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Lesson 16

English Drama



The story of the English drama continues to the time of the Queen Elizabeth and the first playwright to mention is Thomas Kyd (1558-94). His play The Spanish Tragedy is likely to become the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plays were written in blank verse following Latin standarts. Thomas Kyd was one of the group of the graduates from Oxford and Cambridge who called themselves the University Wits
Men with learning and talent but no money, they could not, like the clerks of the Middle Ages, find a career in the Church. The monasteries had been dissolved by King Henry VIII,
So far we have said nothing about these theatres
. The University Wits are different; their dramatic fortunes are tied to the theatres of London, and, being men of learning, they produce something better than the old popular morality plays. But what and where were these theatres ? London was a growing and prosperous city, to which streams of visitors flocked, not only from the provinces of England but from the Continent as well. The wandering groups of players would find fair audiences in the inns on the roads that led to London. They would set up their stages in the inn-yards, take good collections of money after their performances, and, finding that the audiences at the inns shifted frequently, consider giving performances daily in the same place—not moving on to fresh inns and fresh audiences, but allowing the fresh audiences to come to them. Here we have the germ of the Elizabethan theatre—a building indistinguishable from an inn, four sides of the building looking into a large yard. the common people could stand in the yard itself.
Shakespeare's 'great Globe itself was built in 1598, out of the timbers of the old Theatre. All these playhouses followed the same architectural lines—the inn-yard surrounded by galleries, the stage which jutted out into the audience and itself had, at the back, two or three tiers of galleries.
We can think of the popular drama of the day as being divided among two great companies of players—the Lord Chamberlain's and the Lord Admiral's; the Lord Chamberlain's (later called the King's Men) operating in their greatest days at the Globe; the Lord Admiral's at the Fortune. These two companies were only nominally the ' servants' of the noble person who lent their titles; they were virtually free agents, protected by their noble patrons from the charge of being vagabonds or 'masterless men'. How could they be either of these if they wore the livery of nobility ? Both groups were large, perpetually infused with new blood (as with modern football teams) through transfers of players and through an apprenticeship system which provided a steady flow of boys for the women's parts. All members of the theatrical companies were versatile—they could play tragedy, comedy, they could dance, fence, sing, leap. Two actors were very great—Richard Burbage, son of James Burbage, star of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, first interpreter of all the leading Shakespearian parts; Edward Alleyn, son-in-law of Philip Henslowe, star of the Lord Admiral's Men, creator of Faustus, Tamburlaine, the Jew of Malta—all the Marlowe heroes. Elizabethan England produced a great drama, and it had great actors.


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