VI. English Theatre From the Middle Ages to 1642
During the 1580's a group of men formed a group called "The University Wits." These were men who were interested in writing for the public stage. The "wits" included Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, and Robert Greene.
Thomas Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, the most popular play of the 16th century. He constructed a well-planned plot which made for a very interesting play. The Cambridge-educated Christopher Marlowe was important in the development of chronicle plays such as Edward II. He also wrote the well-known play Doctor Faustus. John Lyly was another member of the University Wits who wrote primarily pastoral comedies in which he used mythology along with English subjects. Campaspe, Endimion, and Love's Metamorphosis are just a few examples of Lyly's work. Yet another University Wit, Robert Greene, wrote pastoral and romantic comedies. Greene took many different aspects and pieces and combined them into a single play. Two of his adventurous works are Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay and James IV.
The man known as the greatest dramatist of all time is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was involved in all aspects of theatre, more than any other writer of his day. Shakespeare is said to have written 38 plays--histories, tragedies, and comedies-- including Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. No writer has been more effective and powerful with the use of the language as Shakespeare. Emotions, pride, attitudes are all incorporated into Shakespeare's dramatic situation. He was effective and at the same time sensitive to needs of his audiences and actors. Although well-known during his life, Shakespeare's popularity didn't flower until after his death.
Ben Jonson was also a popular playwright in England, who some scholars consider the finest Elizabethan playwright (after Shakespeare, of course). In an effort to combat the dramatic excesses of his English contemporaries, Jonson addressed classical principles and sought to bring back the practices of the ancients in his own plays. Two of Jonson's 28 plays are The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. He was awarded the title of England's poet laureate in 1616.
After 1610, changes started to occur in English drama . There was an increase in technical skill, playwrights handled exposition better, they began to compress action to fewer episodes, and they built startling climaxes to surprise audiences. With these changes came a new breed of playwrights who created a drama more focused on thrilling and exciting subject matter than complex characterization or tragic emotion.
John Fletcher was one of these new playwrights who became very successful writing jointly with Francis Beaumont. Together they wrote about 50 plays including The Maid's Tragedy, Philasta, and A King and No King. Fletcher also wrote plays on his own after Beaumont retired. A Wife for a Month and The Scornful Lady are two of his most famous solo works. Interestingly enough, during the Restoration, Fletcher's plays were performed more frequently than Shakespeare's or Jonson's.
Thomas Middleton, Philip Mossinger, John Webster, John Ford, and James Shirley were also strong dramatists who helped shape and encourage theatre during this time. With Mossinger's A Way to Pay Old Debts, Webster's The White Devil, Ford's The Broken Heart and Shirley's The Cardinal, these men became well-known playwrights who made a great impression on the world of theatre.
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