The Elizabethan Theatre before Shakespeare

Besides fine works of poetry and prose in the Elizabethan age, dramatic art also flourished and reached the greatest height. The Middle Ages knew religious drama:
- the Mystery plays (dramatic episodes from the Bible);
- the Miracle plays (episodes from the lives of saints);
- the Morality plays (allegorical performances, where virtues and vices struggled for the human soul).
Between the episodes of these plays, comic scenes were usually acted; they had almost no relation to the story. They were called interludes.
There was also another type of performance in English cities - the pageants - pantomimes re-enacting episodes from the history of that particular city.
England of the 16th century also knew a third type of performance - plays staged by university students. They were plays by roman dramatists: Seneca, Plautus and Terence; they were acted in Latin. Later on, original English plays written in imitation of these authors began to appear. Such were the foundations of the glorious English drama of the renaissance.
In the middle of the 16"1 century there were companies of strolling actors, who performed in town-squares, inn-yards and manor houses. But in 1572 Queen Elizabeth issued a decree against vagabonds, so many of these companies enlisted as servants of some peer and began to settle down. In 1576 the company of the Earl of Leicester's Men built the first playhouse and called it "The Theatre", using the Greek word for the first time in England. It was open to the sky, there was a sheltered gallery on the sides, the stage was a raised platform, it came out into the audience. Thus' theatres began to be established, and their popularity kept growing. They gave public performances and were also invited to the court.
As the public became more demanding and the art of theatre developed, old plays were considered to be too primitive. They did not deal sufficiently with the problems of the time; the necessity for new plays became obvious. Some university graduates answered this demand. They belonged to the middle-class or gentry. Actually, they were the first professional authors in England who earned their living by writing. They are known as the Academic Dramatists, or "the University Wits". Among them were Thomas Kyd, George Peele, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe.
Thomas Kyd (1557-1595) set the standard for the "revenge” tragedies, he was the author of a pre-Shakespearean play on the subject of "Hamlet" (it is lost now).
Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) was the author of the first picaresque novel in English literature (this genre originates from Spanish literature), which depicted the life of the time with broad realism, he was also a co-author of several plays.
But the true genius among the University Wits was Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). He was two months older then Shakespeare and was born in Canterbury. In 1580 he went to Cambridge on a scholarship: it gave the right to free education after competitive examinations. Many details of his life remain unknown to us, but it is almost certain that while a student he went to the Continent on a secret mission (to establish contacts with French Protestants, the allies of England against Catholic reaction). It was in his student days that Marlowe wrote his first tragedies: "Dido, Queen of Carthage" and the first part of "Tamburlaine the Great". It was a success. After that he wrote five more plays: the second part of "Tamburlaine ", "The Massacre of Paris", "The Jew of Malta", "The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus" and a chronicle history play "Edward II". Among his non-dramatic works are his translations of roman poets, a long poem "Hero and Leander" (finished after his death by another poet) and a small but beautiful lyrical poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love". Marlowe's literary activity lasted only for a few years, he was killed in a quarrel before he was thirty years of age, yet he created an immortal place for himself in English drama and poetry.
Towards the end of the 16th century life in England changed greatly, the' P accumulated capital was to be put into circulation; absolute monarchy became an obstacle to social development. The renaissance giants were needed no more. The ideology of humanism faced a crisis because new trends of thought, which were hostile to humanism, appeared. As a result, the ideology of drama considerably changed. Pessimistic and even morbid tragedies appeared. Their authors were John Webster and John Ford.
Aristocratic views were reflected in the works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. 1 hey gave birth to a new dramatic genre, the tragicomedy, which is not a mixture of tragic and comic elements but a play with a tragic conflict and a happy ending. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are always amusing, masterfully constructed, written in easy-flowing verse and having interesting and very complicated plots, but in terms of treating human nature they are superficial and even shallow.
It is common knowledge that William Shakespeare had a great influence on the whole of world literature, but his younger contemporary, Ben Jonson (1573-1637) had greater influence on English national literature than Shakespeare himself. Ben Jonson was born in London and started his education in Westminster School, which laid the foundation of his splendid erudition. In spite of the lack of any university education he had the reputation of the most educated person of his time and received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge.
About 1595 he started his career as an actor and playwright, and very soon became a prominent dramatist. Jonson was always in the thick of literary battles with his fellow dramatists and as he grew older, he became literary director of London and gained the friendship of William Shakespeare and the great philosopher Francis Bacon. Ben Jonson is the author of the best English satirical comedies. His comic manner of depicting characters influenced the whole of English literature. Among his best works are "Volpone, or the Fox", a devastating satire on the lust for riches; "The Silent Woman", one of the funniest comedies ever written; "The Alchemist" in which he ridicules many superstitions of the time. From 1605 Jonson started writing masques: these were expensive spectacles, involving music, song and dance, in which the nobility and sometimes even royalty would take part. In 1616 Ben Jonson was made poet laureate, the official poet at the royal court, and granted a pension; but, nevertheless, he died in poverty, stricken by paralysis. Jonson was also a fine lyrical poet.

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