The English Renaissance 1

The English Renaissance brought with it startling change in drama. Its three great heroes: Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson all wrote plays which far outdid moralities and interludes with their extravagant style, wit and substance. Marlowe seems to have been a violent and even criminally inclined man, and something of this temperament (which finally led to his death in a Deptford tavern quarrelling over the bill!) shows through in his plays (see Tamburlaine particularly). Typically for the later 16th century1 , Marlowe wrote historical drama, and was a great influence upon the young Shakespeare. Particularly powerful were his enormously successful Tamburlaine part 1 (written before 1587 and performed many times a year in London), its sequel (1588), and Edward II (1594) that has much in common with Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595) in its depiction of a king facing rebellion with a combination of frustration, anger and dignity. The bloody and horrific ending of Tamburlaine part 1, while hardly typical of Elizabethan drama, shows the extent to which playwrights could now serve up a potent combination of violence and poetry. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1608) especially seems to follow the horror of Marlowe’s play. Most famous of Marlowe’s other plays is Dr. Faustus (first performed 1594). This sinister but enduringly popular play, based on the German Faustbuch of 1587 follows the medieval fable of a man literally selling his soul to the devil. Besides the compelling dialogues between the devious Mephistopheles and Faustus, the play is notable for its occasional use of humans-made-bestial visual jokes (again, see A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and extravagant conceits that it is still impossible to stage accurately.

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