The Greek Drama
In order to fully grasp the rise and content of the English drama, we must peer into the dim past and retrace our steps to the early days of ancientThe addition of dialogue to the dumb mimicry marked an important stage, but it required yet the infusion of action into the dialogue to complete the transformation. This crude drama of the Greeks was a commentary upon the lives and manners, not of human beings, but of the pantheon of gods and other mythological persons: it dealt with things of heaven, not with the problems of mundane existence. But its tone and treatment were generally comic. It was this farcical element that led, by devious and zig-zag paths, to the rise of the famous Athenian Comedy. The supernatural theme made room for the human. The ludicrous representation of the heavenly life which they combined to produce an essentially secular mind, but the religious elements were not altogether done away with. The drama, we may say, was brought down from the heavenly heights to suit the earthly needs.
. The beginnings of drama in general get lost in the ‘mimes’ or crude performances of the Dorian Greeks in honour of Dionysus, the God of Wine, whose name stood for carousal, revelry and merriment. Greece
In the days of Aristotle, the Greek drama almost completed its process of growth and received some final touches at the hands of this master-mind. It gathered all those attributes which constitute its distinctive marks. Two characteristics distinguished it mainly, the Chorus and the Unities. The Chorus was a band of singers and dancers who played in concert and sang odes to the God of Wine, and sometimes followed up the music with a lively dialogue. This dialogue came to supplant in the long run, the musical part of the performance. “The lack of scenery and of stage effect was made up for by descriptions and explanations sung by the Chorus and the limitations imposed by the three unities were met in a similar manner. The Chorus served to give a break and relief in the gloomy and often tragic monotony of the Greek drama. The Shakespearean devices of relieving tragedy by a comic element would not have been admissible.”
The Chorus was as old as the drama itself, but the rules of the Unities began with Aristotle. He observed that good plays must conform to these rules and must observe the three Unities of Time, Place and Action—
(i) The Unity of Time. The duration of the action or story must not exceed 24 hours.
(ii) The Unity of Place. The incidents of the drama must be represented in an unbroken link: the scene should be invariable and should not be so located that the dramatis personae are unable to visit it in the time allotted for the duration of the play.
(iii) The Unity of Action. The main interest or plot of the story should be uninterrupted and its course should not be deflected by side-issues and minor plots or incidents. The unity of action must be smooth and straight; all characters and scenes must directly contribute to it.
In addition to the ‘Unities’, Aristotle touched upon the form of the drama and divided it into five parts:—
(i) The Exposition. This constitutes the opening of the play; the characters are introduced to the audience and are portrayed in their respective situations which gradually work up to the dramatic action.
(ii) The Rising Action i.e., the development of the dramatic situation from the incidents in the Exposition and the gradual rise of the pitch in the dramatic plot.
(iii) The Crisis or Climax. This is the highest pitch in the drama, the turning point in the plot. It represents the effect of the incidents which have already taken their rise in the Exposition and have passed through the second stage. It marks the culmination of the dramatic action and is followed by a lowering of the tone in the play.
(iv) The Descending or Falling Action, in which the action is toned down to a lower pitch.
(v) The Denouement or Catastrophe or Solution, where the various forces in the dramatic action converge towards the solution of the plot.
The Drama and the Christian Church
The Jongleurs. In its days of decadence, the art of drama fell into the hands of wandering minstrels called Jongleur who travelled from place to place and visited the courts of kings as well as the village greens. Their art consisted in a crude representation of the life and manners of that age, but it did not achieve a height of excellence. It was akin to the rude mimicry and farce of the Indian Bhands.
In the 9th century A.D. or thereabouts, the dramatic stage shifted from the village green to the altar of the church. The churchmen saw in the stage an effective means of the propagation of Christianity and succeeded in substituting a religious theme for the secular art of the Jongleurs. Certain striking episodes in the life of Jesus Christ were cast into a dramatic form—his Birth, Crucifixion, Resurrection and many others—and these were represented on the stage on appropriate occasions. The drama thus became the handmaid of Christianity.
The Altar and the Stage
There was another swing of the pendulum. The church could not keep up the vigour of the art which the Jongleurs had exhibited and there was a return to the village green. The Churchmen tried their best to suppress this secular tendency. The village green or the market square now became the scene of the simple plays, mainly based on Biblical themes, and called the Miracle and Mystery plays. The Elizabethan drama is usually considered to be a development of these. “Miracles” and “Mysteries,” and it is more than probable that Shakespeare witnessed the performance of some of these. The Creation of the world, the Fall of Man, the Deluge, the Birth of Christ, and Resurrection were some of the commonest themes of these ‘Miracles.’
The Didactic Drama: “Moralities” or Allegorical Plays
The next stage in the growth of the drama was the change from the religious to the didactic theme. The latter half of the 14th century witnessed a strong wave of allegorical influence throughout
Europe, and the dramatic art could not but put on the colour and catch the tone of the times. A new type of drama—the Allegorical Plays or the Moralities—came into being. Characters in these plays were not human beings, but abstract qualities like Vice, Virtue, Avarice, Pride, Ignorance, Love, Mercy, Justice, Life, Death etc. The object of the Moralities was wholly didactic: the eternal warfare of evil and good, the struggle of Truth against Falsehood and a dramatic representation of the interaction of human misery and happiness formed the theme of these plays. The Moralities had a happy innovation in the shape of comic element. Satan was represented as a low jocular buffoon who kept the audience in a ‘fit of mirth.’ The introduction of the seeds of Comedy and the new romantic treatment of the theme were a happy relief to the otherwise serious monotony and dryness of the Moralities. (The Cradle of Security, Hit the Nail on the Head, Second Shepherd’s Play were some of the famous Moralities).
The Morality play was a distinct improvement upon the Miracle play. The Miracle Play was purely religious in character while the Morality Play was chiefly concerned with human nature. The latter dealt with morals and the eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil and with the misery that emanates from vice. The theme of the Miracle Play was superhuman, while that of the Moralities was mainly human and earthly. The Miracle Play left no room for originality; its subject-matter was borrowed from the Bible; the rough-and-ready incidents from the Old Testament supplied abundant material so that the dramatic genius of inventing new plots and sub-plots could not be brought to play. The Moralities, on the other hand, gave free rein to the fertile imagination of the playwright. He could invent a new scheme as well as draw upon the old sources. The addition of the comic element proved the way for the Elizabethan comedy, and provided a short spell of mirth and sunshine in the dull and irksome monotony of the Miracles. The Miracle Play, however, had one advantage over the Morality in that the characters who figured in the Miracle Play had distinct individualities, whereas the Morality dealt with abstractions, the personification of abstract qualities.
Interludes and Comedies (Secular Drama)
The importance of the comic element in the Moralities has been emphasised above. It was at first employed to relieve the dreary monotony of the play, but soon it outgrew its function and expanded into a regular dramatic composition. This comic element, or the Interlude as it was often called was the mother of the later Elizabethan comedy. The Interludes were short lively pieces, with characters mostly drawn from real life, though these characters still represented types rather than individuals. But they formed a happy transition from the bare abstractions of the Moralities to the clear-cut individualistic characterisation of the Shakespearean play. The Interludes gave an impetus to the growth of regular drama. They emphasised the element of diversion just for its own sake and offered a contrast to the religious motive of the Miracle Plays or the didactic of the Moralities. The range of subjects grew; the life and manners of the contemporary age came to be reflected truthfully. “Moreover there was now arising the feeling of the need for division on the classical model into regular acts and scenes, and with the Interludes now claiming independent existence, a rough and ready division may be made of Tragedy, Comedy, and plays which are a mixture of both.”
English Drama and the Renaissance
At this time,
Europe was animated by a new spirit and fresh ideals. The wonderful Renaissance Movement kicked the slumbering continent into energy. The Muses bore the torch of new knowledge to all parts of Europe. This Revival of Learning brought in its train a passionate zeal for the classical literature of and Greece . It had its influence on the English stage too. The “Miracles’’, “Mysteries” and the “Moralities” were driven out by a new type of drama which took its rise in Rome and Oxford and derived its inspiration from Cambridge and Greece . English dramas came to be written on the classical model; of these all, Gorboduc was the most striking example. It was based on the tragedies of the illustrious Seneca and it contained all the traits of the Greek drama—the Chorus, the three Unities and the division of the dramatic action into five parts. Many plays belong to this period of infancy of the English stage e.g. Rome
(i) Ralph Roister Doister, a comedy written by Nicholas Udall in 1550-51, but actually published in 1566.
(ii) Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex (1562), tragedy.
(iii) Damon and Pythias, (1564) a tragi-comedy by Richard Edwards, based upon the classical mythology.
The Renaissance, combined with the Reformation, tended to produce the Romantic drama. To this drama, therefore, we should now turn.
The Romantic Drama of the Renaissance or the Elizabethan Age
The Romantic drama was a product of the Elizabethan age. The English dramatists, after a few experiments on the classical model, noted above, altogether discarded the three unities. The classical drama was followed in two ways: (a) a dignified form and (b) a luxuriant expression. The treatment of the English drama grew to be romantic rather than classical. The three unities of time, place and action were not observed, so that an English play of this period could cover an indefinite period of time, the action could “move from place to place” and subsidiary plots or by-plots could exist side by side with the main plot. Thus in King Lear, Othello and some other plays we notice sub-plots running alongwith the main thread of the story.
A word about Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors. Of these the following names deserve special mention:—
1. Robert Greene
3. George Peele
4. John Lyly
5. Christopher Marlowe
John Lyly was noted for his polished and sweet prose, a facile expression, and happy similes and witticisms. Shakespeare drew upon his plays to a very large extent. What Lyly did for prose, Peele did for verse: his verse is balanced and hence tends to be rather monotonous. While Lyly and Peele succeeded in providing the infant romantic drama with a happy form and expression, Greene portrayed human passion and action in a masterly style and introduced a romantic spirit into the English comedy. ‘Over his poetry breathes the fresh air of the English meadows.’ Marlowe’s contribution was still greater. “His genius was essentially of a tragic cast; from his veins the life-blood of passion had flowed into the drama of England and forthwith it lost its timidity and was conscious of strange new force and fire; in his tragedies were first heard upon a public stage, that measure which is the express voice in our poetry of dramatic feeling—the blank verse.” Marlowe’s art was thus a prelude to the sonorous music of Shakespeare—a music now gushing and roaring like the tumultuous waves of mighty deeps, and now flowing, drooping like the whispering ripples of a moonlit and the tinkling of distant bells at the dead of night. To Shakespeare, therefore, we now turn for “this still sad music of humanity.”
The Praise of Marlowe among the University Wits
Christopher Marlowe, though the youngest of the University Wits and the earliest to die, except for Robert Greene, was the most important among them in the world of drama; he is still regarded as the mighty and wonderful dramatic genius who gave to the English tragic drama a permanent direction and life. He collaborated with some of his fellows and most probably was associated with Shakespeare. “It has been suggested from internal evidence that he was the part-author of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. He perhaps also wrote parts of Henry VI, which Shakespeare revised and completed, and of Edward III.” Be that as it may, the four plays, all tragedies, that make Marlowe foremost among the predecessors of Shakespeare are Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, The Jew of
, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II. Malta
Marlowe: A Typical Product of the Renaissance
Renaissance, which literally means ‘re-birth’ or ‘re-awakening’ is the name of a Europe-wide movement which closes the trammels and conventions of the medieval age and makes for liberation in all aspects of life and culture.
Though the influence of the spirit of the Renaissance marks all the writers of the latter half of the age of Elizabeth,—in poetry, drama, and prose romances and novels, that can be seen working with particular force on Marlowe and his fellows who together are called the University Wits. Of them again, the writings of Marlowe are the most prominent embodiment of the spirit of the Renaissance. Generally speaking, Marlowe himself is the spirit of Renaissance incarnate. A reckless Bohemian in life, a daring atheist setting not much value on moral worth but all value on the Machiavellian virtue, living a life of imagination rather than of thought, of gaiety full of the zest for life, Marlowe is the typical product of the Renaissance. In the conception of the central characters of his dramas, he is impelled by the Renaissance spirit for unlimited power, unlimited knowledge for the sake of power, unlimited wealth, again, for the sake of power. Aspirations, unbounded desire of love for the pleasures of the senses, infinite longing for beauty rather than for truth—these are the characteristics of the imaginative life which glittered before his eyes in that great age of daring adventures. On the aesthetic side, love of physical beauty mentioned above goes in him hand in hand with love of the beauty of harmony; the high astounding terms of his blank verse, the thrills and echoes of his phrases, the resounding roll of his declamations, the surfeit of mythological allusions—all these run into excess; but the excesses only point to the essential ambition of reaching beyond the narrow and the limited into the infinity of achievement, which is the noblest gift of the Renaissance.