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Minor Elizabethan Drama

The term "comedy" as applied to a division of the drama was not used in England until the Renaissance had brought a knowledge of the classical drama and theatre.

Ashley Thorndike

Copyright © 1910, expired in the United States.

The term "comedy" as applied to a division of the drama was not used in England until the Renaissance had brought a knowledge of the classical drama and theatre. And the beginnings of comedy in England, in the sixteenth century, were the outcome of the breaking away from mediaeval forms and an approach to the models of Plautus and Terence, Since then the term has been used loosely to include a great variety of species, some of which have only the slightest resemblance to the Greek and Latin comedies. Even in the beginning many medimval practices and forms continued, and national conditions forbade any slavish following of ancient example. The plays in this volume illustrate several of the varieties of comedy which appeared in the sixteenth century and prepared the way for the wonderful series of romantic comedies which Shakespeare created in utter defiance of classical model or precept.

Though the term was new the thing was old. The comic spirit, which is at least older than folk games or any drama however primitive, invaded the miracle plays at an early date and flourished in the Towneley Cycle; while there were many wandering entertainers who purveyed farce and clownage. Farce elevated to the sphere of written drama appears at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the plays of John Heywood; and by that time farcical comedy had nearly captured the morality. The morality had about ceased as a long serious performance, given out of doors and lasting perhaps all day. It had become short, suited to presentation indoors, and it relieved its allegory with abundant farce. Moreover, it was enlarging its subject matter, adopting pedagogical, controversial, and other subjects for its presentation by abstractions. To the drama, reaching out on every hand for new material as well as new methods, the classical influence came not only directly through the plays of Plautus and Terence, but also indirectly through many continental adaptations of mediaeval matter to the Latin forms. The biblical Terentian plays, and especially those dealing with the story of the Prodigal Son, made a species by themselves. And, when the new spirit of endeavour had once led men away from mediaeval conventions, it was easy to experiment in the drama as elsewhere; and all sorts of scenic entertainments or dramatisations of story appeared which were at least more like comedy than tragedy.

Before the middle of the sixteenth century, conditions governing play-acting had greatly changed from mediaeval times and had made some advance toward modern modes. Plays, or interludes, were generally short, and capable of being performed by a few actors wherever a platform could be raised; and, though they might be serious in part, they usually offered a fair share of amusement. Playacting, however, was still largely in the hands of amateurs, and conformed to no settled custom or theatre. Amateur acting of some sort was common everywhere, in villages and schools, and by the Bottoms and their mechanics, and the Holoferneses and their pupils; while the interest in plays extended through every class of society from queen to vagabond. Some of the different methods of performance are of particular influence in connection with the development of comedy. First, the universities and schools acted plays in both Latin and English. They provided the main support of comedy along classical lines, but they also ventured into other fields, and some of the companies of school children gave public performances. Second, the court, which constantly supported the drama, encouraged especially all sorts of shows, pageants, and plays that offered spectacle, music, and dancing. Third, the custom of children acting in school and at court led to the organisation of regular companies of children which played both at court and in public. Their influence seems to have been toward a lighter, more refined kind of comedy. Fourth, the adult men's companies were constantly growing in importance. For a time they wandered about the country, but in 1576-7 two public playhouses were built in London, and henceforth the companies grew in stability and reputation. They rapidly took the drama out of the hands of amateurs, though for many years they had to contend with the children's companies. The most famous adult actors were clowns, and doubtless the public theatres in the beginning dealt largely with roaring farce, but they soon found a place for romantic story or social satire. These four kinds of performance and the varieties of drama which they encouraged are illustrated by the plays in this volume.

"Ralph Roister Doister" (1566 (?), acted c. 1540) was written by Nicholas Udall, a schoolmaster, doubtless for performance by schoolboys. It is usually known as the first English comedy, but its claim to that distinction depends on the restriction of the term to a full-fledged, five-act play on the Latin model. It is an elaborate farce with a fair infusion of English manners and fun, and this sort of matter was readily adapted to Plautian characters and plot. One character, the miles gloriosus, was destined to have a distinguished career. Doubtless London taverns furnished many representatives of the Plautian type, and braggart soldiers are among the most lifelike figures in English comedy. Even the best of these, however, even Bobadil and Falstaff, retain some outlines of the old stage type. The close imitation of Latin drama which we find in "Ralph Roister Doister" is further exemplified by a number of other early plays: by Gascoigne's "Supposes," translated from Ariosto, by Lyly's original and clever "Mother Bombie," and by Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors."

But the influence of Plautus and Terence was manifested not so much in elaborate copying as in innumerable borrowings. Characters like the old men, the young lovers, and the clever servants proved as well suited to the modern stage as the miles gloriosus and the methods of disguise and mistaken identity became part of the stock-in-trade of Elizabethan dramatists. They were easily adapted to any kind of play or to any kind of subjects, but they proved especially suited to realistic or satirical comedies of manners. The Elizabethan age did not suffer its attraction for romantic themes to lead to a neglect of the depiction and criticism of contemporary life, and it found the Latin scheme of tricks and their exposure well fitted to the treatment of modem follies and foibles. Of the many free developments from Latin models, Ben Jonson's plays are the most notable; and his "Alchemist" is perhaps the best example of a close study of the old methods resulting in an original masterpiece of fun and social satire.

Progress away from the classical models and in new and fortunate directions was carried on before Shakespeare by a group of university men, of whom Lyly, Peele, and Greene were the chief contributors to comedy. Of these Lyly was the earliest and deserves the most praise as an innovator. While still a young man he won a prompt and wide success with his two novels Euphues; but though this gained him a certain position at court, it brought no large reward, and for years he wrote plays for the child actors of St. Paul's and the queen's chapel. His eight comedies are all, except "The Woman in the Moon," written in prose; and all except the Plautian "Mother Bombie" adhere loosely to a common formula. They are generally based on classical myths, and often introduce pastoral elements, and they revolve about similar love complications. The course of true love is aided or hampered or participated in by gods, goddesses, nymphs, shepherds, foresters, philosophers, sirens, and fairies, as well as by ordinary mortals. All of these indulge in courtly and graceful dialogue, which is quickened to a lively word-play and repartee from the tongues of the pages or servants, who usually form one group of the dramatis Personae.

The witty page now supersedes the rude buffoon of earlier plays as a fun-maker. The plays, though acted in public, seem to have been written primarily for court presentation, and occasionally present an allegory of contemporary politics. But their spectacle and music and their lively and refined dialogue were designed above all to please. Everything is graceful and ingenious, there is scarcely a hint of tragedy, and all serious purpose is veiled in allegory or relieved by merriment and song. Lyly is to be credited with a notable extension of the court entertainments which the children had long acted, and which are represented among extant plays by Peele's "Arraignment of Paris" and the anonymous "Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune." Through Lyly comedy became a graceful literary entertainment and a field for fancy and wit.

"Endymion" (1591, acted 1585) is one of the best and most typical of his plays. The story of Cynthia's love for a mortal is made to symbolise the queen's affection for Leicester, and the allegory is multiplied after the fashion of "The Fairy Queen," so that Cynthia, for example, may be the moon, or Chastity, or Queen Elizabeth. But neither politics nor allegory is pressed too hard. The pert pages are always breaking in to chaff the ridiculous braggart, Sir Tophas, or to worry the stupid watch, or to join in a song. Once, indeed, some of the smallest children of the company appear as fairies. The play is a piece of theatrical confectionery suited to the precocious children, and aiming to please the court and flatter the queen. Its wit and grace are too slight to win much praise to-day except from the gentlest of readers, who may find therein many foreshadowings of Shakespeare's magic fancy. The saucy pages, the love entanglements and bewilderments, the witty dialogues, some bits of song, and even the fairies might appear as his creditors. Shakespeare's earliest comedy, "Love's Labour's Lost," is manifestly closely modelled on Lyly, and "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" are not without considerable indebtedness. In fact, Shakespeare began where Lyly left off, and he was fortunate to find his way so well prepared. Ben Jonson was offering honest praise to his memory when he declared:

I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
Arid tell how far thou did'st our Lily outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line.

George Peele wrote plays of various kinds, tragedies, histories, and comedies, including an operatic court entertainment, "The Arraignment of Paris," somewhat in Lyly's mode, but his most original and interesting play is "The Old Wives' Tale" (1595, acted c. 1590). We do not know just when it was written or for what sort of presentation, but certain puzzling and perhaps archaic elements in its arrangement for the stage suggest an early date and a performance at court. It cannot be said to represent any particular species, but it is a striking illustration of the variety of ingredients which an Elizabethan playwright would often combine in one afternoon's entertainment. It begins with an induction-a mimic audience intervening between the real audience and the play proper-a device five plays included in this volume illustrate the most important tendencies in early comedy and those which contributed most to Shakespeare's creation of romantic comedy.

We have noted that his earliest comedies belong to the classes which we have discussed. "The Comedy of Errors" belongs with the Plautian adaptations, "Love's Labour's Lost" belongs with Lyly's plays, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" with Greene's. The service of these predecessors was, however, more wide-reaching than can be indicated by such direct bills of indebtedness. They represent the development of comedy from rude farce to a refined, varied, and poetical form of entertainment. They prepared audience and actors for the great enchantments that were to follow, and they showed the material and some of the means whereby those enchantments might bewrought. Girls in boys' clothing, saucy pages, estranged and reuniting lovers, brag.-art soldiers, stupid constables, magicians, fairies, were all familiar on the stage. Courtly and witty dialogues, lovely songs, alluring descriptions, and absurd conceits, could all be heard. And the audience was accustomed to spectacle, excitement, wonders, to verbal displays, to poetry, and to the sympathetic presentation of character, and to the exaltation of virtue. The ingredients for "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It" were all there; they only awaited the alchemist.