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The English Renaissance was a cultural explosion that took place between the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England. Influenced heavily by similar artistic changes across Europe, particularly the Italian Renaissance, the movement promoted advances in arts, literature and philosophy. Theater was a principle area affected by the movement, and Renaissance playwrights Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare are considered by scholars to be among the greatest writers in history.
Christopher Marlowe was the earliest of the popular playwrights of the time. His work dealt with mainly tragic subjects, characterized by heroes brought down by their ego. He used his plays as a means of political activism, a dangerous concept in an era where dissenters were frequently beheaded by monarchs. Experts believe his plays contain magnificent passages of prose and poetry, and include Tamburlaine, The Jew Of Malta, and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
The Massacre At Paris, one of Marlowe’s final plays, entered dangerous waters by dealing with a contemporary event and including characters based on political figures still active in Marlowe’s time. Marlowe was arrested in 1593 for libel and heresy, but was let go quickly. Ten days after his arrest, Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in mysterious circumstances. Evidence has not yet proved conclusive, but some experts suggest that Marlowe was murdered by order of Queen Elizabeth’s personal secretary, Thomas Walsingham.
The best known comedian of the English Renaissance was Ben Jonson, who had great success in the London theater scene in 1598 with the comical Every Man In His Humor. Jonson had a checkered youth, being branded on the thumb as punishment after killing a man in a fight. Frequently satirizing political officials, Jonson often found himself arrested or threatened by officials throughout his career. With the succession of James I to the throne of England in 1603, Jonson began writing masques for the royal court. Jonson often collaborated on these elaborate and expensive productions with Inigo Jones, a stage designer considered the father of modern stagecraft.
Most famous of the English Renaissance playwrights was William Shakespeare. Unlike Jonson and Marlowe, Shakespeare wrote extensively in all genres, from bawdy comedies like Love’s Labors Lost to epic tragedies such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Some experts believe Shakespeare began his career by emulating Marlowe’s lyrical style, but soon developed his own. Shakespeare is also credited with popularizing new genres of plays, including the tragicomedy or romance.
Prior to the Renaissance, theater in England had a precarious place. Depending on the religious and political views of the current monarch, plays were occasionally banned altogether. Most plays were either re-enactments of religious events performed for church festivals, or morality plays meant to impart a clear message from the church or monarchy to the audience. Traveling theater companies, particularly in the style of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, instilled a love of more complex plays in the English citizens. With the patronage of the theater-loving Queen Elizabeth, the Renaissance playwrights were given mostly free rein over subject matter and language.
The works of the Renaissance playwrights were revolutionary in their choice of subject matter, use of poetic language, and incredible popularity. Many scholars consider the works of Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare to be the greatest in theater history. Productions of their plays have remained popular since the 16th century, and continue to constitute a large portion of live theater repertoire.