The Elizabethan and Jacobean Eras
Historians frequently draw a distinction between the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, was the last of the Tudor family; the first was her grandfather, Henry VII. Elizabeth never married, and as she aged, her failure to provide an heir to the throne increasingly troubled her subjects. Eventually, Elizabeth arranged for her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland, to become James I of England; he governed both countries until his death in 1625. The Elizabethan era was a time of relative hope and confidence. In the early seventeenth century, however, the national mood seems to have become tense and anxious, partially because James was not as skillful a ruler as Elizabeth. This period, called Jacobean from the Latin form of James's name, also is known as the early Stuart era after James's family name. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a cultural product of the reign of Elizabeth, yet many of his greatest plays were composed during the Jacobean era and reflect its pessimistic spirit.
English Renaissance Drama and Its Debt to the Past
Despite his stature as one of the greatest poets of all time, Shakespeare was not an isolated genius, for he worked in an age of great dramatists. Christopher Marlowe set the model that Shakespeare followed in writing tragedy, and Ben Jonson was Shakespeare's best known contemporary rival as a writer of comedy. As well as being the great popular entertainment of the age, stage plays gave the occasion for the fullest expression of one of its major insights: that life is inherently theatrical and that to be human is to play a variety of roles. Emphasizing rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion, the typical Renaissance education encouraged self-dramatization. Modern students read and write essays in composition courses; Renaissance students read and wrote speeches, learning to elaborate wittily on set topics and to improvise in different voices. The key to classical education was imitation; the theory was that imitating the great writers of the past improved one's own writing. Many of the model speeches Elizabethan schoolchildren imitated were Latin orations and dialogues. As a result, the curriculum planned by humanist scholars in the early days of Henry VIII trained students to think in terms of dramatic situations and seems to have contributed directly to the unprecedented outpouring of dramatic writing during Elizabeth's reign. Outside the schoolroom, a homegrown dramatic heritage and nationalistic pride created a uniquely English age of great drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the Middle Ages, a native theatre developed. By the fifteenth century, sequences of plays representing biblical accounts of Christian religious history, from the creation of Adam and Eve through the Last Judgment, were performed annually by townspeople on portable stages set up in town streets. Craft guilds,...