The English Renaissance 2

Shakespeare and Jonson

There is space elsewhere for a full discussion of Shakespeare, whose plays form the centre of all theatre from this time onwards. It is worth mentioning, however, that his early plays were quite conventional and historical or in some cases comic, and it was only with the success that they brought him that he started to write exceptionally: his later histories (Henry V (c. 1599) especially), middle period comedies (e.g. Twelfth Night (c. 1600), Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1600)) and tragedies (King Lear (c.1605), Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606 etc.). Even in Shakespeare’s case, however, there is dispute about authorship and dramatic qualities. ‘Problem’ comedies such as Measure for Measure (1604) are so- called because of their subject matter and tone, which do not quite fit either the comic or tragic categories. The later plays, or ‘romances’ (e.g. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (both c. 1611)) present similar problems of classification but seem more playful and therefore more easily ascribed a different genre entirely. However, Shakespeare like his contemporaries was working with theatres rather than merely presenting street-features of the sort common a century before. As Andrew Gurr states, "One partial answer to the paradox of Elizabethan playwriting must lie in its novelty. Writing for regular London audiences in custom-built theatres with famous players was new, and the possibilities raised were boundless"2. Indeed, by the end of his career Shakespeare famously had his own theatre, The Globe, and could work around its physical limits (c.f. The Tempest). Shakespeare was certainly an innovator, especially linguistically (he added more new words to the English language than any other individual in history). However, the debt he owes to his sources (Holinshed etc.) for his stories, and to Marlowe and the Greeks for his form is not to be underestimated. Nor, of course, is the input of his actors. We do not have a single text written in his own hand, and must assume that certain revisions were made with the assistance of the players themselves.

Another of Shakespeare’s sources was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1592), which influenced Hamlet. (c.1599-1601) not to mention other ‘Revenge Tragedies’ of the period and the work of JohnWebster. Ben Jonson was paid to add to the text of Kyd’s play and, like Shakespeare, was a player himself. Jonson’s plays, of which Volpone (1605-6) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are the most famous, are characterised by their repugnant casts (see The Alchemist (1610) particularly) and biting satire. A friend of John Donne, Francis Bacon, and Shakespeare among others, Jonson was the toast of the literary scene during the reign of James I but managed to get himself imprisoned for his and his co-writers’ comments about Scots in Eastward Hoe (1605) and has been cruelly underrated since 1700 due to the snowballing fervour for Shakespeare’s plays.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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