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Medieval and Elizabethan Drama

Medieval and Elizabethan Drama

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Published by Melisa Parodi

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Published by: Melisa Parodi on Oct 26, 2013
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Medieval and Elizabethan drama: socio-cultural function

he English created the beginnings of their drama from primitive attempts to explain the mysteries related to the succession of birth and death, mysteries related to the succession of light and dark, heat and cold, and so on. Taking this into consideration, we can say that Christianity is connected remotely with drama since we know that the Mass of the Catholic Church celebrates the sacrifice of Christ: it is religious ritual, but it is also drama. During the last ages of the Roman Empire, the flourishing drama of ancient Greece and Rome was banned by early Christianity because of its pagan and worldly associations. They enacted love of sheer outrage, horror, men were executed as part of the action and copulation took place openly on stage. But then, the impulse to instruct produced the main line of English drama through the Christian church. The Church used the drama for conveying to the common people, who was unable to read, to become Christians. In this process the church which had destroyed ancient drama became itself the creator of the modern drama. As we said, the ancestor of the modern drama began as an integral part of the worship service of the Christian church. It was developed from the liturgy (9th century) until its increasing length and secularization removed it from the actual worship service. Accordingly, the modern drama begins with the elaboration of the Mass service by the addition dialogue to the Easter ritual, the focal point of the Christian faith. A clear example of this is the Quem quaeritis Trope in which further scenes were added to the Quem quaeritis trope and its name was changed to Sepulchrum. Consequently, it became a play of three episodes. The success of the Easter play induced the preparation of liturgical drama for the other dates of the Christian calendar. Until 13th century the dramas were intoned in Latin. The transactional period from drama in Latin to drama in English is neatly exemplified by texts which show the actors first speaking in Latin and then paraphrasing their remarks in English. By the end of the 13th century the church cut off the drama from all holly ground since drama within church walls became embarrassing to the church because, what had begun as pious instruction was becoming surcharged with fun and frolic. In the 14th century the production of the drama was entirely out of ecclesiastical hands, but as drama was so popular and people demanded continued performances, the religious guilds1 took over it. When the Black Death weakened the religious guilds, the trade guilds2 took over the drama and continued performances on Corpus Christi3. Thus, the Sacrament was carried throughout a medieval


Religious guilds were groups of townsmen who carried symbolic banners in religious processions and banded together to pay for masses for departed members. 2 Trade guilds arose in the 14th century as craftsmen united to protect their common interest. A group of tradesmen or craftsmen engaged in the same occupation joined together.

5 In meter. learning. derived from the Bible (dramatized biblical texts). however especially in England. Miracle plays. and Plautus and Terence to give advice on comedy. dactylic hexameter. The real interest of Morality plays and Interlude plays (the latter ones were popular in last period of the medieval age) lies in the fact of an aristocratic audience and the need for taste. Caesurae feature prominently in Greek and Latin verse. and their humour is gentle and in excellent taste. Mystery plays. it was changed to the feast of Corpus Christi in May or June. are soon to take over these inn-yards as permanent theatres. the noble houses have their groups of interlude-players. the main subject matter of the plays remained essentially scriptural. rather than personal. and skill in composition. 3 Eastern Day was the original inspiration for Christian drama and the occasion for most of the year’s performance. as it was a far better day for outdoor activity in England 4 Everyman was printed four times in the early 16th century. especially in the heroic verse form. Everyman4. What is more. The chief verse from of his work is a four-stress line broken in the middle by a caesura5. a caesura is a complete pause in a line of poetry or in a musical composition. These plays are sheer entertainment. Morality plays were dramatized sermons. and commons. Soon we shall be able to ring up the curtain on the greatest drama of all time. but in the 14th and 15th centuries actors were paid sizeable wages. In earlier times the guildsmen enacted the roles themselves. first appearing in an ancient Buddhist parable. as in the mysteries developed a personalized character. English towns vied with each other to perform the most crow-compelling of play cycles. Skelton is primarily concerned with political. or Saint's plays. But in 1624. . For Elizabeth drama. Although the drama was secular and vernacular by the 14th century. the term Mysteries generally served for both. nobility.community with stops at various stations for veneration. re-enacted miraculous interventions by the saints into the lives of ordinary people. There was a growing tendency here for Sin or Vice or the Devil to indulge in humour of the dirtiest kind ostensibly so that the virtuous characters could condemn it. The castle of Perseverance. wearing the livery of their master – these are to become the Elizabethan companies. Using pageant wagons. That is more than can be said for the morality plays with which the ordinary people were entertained. salvation. the morality plays presented abstract personifications. Dimension was added to the drama through original plotting and an imagination freed from biblical narratives and saints’ lives. The theme is well known. The wandering players of moralities. He hopes for a peaceful and harmonious realm governed by an enlightened monarch assisted by public-spirited ministers. Even Seneca is waiting to show Englishman how to write tragedies. Learned men are writing dramas – like the “University Wits” who are going to lay the foundations for Shakespeare. which were driven from one station to the next and the same play was re-enacted. however. on the other hand. The theme of drama could be implicit rather than explicit. Mankind and the writer John Skelton were remarkable features of this time. playing in inn-yards. they didn’t have instructive purpose. Within allegorical framework. The morality play apparently developed late in the 14th century and certainly reached its apogee in the 15th century. A careful discrimination was made between Mystery drama and Miracle plays.

It refers to the plays produced while Queen Elizabeth reigned in England. Europe was experiencing a dramatic rebirth. 7 For Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It was during this time that the public began attending plays in large numbers. as much as for their ancient Greek and Roman predecessors. An intellectual movement known as Humanism was developing. the very nature of tragedy seemed to require that it explored the sad stories of kings. This new age. this is one of the functions of drama. after nearly a thousand years of stillness. They remain political and patriotic statements of some potency. This cultural flowering was a natural outgrowth of the Middle Ages (which was characterized by The Hundred Years War. a renaissance. was the theatre’s bawdiness. others were Christopher Marlowe ( Dr. haunted by ideas of treason and assassination.The drama. but the wealthy tried to win their loyalty of the people by making city improvements and providing entertainments. Othello) he also dedicated to historical plays 8and comedy. The most popular types of Elizabethan plays were histories of England’s rulers. themes concerning the human being. One of the appeals for Elizabethan playgoers. Shakespeare was the master of tragedy7 (Hamlet. Sexual innuendo and sexual situations were common features of many plays. from 1558 until 1603. the Black Death. 8 Shakespeare’s two sequences of English explored divisions. 6 It is possible that this dramatic emphasis on mortality reflected the violence of contemporary political life. writers began to write about love and life. provoked some new thinking about the individual’s role in society. was developing into a fully secular medium of expression. or at the very least of men and women dignified by royal blood or civil authority. but revenge dramas6 and bawdy comedies also drew significant crowds. as we said. depositions. The drama produced in that time is called Elizabethan drama. His history plays have continued to shape British perceptions of the national past and of nationhood. Drama functioned as a means to make public these criticisms. the lower classes usually made revolts in this period. Tragedies focused on creating a sense of both terror and pity in the audience. but they also bolstered the concept of secure monarchic government propagated by officially approved apologists for the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare’s tragedies deal almost exclusively with the destinies of kings and princes on whose fortunes depend those of the nations they rule. It was itself an uneasy society. As a result. Thanks to it. Proponents of humanist thought began to criticize church and society in their writings. The wealth of this time was not spread equally among all the people. usurpations. . and the loss of power of the Roman Catholic Church). Faustus) and Ben Johnson (The Alchemist). and civil wars. Although Shakespeare was the most famous of the Elizabethan dramatists. emerging from the church dominated past.

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