A CRITICAL BACKGROUND STUDY OF THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMA

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The Stellar Influence

An aspect of the Elizabethan world view is the idea that the stars exert some kind of influence on man and his doings. It is accepted that the star ENG 362

under which one is born affects his/her behaviour, characterises his disposition, and life style. It was believed that the stars, initially, worked together for the well-being of man until the biblical fall of man, and that the occasional collision of stars which began after the fall of man, was part of God’s means of causing man to suffer for his disobedience. The Elizabethans believed that stars can make one extremely wicked or good. Man can lose his reason through the promptings of the stars and this can make him to become excessively emotional. Shakespeare used the stellar influence to bring out qualities of character, especially those that are susceptible to superstition. For example, in Act I, Scene II of King Lear Gloucester blames the present evil in society to the eclipses:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus, yet nature find itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools; friendship falls off, brothers divided. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked’ twixt son and father. The villain of mine comes under the prediction, there’s son against father; the king falls from bias of nature…

In Julius Caesar, Caesar compares himself with the northern star which is noted for its inflexible position. In Macbeth, the stars are angry about the upsetting of degree and order through Macbeth’s killing of King Duncan.

The Four Elements and Humours

Another aspect of the Elizabethan belief emphasised in their drama is the acceptance of the interwoven relationship between the four elements of air, fire, water, earth and the four body humours, namely- melancholy, phlegm, blood, and choler. The elements are believed to be the qualities of all created beings and things; but they are usually in constant war, one against the other. The elements of water and fire hardly see eyeball to eyeball. The Elizabethans linked human relations to elemental conflict.

The food we eat are said to be compounds of these elements which when digested yield the four humours. The disposition of the humours is said to determine character, mood, and human action. A healthy living is attributed to proper mixture of all the humours.

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony describes Brutus as balanced specie of humanity, for in him all the humours are properly mixed. However, in most cases, all the humours are never properly mixed in individuals. One humour normally dominates others in an individual, giving such a person a unique trait. For example, if phlegm is a dominant humour in an individual’s system, such individual will normally be cold and moist, unemotional, calm and rational; if it is blood that is overriding, the person will be hot and moist. Characteristically, the individual will be optimistic, daring and amorous; a person dominated by melancholy will be cold and dry, sleepless, despondent and easily irritable; a person of choleric temperament will be hot and dry, bad tempered, easily annoyed as well as idealistic. Hamlet is said to possess this quality in promising degree.

Humours can be sick. If a humour is impaired, it can be dangerous and disturbing. For example, melancholic abnormality creates a deeply gloomy character; while an excessive blood leads a character to be ruled by vaulting ambition as we find in Macbeth.

The Fortune Wheel

The concept of the fortune wheel describes the unceasing activity of the blind fate, which appears to rotate like a wheel tumbling down those on top as well as causing those beneath to ascend. The wheel of fortune is accepted by the Elizabethans as a metaphor of our unknowable world which metes out good and bad luck to people randomly as it rotates round its own axis. The rotation of the fortune wheel is deemed to be part of the controlling life-force which determines human condition. It simply tells us that life is lived on the crest of the wave. Shakespeare refers to the wheel of fortune in his tragedies and historical plays to point out the mutability of life. The idea of blind fate is not acceptable to the humanist who believes that man can control, change, and shape his world. This is the Renaissance spirit.

The Impact of the Renaissance

The Renaissance, which in cultural history, means the rebirth of classical scholarship is, according to Downer (1950), an awakening:

“concerned in part with the efforts of the individual and the nation to break through the confining walls of the medieval world and ways of thinking”.

No longer contented with the degraded position of man in creation, the Renaissance man found himself under obligation to assert the dignity of man and he found the impetus to do this in classical learning. Since the concept of the Renaissance has been examined in detail in another course, before now, attention will be given here to the implications of this great cultural revolution for the English men and their drama in particular.

Frye (1982) states that, the Renaissance got to England through the visit of Italian scholars like:

Desderius, whose insistence upon the educational primacy of the great writings of Greece and Rome had shaken the medieval foundation at Oxford and Cambridge: so high had the feelings run that mobs of students had battled each other in the streets, and order had to be restored by royal intervention.

Although Renaissance reached England in the early 15th century; Downer (1950) observes that it was during “the ascension of King Henry VIII in 1485 that it became established in influential circles”- such as “the circle of Cardinal Morton, and later of Sir Thomas More”. The spirit of the Renaissance compelled every healthy English man to become inquisitive in thinking and in seeking practical means of elevating the status of man in creation and how to maximise human potentials, in order to transform the world and puncture certain beliefs that have been, for so long, taken for granted.

This resulted to enormous scientific enquires, discoveries, and inventions that enabled man to transform his environment, conquer space and time. Through great industry, the puritans transformed England into a manufacturing society. The surge of technology enabled England to become, economically and industrially, viable and to become a military super weight.

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