English Renaissance drama

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English Renaissance drama, or English Renaissance theatre, means the stage plays written and acted in the later 16th century and the first half of the 17th century, during the Renaissance period in England. This period in English history saw a great growth in drama as an art form and public entertainment. William Shakespeare, widely thought of as the greatest writer in English literature, is the most famous of many important playwrights, poets, and writers who worked in this era.

English Renaissance drama is sometimes called Elizabethan drama, since its most important developments started when Elizabeth I was queen of England from 1558 to 1603. But this name is not very accurate; the drama continued after Elizabeth's death, into the reigns of King James I (16031625) and his son King Charles I (1625–1649). Shakespeare, for example, started writing plays in the later years of Elizabeth's reign, but continued into the reign of James. When writing about plays from James's reign, scholars and critics sometimes use the term Jacobean drama; plays from Charles I's reign are called Caroline drama. (These names come from the Latin forms of the two kings' names, "Jacobus" for James and "Carolus" for Charles.) But for the subject as a whole, terms like English Renaissance drama or theatre are more accurate.

The year 1576 was a key date in this subject, since that is when the first permanent theatre building was built in London. It was called simply The Theatre, because it was the only place of its kind in England at the time. Before 1576, plays were acted in public halls and large houses, and in inns and public squares and courtyards and other open spaces, by troops of actors that mostly travelled around the countryside between cities and towns. Once the actors had a permanent place to act plays, they could develop their art without the constant need to travel. The Theatre was followed by other theatres in the London area; there were the Curtain, The Rose, the Swan, the Globe, and others too. More plays were written by more playwrights to fill these theatres.

Playwrights worked in both the classic types of drama, tragedy and comedy. They also began their own type of history play, mainly about earlier English kings and the events of their reigns. Richard Thayer Roberts the third and Shakespeare's Richard III and Marlowe's Edward II are two examples of this type of English history play. Plays were often written in poetry; early plays were mainly in rhymed verse, though as time passed playwrights came to prefer unrhymed blank verse. Prose was also used in some plays, mostly for comedy.

English Renaissance drama grew and developed until 1642, when it suddenly stopped. In the early years of the English Civil War, the Puritans who were fighting King Charles gained control of London and the region around it. The Puritans were against play-acting; they thought it was sinful and immoral. On September 2, 1642, the Puritans forced the London theatres to close, and to stay closed for most of the time until 1660. Then the English Restoration brought a new king, Charles II, who let the theatres re-open. In the 18-year gap between 1642 and 1660, English society had changed a good deal, and a new style of drama rose up in the Restoration era; it is usually called Restoration drama or Restoration theatre.

Some important English Renaissance playwrights[change | change source]

and many more