Emergence of Medieval and Renaissance Dramatic
If you think about
any of the dramas we are reading, you can see buried within them the varied
strands of the history out of which they have arisen. Religious drama,
philosophical drama, historical and political drama are commingled with the
classical Latin and Greek origins of all Anglo-European theater in varying
degrees and manifestations in each play. If you look at each play
separately as an inheritor of some of these theatrical "genes," you may be
better able to tell us how the play works.
476 CE--fall of Rome to Ostrogoths and beginning of the end of
Roman theater as well as knowledge of the Greek theater
c. 960 CE--"Quem quaeritis"
trope performed on Easter Sunday to dramatize The Resurrection
c. 1100-1600--"Mystery" or "Miracle" plays dramatize other
Biblical events ("Wife of Bath's Prologue" l. 564) to teach Biblical narrative
to the largely illiterate populace
- E.g., Chester cycle "Noah's Flood" (381-91) and Wakefield
cycle "Second Shepherds' Play" (392-419)
- "Cyclical" dramas performed annually at Whitsuntide (the
week after the seventh Sunday after Easter) and Corpus Christi (the
- Performed outdoors on pageant wagons that bring the plays
to the audiences
- Sponsored by guilds based on appropriateness of topic to
the guild's craft or "mystery," like "Waterleaders and Drawers" (Chester
"Noah"), Shepherds (Wakefield "Second Shepherds' Play"--the Adoration in the
manger and Annunciation of the angels to the shepherds), or Pinners (York
At the same time, non-cyclical allegorical "Moralities"
were written to teach Church doctrine, drawing on the model of the poem, "Psychomachia,"
or "Soul Struggle," by the late Latin poet Prudentius (c. 400 CE)
- Allegorical characters interact with each other, and
with representative human characters like "Soul" and "Everyman"
- Action often is "agonic," a struggle between the good
and bad or Virtues and Vices in which specific Virtues are shown
triumphing over specific Vices (e.g., Chastity vs. Lust; Charity vs.
Greed; Temperance vs. Gluttony, etc.)
c. 1450-1600--Continental Humanism rediscovers pagan classical
Latin and Greek literature (Petrarch, Boccaccio, Erasmus, Agricola, Celtis,
Reuchlin, More, Linacre, Colet, Latimer)
- Tudor "interludes" stage secular mini-dramas on moral
themes, often in the form of debates between allegorical characters
- Structure of "great hall" feast with two entrance doors
at the service end enables division of dramatic space between "Wynner and
Wastor" and quick entrances and exits for stock characters in "Ralph Roister
Doister" and "Gammer Gurton's Needle"
c. 1450-1600--Moveable Type Printing: affordable editions of
the Greek and Roman classics produced in octavo format by Aldus Manutius
(Venice); English editions of Holinshed's Chronicle and The Chronicle
of John Hardyng represent the quasi-mythic past history of England (e.g.,
kings Arthur, Lear, etc.), and Malory's Morte Darthur presents a coherent
translation and complilation of the French and English Arthurian romances as a
historic foundation of English continental imperial aspirations.
- Elizabethan dramatists adapt royal "histories" to create
stage versions of the English foundation narratives for the general public
- Tragic drama on the Latin (Seneca) and Greek (Sophocles)
models is adapted to show high moral action in an English historical setting
- Comic drama on the Latin model (Terrence, Plautus) with
type characters set in contemporary English scenes satirizes folly and vice
- "Vice" figures from moralities reappear as antagonist
characters; "Virtue" figures reappear as protagonist characters or as the
- Dialogue becomes less overtly didactic and moral/ethical
significance more subtle as audiences grow more sophisticated in
- Transitional apparatus like Everyman's "Messenger"
and "Doctor" characters are gradually eliminated as audiences are taught by
dramatists to be more astute at inferring changes in location and personae,
shifts in dramatic tone from comedy to tragedy and vice versa, and other
problems created by more complex plots and character construction.
(But see Marlowe's Dr. Faustus which, though late C16, preserves
allegorical characters in metadramatic scenes and transitional apparatus
like the character "Chorus" based on neoclassical Greek dramatic models.)