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Characteristics of Elizabethan Drama

From Elizabethan Drama. Janet Spens. London: Metheun & Co.

Of the three types of plays recognized in the Shakespeare First Folio -- Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies -- the last has been the most discussed annnd is clearest in outline.

1. Tragedy must end in some tremendous catastrophe involving in Elizabethan practice the death of the principal character.

2. The catastrophe must not be the result of mere accident, but must be brought about by some essential trait in the character of the hero acting either directly or through its effect on other persons.

3. The hero must nevertheless have in him something which outweighs his defects and interests us in him so that we care for his fate more than for anything else in the play. The problem then is, why should a picture of the misfortunes of some one in whom we are thus interested afford us any satisfaction? No final answer has yet been found. Aristotle said that the spectacle by rousing in us pity and fear purges us of these emotions, and this remains the best explanation. Just as a great calamity sweeps from our minds the petty irritations of our common life, so the flood of esthetic emotion lifts us above them.

In the drama of Marlowe the satisfaction appears to depend, not on the excitement of the catastrophe, but on the assertion of the greatness of man's spirit; and this seems to have been the theme also of Senecan tragedy. It will be remembered that the first part of Tamburlaine ends, not in his death, but in his triumph, and yet we feel that the peculiar note of tragedy has been struck. We have the true tragic sense of liberation. Kyd also asserted the independence of the spirit of man, if he is prepared to face pain and death.

It is really much more difficult than is always recognized to be sure what constituted Shakespeare's view of the tragic satisfaction or even that he believed in it. It is possibly true that Lear is a better man at the end of the play than he was at the beginning, and that without his suffering he would not have learned sympathy with his kind; but this does not apply either to Hamlet or to Othello, and even in the case of King Lear it does not explain the aesthetic appeal. That depends on something more profound.

The student, after getting the story of the tragedy quite clear, should concentrate first on the character of the hero. Ask yourself whether his creator considered him ideally perfect -- in which case the appeal probably lies in the spectacle of a single human soul defying the universe; or flawed -- in which case the defect will bring about the catastrophe. It is true that in the Revenge Play type we have frequently the villain-hero, but the interest there depends rather on his courage and independence of man and God than on his villainy. This is particularly true of pre-Shakespearean plays. It is remarkable that the post-Shakespearean drama was apt to combine plots involving unnatural crimes and vicious passions with a somewhat shallow conventional morality.

History plays seem in Shakespeare's hands to represent the compromise of life. They may end in catastrophe or in triumph, but the catastrophe is apt to be undignified and the triumph won at a price. Again, we may say that in the Histories Shakespeare is dealing with the nation as hero. The hero in this case is immortal and his tale cannot be a true tragedy; while on the other hand there can never be the true comedy feeling of an established and final harmony. Apart from Shakespeare, Histories are almost entirely inspired by patriotism, often of a rather rabid type.

There is the greatest variety in the section entitled "Comedy," and critics generally distinguish sharply between Comedies and Romances in Reconciliation plays. We are apt to expect a comedy to aim chiefly at making us laugh, but, although there are extremely funny passages, it is clear that this is not the main character of any but one or two early plays. The Romances are four -- "Cymbeline," "Winter's Tale," "The Tempest," and the play not contained in the First Folio -- "Pericles." "Cymbeline" [was] actually printed at the end of the Tragedies for reasons which can only be conjectured. Romances are always concerned with two generations, and cover the events of many years. There is an element of the marvellous in them, and the emphasis on repentance and forgiveness is very marked. But they are, indeed, the natural development of the plays of the great period. "As You Like It" deals also with two generations, with wrongs committed and then repentance, forgiveness and restitution. In the earlier play the stress is laid on the actions and emotions of the younger folk, while in the later plays the older generation is most fully portrayed.

But before Shakespeare arrived at this conception of Comedy, he had tried various types. In "The Comedy of Errors," founded on a translation of a Latin comedy, he had produced an example of pure farce. The humour in a farce generally consists of violent action provoked by misunderstanding of a gross kind. There is an element of farce, therefore, in the "Taming of the Shrew," though the main appeal of the play is the stimulus of Petruchio's high spirits. Probably the original conception of the "Merchant of Venice" was much the same. A youthful Shakespeare was probably pleased with the outwitting of the churlish old miser Shylock. It is the theme of youth and crabbed age. An older Shakespeare must have revised it and seen the story more through the eyes of Shylock and of Antonio, and the unity of the play has been destroyed.

"Love's Labour's Lost" and the "Midsummer Night's Dream" are probably both Court Comedies, and have the superficiality of emotion which for whatever reason was associated with Court Comedy. A graceful and fanciful working up of the occasion for which the play was produced was the special character of a Court play, and it has been conjectured that the "Midsummer Night's Dream" was written for a noble marriage.

But the Shakespearean theory of Comedy went much deeper than this, and has no classical exposition, Meredith's "Essay on Comedy" is quite inapplicable. It may be suggested that his intent was to present a picture of an harmonious society in which each person's individuality is fully developed and yet is in perfect tune with all the others. At the beginning of the play there is always an element of discord, which is resolved before the close. As in History the hero of the play is rather Society as a whole than any person in it, and because of this we get at the end a sense of "happiness ever after." In the last plays we have generally an incorrectly reported death, and the discovery of these mistakes gives a curious sense that "there's nothing serious in mortality." All existence is seen as one great web of being, so that, although in tragedy, Hamlet sickens at the thought:
"Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
May stop a wall to keep the wind away."
in "The Tempest" the same thought becomes:
"Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."

How to cite this article:
Spens, Janet. Elizabethan Drama. London: Metheun & Co. 1922. Shakespeare Online. 19 Aug. 2009. < > .


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