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The story of birth and the early development of English Drama are complicated. It has passed various stages and transitions. There was no drama in English before the Norman Conquest. The bulk of old English writings were overshadowed by the influence of Latin Christianity. The Latin Church had always feared the powerful appeal that drama made to the eye and ear. Drama is an appeal to the senses being a direct challenge to its spiritual authority. The church had done nothing to encourage the stage since the decadence of the pagan drama of Rome. It was strange that the mass in Latin Christianity was in reality a strange sacred drama and it contained any rate of dramatic possibilities. Being phoenix, raised from its ashes the shadow of the church drama rose again.
During the 10th century, the clergyman requisitioned the most elementary kind of dramatic representation. It was a sort of tables. The clergy man wanted to bring home to the spectators the simple truths of Christianity. From the continent it was passed over to Normans of England. This traced the origin of both Miracle plays and Moralities. There was a distinction between Mysteries and Miracles. The Miracle was a play which dealt with miraculous incidents in the lives of saints and martyrs. The Mysteries were stories which were taken from scripture and narratives. The clergy and choristers took part in the church services at Easter and Christmas showed the possibility of dramatic representation of the myths of religion. While developments in mysteries and miracle plays had been taking place, the Latin plays of Platus and Terence were studies and imitated in the monasteries. Thus Hrotsvitha, Abbess of the Benedictine convent in Gandersheim (Eastphalia) wrote in the 10th century. Six Latin plays were modeled on the comedies of Terence.
The earliest miracles were written probably by an Englishman. They are in Latin with refrains inn old French towards the end of the eleventh century; lost miracles on the subject of St. Katherine might have taken place. It was the work of a certain Geoffrey, settled at Denstable. These performances have been quite common by the latter half of the 12th century.
The earliest dramatic performances arose with the church rituals and it was played in the church itself. The clergies wrote and presented the plays. Then the plays were enacted by the laity from the church into the churchyard and then into the street. The plays became popular and the overcrowding of the spectators led to the descreation of the graveyards. The comic element and farce began to over dominate the religious element. The clergy who took part in this performance felt scandalized. The trade guilds started celebrating the feasts of their patron saints and they began to perform mysteries on some occasions.
These plays were represented outside by pageants i.e. movable platforms. The performances were repeated and steered round the town halting at different stations. In 1311, the council of rienne revived the feast of Corpus Christi. In 1264, it had been instituted by pope urban IV. This festival was celebrated usually in June and it was observed by trade guilds as a public holiday. This was also absorbed into the dramatic representations of the day. The original repertory was the Christmas and Easter scenes and it was expanded until a complete cycle was formed. It started from the creation and fall of a man dealing with principal events in the life of Christ and terminating with the judgment. Four such cycles have been preserved the York, Townley Chester and Coventry cycles.
The York cycle consists of forty eighty plays and it dates from the middle of the fourteenth century. The townley or Wakefield cycle belongs to about the same date was thirty two in number. In these plays the comic and realistic elements are more highly developed. The Chester plays are twenty five in number. It was acted at Whitsuntide instead of Corpus Christi. The Chester plays gave a steady view about the object of religious instructions. The Coventry cycle consists of forty two plays. It was connected with doubtful tradition and it was performed a company of strolling players. The introduction of abstract personification in these plays links the cycle with the earlier moralities.
These plays were performed until 16th century. In 1579, the York plays were performed lastly. The pageants were a moving house consisting of high scaffold with two rooms, a higher, and a lower upon four wheels. The higher room served as a stage and the lower room served as green room. The top was wide open so that the spectators might hear and see everything. They played all along the street. Thus they began first at the Abbey gates and when the first pageant was played, it wheeled to the high cross before the mayor and then to the every street. So every street had a pageants playing before it at one time until the pageants appointed for the day they had been played. All the pageants in different streets assembled at one place at the end of the performance.
The relation between miracles and Shakespearean drama has been stated by court hope: “They prepared the ground in the first place, by spreading a taste for theatrical exhibitions among the people: by furnishing opportunities, in many of the scriptural scenes for the direct imitation of human nature as at second place: By importing into the representations foreign materials and characters, which led to the invention of the plots beyond the range of scripture invention was at third place. These early dramatists furnished the hints for all the named generic characters, which were figured so prominently in Shakespeare’s plays. The prototypes in the pageants of the craftsman were Shakespeare’s first and second citizens, carriers, gentlemen and soldiers. The scripture narrative was generalized form the familiar talk which helped the actors to realize about townsfolk and the style made classical in the Mouths of Bottom, Dogberry and Falstaff. There were also some elements which influenced the later history of drama. For Eg. The pathetic situations in the scene between Abraham and Issac, in the story of Jesus Christ, the comic element in the character of Lucifer undramatic character of the bombastic herod and the pastoral element in the scene of the annunciation of the shepherds.
The intermediate stage between the miracle play and the true drama was represented by the morality plays. The dramatic power of the moralities fall far below the miracles. The themes of the miracles were from the scripture narratives and therefore it had readymade plots. The invention of allegorical characters scene paintings and dramatic properties showed the interest of writers of moralities some real characters were depicted under ,oral nick name in attempt to individualize allegorical characters. The form and substance of true drama gradually appeared when actual historical or contemporaneous people were substituted for abstract virtues and vices
The miracle plays do not have great literary value, but they popularized the desire for dramatic representation especially the intermingling of the comic elements with the tragedy giving a way for the romantic plays of Shakespeare. The morality plays appeared in the fifteenth century. But it was gradually developed into didactic interludes and other dramatic composition. The dramatic at advanced the individuality of characterization and realism of dialogue.
Interlude is the next stage in the development of Drama. It was different from morality worth regard to secular and comic subjects. But it anticipated the early form of comedy. The important feature of the Elizabethan drama was the performance of interludes. Household servants and retainers acted in the interludes. There were more or less well trained actors among the noblemen. Noblemen’s theatrical companies were found in the later of Elizabethan’s reign. Example: the earl of Leicester’s servants, the Queen’s players and so on.
Another important form of dramatic art is the Masque. The origin of the masque traced its origin from the spectacle or pageant with a certain amount of pantomime thrown in. The masque has a dual character. Dancing and concerted movement resembled the modern ballet and songs and dialogues resembled the modern opera.
The three influences, traced in the development of English drama are native tradition. The Latin influence and the Italian influence these three elements were blended in the works of later Elizabethan playwrights. The Mystery and the Miracle plays, the morality, interlude, rough farce, chronical plays, historical plays and the jester and the fools represent the development of the native tradition. Seneca’s tragedy, Platus and Terence’s works showed the development of Latin influence. Example: Udall’s first comedy though English in plot, incident, tone and dialogue, it followed the classical principles in construction. The Italian influence marked in tragedies like Gascoigne’s Jocasta and Wheatstone’s Promosarp Cassandra and in the comedies of Gascoigne’s supposes.
The interludes disregarded the abstract personification of morality plays in favor of living types. Heywood’s interludes like A play of Love, the four P’s, the curate and the neighbor pratt are all more or less realistic sketches. A typical example for realistic sketches was the four P’s. It has a single incident and moral dialogues, concerned with a dispute. The first three P’ (Poticary, Pardoner and Palmer) told the biggest lie and the fourth P (Pedler) told about an appointed judge. The Topiary called the peddler as an honest man but Peddler passed it and bid them in the form of a narrative piece. The poticary told the story of a marvelous cure. The pardoner beats hi by telling the story of the release of a woman’s soul from hell. The Pardoner expressed his marvel at the story of the Pardoner and protests in good humored sarcasm.
The first regular English comedy was Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister. It followed Latin models. The play is divided into acts and scenes and it was written rhyming couplets. The action is clearly developed, the dialogue is lively and plot has some substance and the dramatis personane are live characters. In 1562, the first English tragedy Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex by Sackville and north Norton was played. This play is divided into acts and scenes and it was written in blank verse. Before each act, there is a dumb show which foreshadows what is next to appear on the stage. The end of the act contained chorus in rhyming verse. Long speeches and Gloomy atmosphere are the features of this play. The regularity of the plot meter was the only merit it possessed. The Latin models were followed in both tragedy and comedy. The comedy plays founded upon Platus and the tragedy plays influenced upon Seneca. The classical influence was more than the native genius and tradition in the subsequent development of English drama.
The later development of English drama traced through the works of university wits. The university wits are the scholars who were fostered under either Cambridge or oxford. George Peele of oxford, Robert Green of Cambridge and then of Oxford Margaret are the chief university wits. Among them, Margaret is worthy of Shakespeare. He is chiefly remembered for his spiteful attack on Shakespeare in his pamphlet, “Groastsworth of wit”. Form Thomas Lodge’s Prose novel Rosalynde, Shakespeare borrowed the plot of ‘As you like it’. As a dramatist, John Lyly is hardly important. The introduction of Eupheism in his Euphes the anatomy of wit and Eupes and his England had a great influence in Shakespeare’s development. In Shakespeare’s love’s labor lost, Bastard Eupheism is ridiculed. In much ado about nothing, genuine Eupheism is truly illustrated in the tongue fence between Benderick and Beatrice. Thomas kyd, was at either university wrote Hieronymo and its sequel the Spanish tragedy, was full of blood curdling horrors and vulgar rant. Bit here and there are passages of lofty poetry.
The important of all university wins and the one who influenced Shakespeare’s development was Christopher Marlowe of Cambridge. His chief plays are Tamburlaine, doctor Faustus, the Jew of Malts and Edward II. Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare’s predecessor. Shakespeare’s Ricard II was influenced by Marlowe’s Edward II. Marlowe’s blank verse had been perfected by Shakespeare. Marlowe had no touch of humor, no sense of artistic proportion; in straining after the vast and awful, he sometimes degenerated into Bombast. But his work has a force and poetic beauty, which was hardly surpassed by Shakespeare.
Saintsbury summedup the work of university wits: In all we find the may sided activity of the Shakespearean drama as it was to be sprawling and struggling in a kind of swaddling clothes of which it cannot get and which hamper and cripple its movements. In all, there is present a most extraordinary and unique rant and bombast of expression which reminds one of the shrieks and yells of a band of healthy boys just come to play. The passages which are known to everyone are evidently meant quite seriously throughout the work of these poets. Side by side with this is another mania, foible of classical allusion. The heathen gods and goddesses. The localities of Greek and Roman poetry are put in the mouths of all the characters without the remotest attempt to consider property of relevance. On the other hand, the merits, though less evenly distributed in degree, are equally constant in kind. In kyat, in Greene still more, in Peele more still, in Marlowe, most of all, Phrases and Passages of bright and dazzling poetry flash out of the midst of the bombast and the tedium.
Shakespeare was not belonged not to the university group, but he was rival to the set of actor playwrights. The actor playwrights who preceded Shakespeare were very little. They worked in group for the development of their respective companies. They contributed their work to the drama, rather than of poetry. They made characters, plot, acting and reacting develop each other as an organic parts of a living whole, instead of using the plot as a peg to hand splendid speeches. A mere background to throw out in Lurid light the hero’s all-devouring egotism was in Marlowe’s case.
Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries four of them specially were connected with him both by the character of their work and their personalities. Ben Johnson made his name through Shakespeare’s good offices. It is said by his work “Everyman in his humor”. He wrote many plays but the two roman plays Sejanus and Catiline gave deficient in human interest. He had a keen eye on characteristic foibles of men and women and a wide range of observation. His plays exhibit every variety of wit, subtle character analysis and knowledge of the world. Johnson’s genius was too unsympathetic to make him a perfect master of Drama. His dramatis personae do not come to our hearts as Shakespeare’s works do. George Chapman is all fools and the best tragedy of him is Busya Ambois. His dramatic work is inferior to Johnson’s except in occasional passages. John Marston wrote several plays but his best comedy was Antonio and Mellida. In his “What you will”, in spite of blood curdling bombast, there are fine passages in his plays. Being a hack writer, Thomas Dekker wrote a large amount of dramatic work chiefly in collaboration with others. He approached Shakespeare far nearer than any of his contemporaries in pathos and in the definition of manhood.
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