All dramatic effort in England before the sixteenth century was so rude as to be of little account. The Miracle and Mystery plays were introduced into England in the reign of Henry VI, and many of them had a personage called "Iniquity," a coarse buffoon, whose object was to amuse the audience. After the Reformation the Protestant Bishop Bale wrote plays on the same plan as the Mysteries, intended to instruct the people in the supposed errors of Popery. These plays, which deal largely in satire, became popular and after the era of Henry VIII were known as Interludes. In the beginning of the sixteenth century real comedy and tragedy began to exist in a rude form. The oldest known English comedy, Ralph Royster Doyster, was written by Nicholas Udall, and describes a character whose comic misadventures are somewhat akin to Don Quixote.
The earliest tragedy, Gorboduc, known also Ferrex and Porrex, was played in the Lower Temple. It is founded on the legends of fabulous British history. The tragedies of Marlowe and the legendary plays of Greene come next in order, followed by the golden age of English drama, from the dawn of the Shakespeare plays in 1585 until the closing of the theatre in 1645 on the breaking out of the Civil war in England. For a period of sixty years the splendid genius of the world's greatest dramatist gave to mankind a series of plays that have no equal in the literature of any country or age.
Contemporaneous with Shakespeare, or coming after him, were Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Massinger, Ford, and Shirley; these Elizabethan dramatists took their subjects from the stories and legends of all countries and ages--or else they depicted the national life. For this reason English drama has been called Irregular, in contrast to the Greek, which is called the Regular, and that of modern France, founded upon the Greek. The chief rule of the Regular is the Unity of Time, Place and Action. In the Greek, the time of action was allowed to extend to twenty-four hours, and the scene to change from place to place in the same city; but Shakespeare and his contemporaries acknowledged no fixed limit either of time, place or action. The operation of their plays covered many different countries, and the time extended over many years; but the rule that laid down in the Greek drama the principle that there should be unity of action (everything being subordinate to a series of events, which form the thread of the plot), was adopted by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It has been called "unity of impression," as opposed to unity of time and place.