as the Swan, and indoor playhouses, such as Blackfriars.

We usually talk about these plays in regards to their genre (with the main genres being comedy, tragedy, and history) and these plays were performed to anyone who could afford to attend. They were printed, although rarely, and they were performed by a variety of playing companies, some of which were made up entirely of child actors. For example, John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (a rather violent revenge tragedy) was performed by the Children of Paul’s and I don’t know how I’d react if I saw a troupe of young boys, some as young as 6, performing that play. Different times and all that, I guess.

Public plays weren’t the ‘highest’ form of literature in this time. In fact, some scholars claim that Elizabethans and Jacobeans wouldn’t have recognised this form of drama as ‘literature’. But these plays were a form of entertainment, just as plays are now, and they were the most accessible form of drama at this time. Even Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed them and some of these plays were performed at Court as well as in public theatres.

Examples:

Masques

Masques were performed at Court or at the homes of aristocrats as a form of entertainment for members of the court during Royal progresses. These performances blended music, dance, poetry and drama.

Rather than being performed by professional actors, masques were performed by members of the court and women could perform in masques even though they could not perform on stage. Anne of Denmark, queen consort to James I, performed in several of Ben Jonson’s masques, including The Masque of Beauty. Usually, players were disguised by masques but sometimes they wore makeup.

Examples:

Closet Drama

A closet drama was a play that was not intended to be performed onstage and this form is usually defined as a genre of dramatic writing that was unconcerned with stage technique. They were meant to be read either by a solitary reader or read aloud by a small group.

A playwright may have chosen to write a closet drama for a number of reasons. Staging was one reason and a lack of audience expectations was another. Playwrights also wrote closet dramas when they wanted to avoid censorship or if they didn’t have access to commercial theatre. Women playwrights usually fall into the latter category and closet dramas presented an opportunity for women to write drama.

During the Interregnum, playwrights were essentially forced to write closet dramas because theatrical performance was banned and the theatres were closed.

Examples:

Academic drama

Academic dramas were plays produced at Oxford University and Cambridge University, and sometimes the Inns of Court, that were based on Greek and Latin plays. Universities performed both classical and neoclassical plays. Academic dramas were mainly written by students and academics and they were used to teach both playwrighting and acting.

Oxford University usually performed their dramas at Christ Church and St. John’s College while Cambridge performed at a variety of their colleges. Audiences were usually made up of other students but both Elizabeth I and James I attended performances at Oxford.

Examples1:

  • Supposes by George Gascoigne (1581-1582) – Performed in English at Trinity, Oxford
  • Terminus et non terminus by Thomas Nashe and other students (c.1586) – Performed in Latin at St. John’s, Cambridge
  • Leander by W. Hawkesworth (1598-1599) – Performed in Latin at Trinity, Cambridge

That’s it for my Introduction to English Renaissance Literature series! If you’d like to see a post about a writer, play, or genre that’s been mentioned in this post or a similar post to this about another era (i.e. the Restoration, 18th century, 19th century etc.) please let me know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip over on Ko-fi! I also have membership tiers available, offering benefits such as exclusive book reviews and access to my Discord book club.

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Footnotes:
1. All information taken from Fredrick Boas, University Drama in the Tudor Age (New York: Benjamin Blom Inc., 1966)

Images:
1. The title page of The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (London: Printed by N.O. for I.S., 1613)
2. The title page of The Tragedy of Antony, translated into English by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1595) – via Folger Shakespeare Library

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