The Elizabethan Age: Shakespeare
1 A sketch of the history of English drama
2.1 Four kinds of play
? Miracle plays
The miracle play had as its subject either a story from the bible, or else the life and martyrdom of a saint.
In the usage of some historians, however, “miracle play” denotes only dramas based on saints’ lives, and
term “mystery play”.
? Morality plays
? Morality plays were dramatized allegories of a representative Christian life in the plot form of a quest
for salvation, in which the crucial events are temptations, sinning, and the climactic confrontation
? The usual protagonist represents Mankind, or Everyman; among the other characters are
personifications of virtues, vices and Death, as well as angels and demons who contest for the prize
of the soul of Mankind. A character known as the Vice often played the role of the tempter in a
fashion both sinister and comic; he is regarded as a precursor both of the cynical, ironic villain and
of some of the comic figures in Elizabethan drama, including Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Interlude is a term applied to a variety of short stage entertainments, such as secular farces and witty
dialogues with a religious or political point. In the late fifteen and early sixteenth centuries, these little
dramas were performed by bands of professional actors; it’s believed that they were often put on
between the courses of a feast or between the acts of a long play.
? True drama
The true drama appeared in the Elizabethan age and it had its deep roots in the miracle and morality
plays. It represents real life as lived by real people. Here were real people with real names with no
abstract personifications, involved in real events that were culled from reality, and replicating human
behavior in their daily existence, Plots evolved around intriguing true-to-life stories in some conceivable
order, which were normally sequential at first in well-arranged acts and scenes.
2.2 The Elizabethan dramatists who influenced Shakespeare
? University Wits
? The mystery plays, the morality plays and the interludes paved the way for the coming of the golden
age of English drama—the Elizabethan Age.
? At the beginning of this period, a group of Oxford and Cambridge graduates came to London with the
ambition to become professional writers. They were eager to put what they had learned at
universities before the public. They worked as poets, prose-writers and playwrights. This group, later
known as the “University Wits,” consists of a group of talented young writers, such as Robert
Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, and Christopher
? They helped to free English tragedy from artificial restrictions imposed by classical authority and
they developed a comedy tradition that is more close to life. Their plays paved the way for the
creation of many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Their influence on Shakespeare is certain: Kyd and
Marlowe influenced his great tragedies; Greene, Peel, Lodge and Lyly influenced his comedies and
? Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
? Christopher Marlowe died the youngest among the “university wits.” However, he is widely
acknowledged as the greatest tragedy writer before William Shakespeare. Marlowe’s talent as a
skillful playwright was first shown at Cambridge, where he composed Tamburlaine (c.1587), a
drama in blank verse. In the following six years, he wrote five more plays: Tamburlaine, Part II, The
Massacre at Paris, Edward II (1594), which served as a model for Shakespeare’s Richard II and
Richard III; The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (performed in 1594; published in 1604); and the
tragedy The Jew of Malta (performed about 1592; Published in 1633).
? Marlowe is one of the first playwrights to use blank verse in English drama. His influence on
Shakespeare is certain and he could even have a hand in the composition of some of Shakespeare’s
plays. Marlowe’s tragedies demonstrate a passion and grandeur that only Shakespeare’s plays can
match. But he was often so much carried away by emotion that he neglected the structural
smoothness demanded of a first playwright.
? The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a play based on the German legend of a magical aspiring
for knowledge and finally meeting his tragic end as a result of selling his soul to the devil. The play’s
dominant moral is human rather than religious. It celebrates the human passion for knowledge,
power and happiness; it also reveals man’s frustration in realizing the high aspirations in a hostile
moral order. And the confinement to time is the cruelest fact of man’s condition.
? Blank verse
Blank verse is unrhymed poetry, typically in iambic pentameter, brought by Earle of Surrey into ?
English poetry, and as such, the dominant verse form of English dramatic and narrative poetry since
ththe mid-16 century.
? Blank verse was adopted by Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources; it became the
standard form of dramatists. Christopher Marlow used blank verse for dramatic verse; and English
playwright William Shakespeare transformed blank verse into a supple instrument, uniquely capable
of conveying speech rhythms and emotional overtones. According to the English poet John Milton,
only unrhymed verse could give English the dignity of a classical language.
2.3 Ben Johnson
? The last great Elizabethan and probably the first poet Laureate (1616) and the first dictator in English
? His reputation as a playwright was established by the success of his comedy, Every Man in His Humor
? Was a realistic writer
? Is remembered today chiefly as a playwright
? Calls Shakespeare “the Soul of the Age,” and “Not of an age but for all time”
3 William Shakespeare
3.1 Shakespeare’s life
? Shakespeare was born in April 1564, on April 23, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. ? He was a very talented person and studied in a local grammar school for six years. He learned not only
writing and reading, but also Latin and Greek.
? According to the legend, he had poached upon the lands of a certain Sir Thomas Lucy, a rich landlord
and country magistrate and was caught by Lucy’s keepers and severely punished. Shakespeare avenged
himself by composing a satirical ballad; very soon it became so popular throughout the countryside that
wherever Sir Thomas Lucy appeared he was met with the strains of the ballads. Sir Thomas was enraged
and redoubled his persecution to such a degree that Shakespeare was compelled to leave Stratford and seek refuge in London.
? While at home he often went to watch the traveling companies’ plays such as miracle plays in the neighboring town of Coventry.
? In 1582 he married a farmer’s daughter Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his elder. He arrived in London in 1586 or 1587. From then on he began his career as a playwright. Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford.
3.2 Shakespeare’s literary career
As the greatest English dramatist and poet, Shakespeare left us a great wealth of 37 plays, including 14 comedies, 12 tragedies, and 11 historical plays, 154 sonnets, as well as two long poems.
3.2.1 Shakespeare as a playwright
? Three periods of Shakespeare’s creation of plays
? The first period: 1590 to 1600, in which he wrote altogether 22 plays: 11 comedies, three tragedies
and eight historical plays. Generally speaking, this is a period marked by youthfulness, optimism and
rich imagination. Shakespeare looked upon the world as a just one in which good can always
overcome evil in the long run, and justice would eventually win its cause in the end. In this period he
created his best history plays: Henry?, Richard?,and Henry?, and the best comedies he wrote
in this period are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice; Much Ado about Nothing,
As You Like It; and Twelfth Night; as well as his first masterpieces in tragedy, Romeo and Juliet and
? The second period: 1601 to 1608, the period of tragedies. This period is marked by gloom and
depression combined with masterly workmanship. During these years, the mind and the heart of the
poet were concerned with deepest matters of human life and this period reflected his growth in
experience, in vision, and in sympathy. In this period he produced his four great tragedies: Hamlet,
Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, which represent the climax of his dramatic power. In each of those
plays there is an intense moral struggle, a less joyous view of life, and a profound view of
philosophy. He touches all the depth of human passion and human tragedy, treachery, lust, jealousy,
ingratitude, madness of man, etc. During this period Shakespeare’s belief and trust in mankind had
been shattered. The world no longer seemed a just one, but a world filled with hopeless pessimism,
gloom and depression. “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”
? The third period: 1609 to 1612, the period of dramatic romances. The plays in this period are full of
unrealistic compromises and fantasy. It is a period of restored serenity and tolerant resignation. He
no longer hated the world but accepted it with a smile of resignation. He writes no more historical
plays full of bloody horrors; no more tragedies in which the whole world goes crashing down with
the hero; and no more comedies filled with sprightly wit. However, he finds life once more worth
living, and the world beautiful, enchanting, and fantastically attractive.
? Chief achievements and characteristics of Shakespeare’s drama
Shakespeare’s success as a great playwright chiefly rest on the following five aspects: 1) The progressive significance of his themes; 2) His successful character portrayal; 3) His master-hand in constructing plays; 4) The ingenuity of his poetry; 5) His mastery of English language. ? Shakespeare’s themes
No other writer in English history has dealt with such a variety of themes as William Shakespeare.
Through his plays, he touched almost every aspects of human life, of human pleasures and human
tragedies. Shakespeare paints in his dramas a faithful panorama of the decline of old feudal nobility
and the rise of the Tudor monarchy, which represented the interests of the English bourgeoisie.
Moreover, he is perhaps the perfect expression of Renaissance humanism. He distilled into his drama
the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance, and his drama becomes an expression, a monument of the
? Shakespeare’s character portrayal
In his 37 dramas, Shakespeare created a large group of lifelike characters who live and struggle,
suffer and rejoice—representing all the complexities and implications of real life. His keen insight
into the workings of human spirit enabled him to pierce to the very core of his characters and made
his men and women unforgettable creatures of flesh and blood. Though his characters are often
clothed in foreign dresses, the thoughts and feelings of the characters belong to the age of
Shakespeare. He wrote about his own people and for his own people.
? Shakespeare’s play construction
Shakespeare is a master-hand for every form of drama—comedy, tragedy, and historical plays.
Moreover, his tragedies may have comic elements, and his comedies include sardonic commentaries
on human frailty. He is skillful at recreations that under his pen every old story puts on a new look,
shines with a new beauty of its own, and becomes a dramatic art with a new significance. The plots
of Shakespeare’s plays are well-arranged according to the requirement of the theme and content. The
action is developed freely, without being hindered by the rules of the classical unities (action, place
? Shakespeare’s Poetry
In his creation of dramas, he succeeded in combing the two sides of his talent—Shakespeare the poet
into one and produced the most remarkable poetic dramas in and Shakespeare the dramatist—
England or perhaps in the whole world. The lines in his plays are not mere decorations but all have
their own values. They serve as a vehicle of utterance to all the possible sentiments of his characters.
Shakespeare not only produced wonderful poetry in different forms, like songs, sonnets, rhymed
couplets, and especially dramatic blank verse, he was also a master of prose of various styles, both
effective and powerful.
? Shakespeare’s Language
Shakespeare’s command of vocabulary was the largest among the Elizabethan dramatists. He used
more than 16000 different words and enriched the English language with his own coinage. Under his
hand, words glow with life, which vitalize the printed pages with beauty, melody, humor, pathos,
tenderness, force, or whatever effect he choose to produce. He uses the English language the greatest
freedom and ease, so that all the speeches fit all the characters that use them.
? Major comments on some of Shakespeare’s works
? The Merchant of Venice
?A double plot: (1) the story between Bassanio and Portia: (2) the story between Antonio and
? The theme: on eulogy of the triumph of justice and love over insatiable greed and brutality.
? The image of Portia: Portia is a woman of the Renaissance-beautiful, prudent, cultured,
courteous, resourceful, decisive, independent and capable of rising to an emergency. She is one of
Shakespeare’s ideal women.
Hamlet was published in 1603.and was considered to be the summit of Shakespeare’s art.
Shakespeare took the source from an old story of Prince Amleth of Denmark. But the content of the
play is in fact the reflection of his time. So the play is the profound expression of Shakespeare’s
humanism and his criticism of contemporary life.
? Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 55-86) (Selected Readings, P8-9)
This is one of the most famous soliloquies of Hamlet’s.
Soliloquy is the act of talking to oneself, whether silently or aloud. In drama it denotes the
convention by which a character, alone on the stage, utters his or her thoughts aloud.
(Discuss the questions in the Selected Readings)
1) The character of Hamlet
a. Hamlet is Prince of Denmark and he is a man of Renaissance with humanist’s ideal—a
soldier, scholar, courtier, the glass of fashion and the mold of form.
b. When he first appears in the play, he is in the state of depression, because, first he found the
evil and corruption in his country: the world to him is “an un-weeded garden, the time is out
of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” Secondly, he, from the ghost,
knows the real cause of his father’s death. Therefore, the most important problem he is
facing now is to avenging his father’s death. But the situation he is in is very dangerous in
which he had to fight against that stronghold of feudalism with his uncle on the top. So he
feigned madness. Here we can say he is a little resourceful himself. Besides this, he is a
melancholy, hesitant, reasonable and philosophical man as well as a great moralizer, and a
slow avenger of his father’s death. At other times he did have chance to act but he remains
puzzled, undecided, and skeptical, dallies with his purposes, till the occasion is lost, and
finds out some pretense to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again. For this reason
he refuses to kill the king when he is at his prayers.
c. He also disgusts at evil things, such as his uncle’s drunkenness, his loathing of his mother’s
sensuality, his astonishment and horror at her shallowness, his contempt for everything
pretentious or false. He is far from a perfect humanist, he is a man himself.
2) The theme of Hamlet
a. It expresses the sharp contradiction between the rising bourgeoisie and the feudal power
through a bloody revenge.
b. It also shows that England was no longer a merry England as it was before. It’s a country full
of disturbances, social evils.
c. It also praises Hamlet’s struggle against his evil uncle.
? The questions for further consideration and essays writing
1) Through Hamlet’s comment on the play, what perspectives do you think Shakespeare possesses
of a play?
2) Why didn’t Hamlet kill his uncle while the king was at his prayers?
3) Give me your comment on those two women: Ophelia and the queen.
4) Image of Polonius.
5) Do you notice any hints or clues about chivalry in this play?
6) What’s Hamlet’s concept of chastity?
7) Where is the climax of the play?
3.2.2 Shakespeare as a poet
? A sonnet is a poem consisting of 14 lines with rhyme arranged according to definite scheme. It was
introduced by Thomas Wyatt into England
? Shakespearean sonnet: the English sonnet, having 14 lines with tree quatrains and one couplet that make
an effective and unifying climax to the whole. It has a consistent rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. ? Discussion of Sonnet 18