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Outlines of English and American Literature
Classical and English Drama
by Long, William J.


At the time of Shakespeare's birth two types of plays were represented in England. The classic drama, modeled upon Greek or Roman plays, was constructed according to the dramatic "unities," which Aristotle foreshadowed in his Treatise on Poetry. According to this authority, every play must be concerned with a "single, important and complete event"; in other words, it must have "unity of action." A second rule, relating to "unity of time," required that the events represented in a play must all occur within a single day. A third provided that the action should take place in the same locality, and this was known as the "unity of place." [Footnote: The Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca (d. 65 A.D.) is supposed to have established this rule. The influence of Aristotle on the "unities" is a matter of dispute.] Other rules of classic drama required that tragedy and comedy should not occur in the same play, and that battles, murders and all such violent affairs should never be represented on the stage but be announced at the proper time by a messenger.

The Native Drama

The native plays ignored these classic unities. The public demanded chronicle plays, for example, in which the action must cover years of time, and jump from court to battlefield in following the hero. Tragedy and comedy, instead of being separated, were represented as meeting at every crossroad or entering the church door side by side. So the most solemn Miracles were scandalized by humorous Interludes, and into the most tragic of Shakespeare's scenes entered the fool and the jester. A Greek playwright might object to brutalizing scenes before a cultured audience, but the crowds who came to an Elizabethan play were of a temper to enjoy a Mohawk scalp dance. They were accustomed to violent scenes and sensations; they had witnessed the rack and gibbet in constant operation; they were familiar with the sight of human heads decorating the posts of London Bridge or carried about on the pikes of soldiers. After witnessing such horrors free of cost, they would follow their queen and pay their money to see a chained bear torn to pieces by ferocious bulldogs. Then they would go to a play, and throw stones or dead cats at the actors if their tastes were not gratified.

To please such crowds no stage action could possibly be too rough; hence the riotousness of the early theaters, which for safety were placed outside the city limits; hence also the blood and thunder of Shakespeare's Adronicus and the atrocities represented in the plays of Kyd and Marlowe.

The Two Schools

Following such different ideals, two schools of playwrights appeared in England. One school, the University Wits, to whom we owe our first real tragedy, Gorboduc, [Footnote: This play, called also Ferrex and Porrex, was written by Sackville and Norton, and played in 1562, only two years before Shakespeare's birth. It related how Gorboduc divided his British kingdom between his two sons, who quarreled and threw the whole country into rebellion--a story much like that used by Shakespeare in King Lear. The violent parts of this first tragedy were not represented on the stage but were announced by a messenger. At the end of each act a "chorus" summed up the situation, as in classic tragedy. Gorboduc differed from all earlier plays in that it was divided into acts and scenes, and was written in blank verse. It is generally regarded as the first in time of the Elizabethan dramas. A few comedies divided into acts and scenes were written before Gorboduc, but not in the blank verse with which we associate an Elizabethan play.] aimed to make the English drama like that of Greece and Rome. The other, or native, school aimed at a play which should represent life, or please the crowd, without regard to any rules ancient or modern. The best Elizabethan drama was a combination of classic and native elements, with the latter predominating.

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