A CRITICAL BACKGROUND STUDY OF THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMA

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Also in their adventurous spirit, men like Sir Francis Drakes and Walter Raleigh etc., began to navigate the world in order to explore unknown territories and exploit their wealth. Bronowski and Mazlish (1970) note that Sir Francis Drakes’ expedition of 1577 – 88 to America and the Pacific, sparked off reaction from Spain, another powerful European nation of the time. In 1588, Philip II of Spain assembled an intimidating military force called the Spanish Armada for the purpose of taming the English inquisitive spirit and adventure, but through a superior military power and an act of providence, the Queen’s soldiers were able to crush the Armada. This great feat by the English army instilled fear into the rest of the world, leaving Queen Elizabeth I unchallenged for most of her reign. Downer (1950: 99) observes that:

Fortune rode with the banners of her army and upon the prows of her ships. Her merchants grew prosperous and powerful, the New World offered limitless promise. The intellectual aspirations of the Renaissance were being matched by the material aspirations on an economic and political awakening. This happy bred of men, governed by the almost deified Gloriana, were confidently prepared to shock the three corners of the world though armed against them.

Bronowski and Mazlish (1970) argue that “Elizabethan Age’s great literary adventure sprang from the optimism and sense of destiny which the defeat of the Armada almost by divine intervention, inspired in the minds and hearts of the English men” (156). In order to realise the humanist ideals in drama, in schools and universities, the plays of the Roman playwrights namely- Terence, Plautus and Seneca, “were held up to the students as models of literature as well as models for living, and their performance both by the schoolboys and their teachers was a pedagogical device for inculcating their moral lessons and literary style” (Downer, 1950: 51). This became a step for the writing and production of original plays first in Latin, and then in English language.

The plotting of English drama along the line of the new learning first developed in comedy, where the Roman themes on mistaken identity, parasitic living, amoral rogues who live by their wits, follies of the stupid and love tangle, fascinated the students. Nicholas Udall’s play, Ralph Roister Doister is the earliest English extant comedy that shows the naturalization of the classical style and model.

The adaptation of the tragedy, according to Downer, took a long process to crystallize because Senecan tragedy which provided the model, was a sort of closet drama for the learning of stoic philosophy. However, his theme of conflict of passion, subjects of murder, adultery and incest so became attractive to English artists and this led to the translation and publication of his plays between 1559 – 1581. The first English tragedy to be modeled after the Senecan type is Gorboduc written by two lawyers, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. This play, presented at Christmas in one of the Inns – the Inner Temple, was received with open

enthusiasm; and this made Queen Elizabeth to request for a command performance.

Apart from the Roman influence, the Italian Renaissance comedy equally impacted on the Elizabethan drama. One of the significant things about the series of plays adapted from Italian Renaissance is that, “they provide the Elizabethan theatre with its most common theme, the ideal quality of romantic love, and its subject matter the merry – tangles, which must be resolved before a happy marriage may crown the end” (Downer, 57). The clearing of obstacles before the wedding of true hearts is copied directly from Ariosto’s plays. In this type of play, according to Downer:

Slapstick and vulgarity are eliminated, and a ragged prose substituted for the verse of naïve comedy. Puns abound, and what the Elizabethans called “word – catching”, playing with semantic and etymology. The prologue toys with the title of the piece.

This type of comedy that became popular with the courts was championed by John Lyly. He established the proper medium for prose comedy, which was at once lively, pointed and panoramic in scope. This then became very well elaborated by William Shakespeare in his dazzling romantic comedies.

CONCLUSION

This article is aimed at acquainting you with the basic ideas that give the Elizabethan drama its basic character and colour. The formative ideas will help you to gain fuller understanding of the Elizabethan plays- notably those of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

This article examines the background to the Elizabethan age and its impact on the drama of the period. Specifically, the Elizabethan world view bordering on the concept of degree and order, the stellar influence, the elements and humours, fortune wheel as well as the role of the Renaissance in the formation of the great Elizabethan drama elicited attention.

 

 

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