A CRITICAL BACKGROUND STUDY OF THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMA

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INTRODUCTION

This article examines certain aspects of the Elizabethan drama, which in theatre history, is considered the golden age of English drama. The module begins by taking you through the Elizabethan world view and the factors that influenced life and the practice of drama during this great period.

In this module, you will be exposed to the Elizabethan belief system in order to establish how the Elizabethans see and understand the functioning of creation as well as man’s role in it. This discussion- which is the focus of unit one, is relevant for a thorough understanding of the drama produced at this time, because as Edith Hamilton (1963) posits, the “way a nation goes, whether that of the mind or that of the spirit is decisive in its effect upon art”. Unit two explains the impacts of the Renaissance on Elizabethan drama, as well as the contributions of Thomas Kyd to the evolution of revenge tragedy.

Unit three dwells on the activities of Christopher Marlowe. Some of his plays shall be examined as reflecting the tempestuous nature of Elizabethan life. Unit four focuses on the comedy of the greatest genius of the time- William Shakespeare. The Elizabethan age named after the virgin Queen Elizabeth I (1588 – 1603), is one of the most memorable and exciting periods in human history. It is regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of English history because during the period, England achieved monumental success in many spheres of life, and some of the achievements (especially dramatic achievement) are yet to be surpassed in human history.

A complex of factors is responsible for the greatness of England during this period. This unit examines these factors, beginning with the Elizabethan world view. The unit is significant for this course because a people’s drama usually embodies their basic belief, assumptions and impulses.

Elizabethan World View

A world view refers to a system of beliefs and thoughts which enables us to see and to understand or make sense of the functioning of the world around us and creation in general. World view is used interchangeably with world picture. World view is something dynamic, reflecting many of the changes that characterise human civilisation.

The Elizabethan world picture is not static; it is in a state of motion. However, some basic assumptions appear to be rigid over a considerable period of time. From belief in stars, elements and humours as well as degree and order, the Elizabethan world view has been affected by the adventurous spirit of the Renaissance; the surge of technology as a result of scientific discoveries, and the navigational activities supported by the queen.

Degree and Order

The idea of degree and order is a basic assumption that God created the universe and assigned a position to everything in it, according to his will. This feeling is grafted from the medieval assumption of ordered chain of being, which implies a hierarchical existence. This belief assumes that God is at the apex of creation followed by angels, through man down to the dust of the earth. The Elizabethans accepted this theory of hierarchy in existence from the heavenly beings to the earthly creatures and translated this into the ordering of their society.

The king or Queen is deemed to be divine and is at the head of human society. The king or the Queen- as god must be revered and obeyed. The Elizabethans believed that the society will be worse for it, should the chain of degree and order be violated. Queen Elizabeth was an epitome of the belief that the queen or king is a divine form and sought to be adored. She insisted in being adored by all especially by the court favourites. In their deeply intellectual book, The Western Intellectual Tradition, Bronowski and Mazlish (1970) state that:

Elizabeth’s need for veneration and her shadowy affectation of feminity were not merely personal traits; they had important national consequence. They determine the tone of the court and the type of court favourites; and they influenced the sort of poetry and play that was written.

However, Elizabeth was not a wicked queen for she rewarded those who indulge her pleasure handsomely. Shakespeare reflected this basic belief in most of his tragedies and chronicle plays, but he enunciated it in Act 1, scene II of Troilus and Cressida when he states through the character, Ulyses thus:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centreObserve degree priority and placeInsisture course proportion season from Office and custom, in all line of order and therefore is the glorious planet Sol in noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d amidst the other, whose med’cinable eyeCorrects the ill aspects of planets evil.

And posts like the commandment of a king Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planetsIn evil mixture to disorder wander What plagues and what portents, what mutinyWhat raging of the sea, shaking of earth Commotion in the wind, frights, changes, horrors Divert and crack, rend and deracinate.

The unity and married calm of the states Quite from the fixture. Oh, when degree is shak’d, Which is the ladder of all high designs Degree in schools, and brotherhood in cities Peaceful commerce from dividable shores Primogenitive and due of birth Prerogative of age, crown, scepters, laurels, But by degree stand in authentic place? Take but degree away, untune that string And hark what discord follows.

The significance of this speech is that creation is a harmonious entity and that everyone, and everything has his/her (and its) own place in it. According to Tillyard (1946):

If the Elizabethans believed in the ideal order, animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability, and the obsession was powerful in proportion as the faith in the cosmic order was strong.

As pointed out earlier, the divine right of the King stems from the belief in degree and order. The position of the King or Queen in the affairs of men is unquestionable and if this position is violated, it brings confusion and disturbance of equilibrium. The disorder that follows the unlawful killing and un-sitting of the king etc., is given sufficient dramatic weight in the tragic and chronicle plays of William Shakespeare.

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