The Renaissance is probably most associated with stunning developmens in the visual arts, especially Italian and Dutch-Flemish painting. It is also noted for important advances in music,
especially the brilliant polyphonic music. Another major achievement during the Renaissance was the birth of modern European drama. The developments in drama are sometimes not given as much prominance as the developments in the visual arts and music, in part because they occurred relatively late in the renaissance and were concentrated in one small country. The great works of Renaissance drama appeared in the late Renaissance, much later than the advances in other arts had begun. We suspect here that both the Reformation and the evolution of national languages were a factor here. Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. These new attitudes are clearly expressed in the great Renaissance dramas. The great drama of Renaissance Europe is concentrated in two countries--England and Spain. England is by far the most important. There was virtually no professional theatre in 16th-century Germany--only ad lib farces and knock-about comedy performed by schoolboys and town amateurs who had regular non-theatrical jobs. The French were asctive, but produced a rather sterile academic kind of drama based on classical models. The Italians went in for commedia del arte--a kind of street theatre with stock characters that was mostly improvised and didn't have set plots and certainly not written-out scripts.
Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficlt to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe, especially northern Europe, for another 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook. The Renaissance is probably most associated with stunning developmens in the visual artse, especially Italian and Dutch-Flemish painting. The Renaissance is also associated with advances in music,
especially the brilliant polyphonic music. Another major achievement during the Renaissance was the birth of modern European drama.
The great drama of Renaissance Europe is concentrated in two countries--England and Spain. England is by far the most important. This leads us to wonder why theatrical plays were so much more advanced in England and why boy characters emerged in England and not in other countries. Lope de Vega, of course, was the Spanish Shakespeare, and he wrote hundreds of plays. But they are much more formal and less realistic than Shakespeare's plays, and they don't feature the same kind of comedy as we have exemplified in characters such as Falstaff. Boy characters are very rare and quite insignificant when they do occur. There was virtually no professional theatre in 16th-century Germany--only ad lib farces and knock-about comedy performed by schoolboys and town amateurs who had regular non-theatrical jobs. The French produced a rather sterile academic kind of drama based on classical models, and had almost no boy characters. The Italians went in for commedia del arte--a kind of street theatre with stock characters that was mostly improvised and didn't have set plots and certainly not written-out scripts. The English actors became famous on the continent, and we know that they travelled to Germany and performed English plays (untranslated apparently) for German audiences. But this was an exotic import rather than a
native dramatic tradition. Tradition such as it was in Germany involved quite a primative sort of drama. The English theatre was by far the most advanced and sophisticated in all of Western Europe. And the tradition of sophisticated plays being performed by companies of men and boys (for the women's parts) and
designed for a cross-section of the middle-class public was almost uniquely an English phenomenon as was the tradition of dramatic blank verse (sometimes intermingled with prose for the lower-class or lower-toned scenes) which developed as the medium of dialogue.
Moderm European drama began to appear in the 16th century at about the same time as the Reformation. This was no accident. The Reformation was not just a religious movement. It was also in part a national movement, certainly in Germany where it was a rejection of an Italian-dominasted Caholic church. The nationalist aspect was important in other areas as well, such as Bohemia and England. Not only was control of the national church a factor, but also the use of rising new national languages in churches services and printed Bibles. European drama was a people's art form. Plays, especially in England, were written for the people, not the court, clergy, are educated elite. After translations of the Bible, these plays were one of the first major formal outlets for these new languages. And drama was not only a reflection of these languages, but contributed to their development. Shakespeare along coined an unbelieveable number of expressions still used today by people who are for the most part they are using Shakespearian expressions.
The first real plays since classical times appear during the Renaissance. And for the most parts the memorable plays were created by playwrites in Tudor Englsnd. Most early European plays after the classical era come out of Tudor England. Shakespeare is of course the best known and most brilliant author. We have begun to assess sevberal Shakesperian plays and eventually hope to look at other Renaissance authors.
The preminent Renaissance playwrite is of course Shakespeare. The first tetralogy includes three "Henry VI" plays (Parts 1, 2, and 3). If you combine the three parts of "Henry VI" with "Richard III" you have the four plays of the first tetralogy. The four plays of the second tetralogy are "Richard II", the two parts of "Henry IV", and "Henry V." Apart from the eight plays of the two tetralogies (First and Second), there are two additional English history plays, "King John" and "Henry VIII" (the last written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher in collaboration). That makes ten Shakespearean plays on English kings in all.
There were other important Englisg playwrites as well as important playwrites in other countroes such as Lupe de Vega in Spain. At some point, we hope to expand our Renaissance drama section
beyond Shakespeare to take in the other great dramatists such as Chapman, Dekker, Jonson,
Marlowe, Middleton, Webster, and others.
Interestingly there are quite a few important boy characters in the English plays which is not the case of the plays emerging out of other European countries. Most of the English Renaissance se dramatists created parts for boy actors--not only for the female characters but also for characters who are represented as boys.
In Shakespeare's time there were plays written to be performed exclusively by boy actors who were highly trained and extremely precocious. One of the reasons for the prominence of boys in Renaissance English plays is the music they were required to sing. Many of the boy actors whom Shakespeare and others wrote for came out of the great choir schools in England and were professional trained in music so that they could sing the songs and often accompany them on the lute. These boys could sing, dance, and memorize long parts in both prose and verse. They played not only women but men. There is a famous reference to these boys in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the "little eyeases" who were boy actors performing at so-called private theatres. They acted in enclosed theatres, lighted by candlelight, and had a kind of snob appeal to the well educated and more sophisticated members of London society. Boy actors of course also acted in plays for the public theatres, often taking the parts of girls and younger women as well as pages and boy parts. Shakespeare has many parts for boys. The tradition of boy actors is closely associated in England with private schools and with choir schools, which trained boys to sing the complicated and difficult polyphonic music in cathedrals and churches. The choir schools taught very complex music and developed poise in boys as young as six and seven.
We are compilibg a of Renaissance plays with boy characters. They seem particularly common in English drama, notavly in Shakespeare's plays. Several of Shakespeare's historical places include boy characters. A wide range of drawings and paintings provide us images of those characters. We are less familiar with the other great Renaissance drama tradition--French plays. We do not yet know of biy characters in French or other European plays, but we will add them here if we learn of any.
There is a long tradition in England of plays being put on by schools. In Shakespeare's time there were plays written to be performed exclusively by boy actors who were highly trained and extremely precocious.
Renaissance dramas, especially Shakespeare, continue to be an important part of school drama productions. This is of course most common in Britain and the English colonies, including the United States.
The English public schools (private boarding schools of England such as Harrow, Eton, Winchester, and others) are noted for their drama productions. Some actually were founded before Shakespeare's time. Just when they first began doing Shakespeare we do not know. Many of these schools were founded in the 19th century and by thatvtime the traditiion was well estanlished, both at public scgools and grammar schools (selective secondary dat schools) We also note the younger boys in prepartory schools doing Shakespeare. The public schools in particular had ambitious drama programs and still produce plays today of a very high standard of performance. A reader tells us that he once saw a performance of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (in the 1960s) produced and acted by the boys of Harrow School with boys taking all the parts, both male and female. It was very close to professional level in the recitation and acting of the parts. The boy who played Lady Macbeth was superb and astonishingly sophisticated in this difficult part. The usual weakness of school productions involving boys of teenage level is that the boys are too young in stature and voice to portray mature adult men convincingly.
Thus the boy who played Macbeth had more trouble with his role than did his counterpart who portrayed Lady Macbeth because his voice was too high and too light for the tragic intensity demanded. But he had gravitas despite his limitations of age. Plays are also done of course by state-supported schools in England, where the students are of mixed gender and can therefore cast girls as well as boys in the parts. These plays also can reach quite high levels of performance. Child acting is encouraged in English schools and sometimes these children turn out to be major professionals. Laurence Olivier began his career as a boy actor in a London choir school (his father was a priest), and he was already performing major roles in Shakespeare as early as ten
and eleven. One of the leading ladies on the London stage saw Olivier as choir boy actor in a Shakespeare comedy, and said to his father, "Father Olivier, your son is going to be a great actor". How right she
was! Performing plays in British schools carries over of course into the universities. All the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, put on plays. and both universities have nearly professional-level productions outside the individual colleges. A reader tells us, "When I was a student at Oxford, I performed in Corneille's "Le Cyd" (translated from French of course)." And many famous professional actors in Britain got their start as undergraduate actors at the country's universities. Even small school children in England are
involved in plays, and of course there is also the long tradition of church pageants (often associated with Christmas and sometimes Holy Week for Passion plays). This traditiions has extended to former British colonies. A good example is a New Zealand production. There is also a traditional German interest in Shakespeare. Of course Shakespeare it is important not only from a literary and historical perspective. Shakespeare wrote at the time modern English was emerging. Early works in early and middle English are more like a foreign language. Shakespeare can be inderstood by the modern reader, although it helps having a competent teacher. An incredible number of English language expressions come from Shakespeare. Thus Shakespeare is also important for both native speakers abd those learming English as a foreign language to better understand the English language.
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