The Renaissance, meaning “rebirth”, paved the way for a new kind of literature and a revival of the classical values and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. During the second half of the 16th century, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I, hence the term for this historical era: the Elizabethan period.
Definition and Background
In French the word “naissance” means birth. And we know that most words beginning with “re-“ mean to do something over again (rewrite, replace, refurbishment, reopening) – hence the name of the period means re-birth. What is born again is art and culture. After the so-called “Dark Ages” (which in a cultural aspect weren’t so dark after all), art was again seen as an important way for man to express himself. Mainly it was the classical ideals of Greece and Rome that were brought back to life; therefore the period is also referred to as Classicism. Most of the French and English plays of the era are clearly inspired by the works of great Greek playwrights like Sofokles and Euripedes.
The artists depicted man’s complexity, his shortcomings, contradictions, doubts and beliefs. God is there as the great creator, but man had to search within himself for solutions of the mysteries of life. The label Humanism refers to this focus on man’s own ability to come to terms with the world.
This period is also called Elizabethan, as it was at its peak during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She ruled England during the last half of the 16th century, and was a strong monarch and a well-educated woman who encouraged art and culture.
The most important cultural venue at that time was the theatre. Most common people were illiterate; books were expensive and accessible only for the aristocracy. But the theatre was a unifying arena where everybody could be captivated by what they saw and listened to. People were good listeners and story-telling was a cherished tradition, so these dramatized stories attracted huge audiences. Theatres were mainly located in London, but theatrical groups also travelled around the country, for example, when London in the 1590s was hit by the plague and the authorities banned public gatherings and closed down the theatres.
Actors and playwrights were the celebrities of the time. Theatres were owned by aristocrats who offered their patronage, which comes close to our conception of sponsorship. There was a competition between the theatres and between the playwrights to attract the biggest audience (and make more money). The most famous theatres were The Globe, The White Hart, The Rose to mention a few. The Globe is closely connected with William Shakespeare who had it built in 1598.
Elizabethan theatre was in principle similar to a modern theatre, but in many ways different from the stages we see today. Most importantly it was quite primitive when it came to lighting and other effects. There was a trap door in the stage floor, and there would be several rooms on the stage to indicate different scenes and settings. Since there was no lighting, plays would be performed only during daytime. All the actors were men; female parts were played by male adolescents, which was usual in ancient Greece as well. New performances were announced by a flag at the top of the theatre building or by firing a cannon. In addition, the theatres would have a herald who announced the new play on street corners. It is a question how much the audience understood of the often pompous and poetic language the actors used. But what is certain is that the theatre was immensely popular with people of all categories and classes.
Elements and Techniques
The plot could often be quite complicated, and it included all the popular elements such as sword fights, murder, unrequited love, revenge, betrayal, ghosts, witches, and sorcery. The playwrights knew how to take advantage of the fact that most people were superstitious. Another technique, which is still a common feature in both tragedies and comedies, was to let someone have information which was not intended for him, for example by letting him overhear a conversation from a concealed position. This eavesdropping would then incite him to take action, and the play was on. In many of Shakespeare’s plays another popular element is mistaken identity. The protagonist would then dress up in disguise, perhaps even as a woman, and in that way be able to alter the course of the plot for his own benefit. This technique is widely used in comedies, as the audience then has information which is kept from some of the characters; and the complications that follow have an imminent comical potential.
As mentioned, the playwrights often borrowed plots and intrigues from the ancient Greek theatre tradition. This is true especially for tragedies. Many renaissance tragedies, both in England and France have elements that can be traced back to the father of Greek tragedy, Aiskylos. A tragedy is a particularly strong way of moving an audience. Certain features usually separate the tragedy from being just a sentimental piece that just makes you sad. Some of the basic tragic elements are for example when the protagonist is forced into fatal actions caused either by a flaw in his personality or by circumstances beyond his control. In a tragedy, disaster will strike against the good forces and the positive elements will eventually be defeated by the evil. The innocent and benevolent character is somehow driven into an escalating line of destructive actions that will usually end in death. The last scene of Romeo and Juliet is a classic example; it is not only that the two lovers can’t have each other; they both perish in an unnecessary and self-inflicted death. Death was in general a mandatory ingredient of a tragedy, in most cases the death of the good protagonist caused either by himself directly or by circumstances that he has incited himself. A tragedy is supposed to make you sad and angry, but not everything that makes you sad and angry is a tragedy.