Saturday, February 27, 2016

Early Tudor Drama

As the middle ages in England came to a close, the Plantagenet dynasty split into two factions: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The two sides repeatedly clashed in the long conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, with the young Henry Tudor ultimately triumphing and establishing a new Tudor Dynasty.

Though drama under Henry VII still maintained a medieval sensibility, times were changing. The printing press had already been introduced, and Renaissance ideas that had flourished in Italy were finally reaching England. Under the reign of the king's son, Henry VIII, secular drama gained considerable ground, with the gifted English playwright John Heywood providing such interludes as The Play of the Weather and The Four P's.

Another important playwright from Henry's reign was John Bale. His play King Johan tells the story (from a decidedly Protestant standpoint) of a notorious medieval monarch's conflict with the Pope. King Johan is notable both for its unique verse structure and its mixing together of historical and allegorical figures. The play exists in multiple versions, and a reference in one to "our late kynge Henrye" could indicate it was performed during the reign of Edward VI as well. Bale was highly regarded under Edward, and the young king appointed him as a bishop.

Sometime around the end of Edward's reign, the schoolmaster Nicholas Udall wrote the comedy Ralph Roister Doister. The play focuses on the dramatic descendant of the Miles Gloriosus character in Plautus, depicting a braggart who tries to woo a virtuous widow but ends up running away from her maids. The play appears to have been intended for performance by Udall's students, though it may have been performed before Mary I as well. By the time Elizabeth I took the throne, there was already a healthy tradition of secular plays in England.

That proved to be fortunate, as Elizabeth set about banning all religious drama. The mystery, miracle, and morality plays of the middle ages advocated a Catholic theology, and Elizabeth's legitimacy depended on Henry VIII's ability as head of the church to obtain an annulment without the consent of the Pope. As Elizabeth began the long, slow process of repressing religious plays, more and more writers turned to secular themes. Two men, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, collaborated on a play in 1561 called Gorboduc. The tragedy is the first drama in English written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, which subsequently became the standard verse form for Elizabethan plays.

Elizabethan drama did not truly come into its own, however, until the 1580s. One of the first plays to capture the imaginations of mass audiences was The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. The play, about a father who must avenge the murder of his son, established the popularity of revenge tragedy. Kyd provided ghosts, mad scenes, a play-within-a-play, and a final bloody slaughter. All of these became staples of later Elizabethan revenge tragedies, and Kyd might even have written an early version of the most popular of revenge tragedies: William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Kyd was overshadowed in 1587, though, with the appearance of a young playwright from Cambridge University named Christopher Marlowe. That is a post, however, for another day.