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date: 02 March 2021

Introduction: ‘When Lyberte Ruled’: Tudor Drama 1485–1603

Abstract and Keywords

This article begins with a description of how a play staged by the Grocers' Company of Norwich in 1565 illustrates the complexity of the history of the English stage during the Tudor century. The discussion then turns to factors that shaped the development of drama in the Tudor century: religious drama, the coming of the theatres, and humanism. The history of Tudor drama is marked by radical change and the persistence of traditional forms, performances, and spaces. Civic authorities remained important producers of drama throughout the Tudor period, for example, but there was an increasing separation between what they produced and what was being performed in the new public playhouses. While there is agreement that the old chronologies and taxonomies must change, there is as yet little consensus on where the rearranged landmarks and boundaries should be placed, whether in the history of drama or more generally.

Keywords: Tudor drama, English stage, Tudor Century, Grocers' Company of Norwich, religious drama, theatres, humanism

In 1565 the Grocers’ Company of Norwich staged a play, ‘The Story of the Temptation of Man in Paradise, being therein placed, and the expelling of Man and Woman from thence, newly renewed and according unto the Scripture’.1 The drama, as its explanatory title suggests, presented the story of the first humans from the creation of Eve, through her temptation by Satan, to the couple's expulsion from Paradise. In a memorable tableau, Adam is escorted from Eden by two allegorical figures, Dolour and Misery. Finally, the Holy Ghost appears to reassure him that if he ‘take out of Gospel what it requires’, that is faith in Christ, then he will be assured through grace of an eternal life infinitely more joyful than his present state is miserable. The play ended with a song praising God.

  • With heart and voice
  • Let us rejoice
  • And praise the Lord always
  • For this our joyful day,
  • To see of this our God his majesty,
  • Who hath given himself over us to reign and to govern us.
  • Let all our hearts rejoice together,
  • And let us all lift up our voice, one of us with another. (154–61)
  •     (Davis, 1970, p. 18, spelling modernized)

The Grocers’ play was almost certainly performed as part of a cycle of pageants presented in the public spaces of Norwich, all of which dramatized biblical episodes. Like the York Corpus Christi play and other civic medieval dramas, the Grocers’ play transformed the streets and squares of a Tudor town into dramatic sacralized spaces. Its concluding song was probably intended to include the audience along with the actors in its (p. 2) emphasis on the need for all voices to join in praising God. Indeed it is not difficult to imagine the actors encouraging the audience to sing along with them in a collective act of Christian celebration.

The Grocers’ play is clearly part of the same dramatic tradition as other surviving medieval religious plays performed in York, Chester, Coventry, and elsewhere, most of which date from the late fifteenth century or earlier. And, although the title asserts that it has been revised ‘according unto the scripture’, much of the play is not literally biblical. Instead, like the other cycles, it mixes close paraphrases of Scripture with apocryphal passages and episodes (such as the appearance of Dolour and Misery) that are clearly creative embellishments of the biblical account of the expulsion from Paradise. Even the entrance of the Holy Ghost at the end of the play is incongruous in a text that claims to be based closely on Scripture.

So in many ways the Grocers’ play of 1565 looks like a ‘medieval’ catholic relic in the protestant world of Elizabethan Norwich. This appearance is, however, deceptive. The play is a revision of an earlier pageant, also produced by the Grocers, entitled, ‘The Story of the Creation of Eve, with the expelling of Adam and Eve out of Paradise’. This older play, conceived prior to the Reformation (although perhaps as late as the early 1530s), is superficially similar to the drama of 1565. But there are a number of important, and initially disorienting, differences between the two. As Paul Whitfield White has suggested, the 1565 play is a revision of the earlier pageant informed by reformed, Calvinist doctrine. It emphasizes the companionate, sexual nature of the first couple's marriage in Paradise (where the earlier pageant had glossed over the nature of their relationship, seemingly anxious to promote the idea of celibacy as the highest human virtue), it drops the use of the term virago for Eve, to which Calvin had objected in his Commentaries, and stresses the predestined nature of the Fall as a means of trying humankind through adversity in preparation for eternal bliss—at least for ‘the elect’.2

Perhaps the key difference between the two versions, however, is the extent to which the later play stresses its biblical sources, thereby illustrating the English Reformation's ambiguous attitude towards drama. The 1565 play has two alternative opening addresses by a Prolocutor, one to be delivered if the play was performed alone or as the first in a sequence, the other if it followed on from pageants representing the Creation and the Fall of the Angels (if that is what the text means by ‘hell cart’). Each stresses the drama's close relationship to the text of Scripture. In the second the Prolocutor tells the audience that,

  • As in their former pageants is semblably declared.
  • Of God's mighty creation in every living thing,
  • As in the first of Genesis to such it is prepared
  • As lust they have read to memory to bring (1–4)
  • In the second of Genesis of mankind his creation
  • Unto this Garden Eden is made full preparation
  • (p. 3)
  • And here beginneth our pageant to make the declaration,
  • From the letter C in the chapter before said
  • How God put man in Paradise … (6–10)(Davis, 1970, p. 12)

The careful summary of the first two books of Genesis, and still more obviously the reference to the ‘letter C’ here, suggest the direct relationship between the performance and the biblical text. For, in the Great Bible, first published in 1539 and sanctioned for use in all churches, the passage in chapter two of the Genesis story (‘the second of Genesis’), which begins ‘The Lord God also toke Adam, and put him into ye Garden of Eden’ (f. i(v)), was indeed marked with just such a capital ‘C’ in the margin at this point as part of the apparatus provided for readers. The Prologue was thus drawing the attention of the audience (and perhaps particularly of any protestant critics of the religious drama present) to the close relationship of the play to the biblical text. Conceivably it was even imagined that spectators might have a copy of the Bible with them, and could thus either check the authenticity of the material being performed or use the play as an extended gloss on the scriptural account. Either way, the Prologues implicitly reflect an anxiety that the dramatic performance could not be left to justify itself. An external authority, indeed the ultimate authority of God's word, had to be invoked, to legitimize what was to follow.

The Grocers’ play is, then, a text clearly touched and inflected by the protestant Reformation. Its author has sought to turn the traditional form of civic religious drama in a reformed direction, responding as the authors of the Chester cycle would do a few years later, to protestant objections to the impurities and absurdities of the cycle form.3 In the face of criticisms of the religious drama's tendency to embellish (and so misrepresent) Scripture through the addition of new dialogue and characters (often of a comic or potentially comic nature), the incorporation of apocryphal material from catholic works such as the Golden Legend, and the use of the plays to promote supposedly superstitious and popish doctrine and practice, these authors sought to stress the faithfulness of their plays to biblical truth, and their capacity to promote godly reformed doctrine among their witnesses.

For all its ‘modern’ protestant content, however, the Grocers’ play of 1565 is distinctly conventional in much of its stagecraft. Indeed, it looks decidedly ‘retro’ if one comes to it with the traditional, evolutionary model of theatrical history in mind, in which symbolic, allegorized action is seen as characteristic of an ‘early’, ‘medieval’, and catholic sensibility, while an interest in interiority and psychologically more nuanced and ‘rounded’ characters are the hallmarks of the ‘mature’, protestant theatre of the later Elizabethan stage. Notably here, it is the later, revised Grocers’ play that introduces the allegorical figures of Dolour and Misery to the action (there is no sign of them in the surviving text of the 1530s or the costume lists relating to its production), and has them drag Adam from Paradise in a symbolic tableau of dejection. White notes that such externalized emblematic representation of emotion can also be found in a number of early Elizabethan protestant interludes such as Enough is as Good as a Feast and The Tide Tarrieth for No (p. 4) Man, suggesting that the Norwich playwright might have been trying to give his play a protestant sheen by adding it to the more naturalistic action.4 This may well have been the case. But such externalized, allegorical dramaturgy was equally characteristic of the earliest surviving interludes and Moralities of the pre-Reformation era, such as Mankind, Everyman, and, perhaps quintessentially, The Castle of Perseverance. The emblematic mode was thus both contemporary and old-fashioned in 1565, depending upon which way one looked at it, and was seemingly thought to be as effective a means of making a protestant point as a catholic one. It thus cannot be used to place plays such as the Grocers’ in any simple evolutionary timeline of dramaturgical development. Indeed, a play such as the Grocers’ drama of 1565 defies such teleology. Within it elements of psychological interiority (as in the affective exchanges between Adam and Eve when they first meet) can be found rubbing shoulders with externalized emblematic action, and apocryphal episodes sit alongside a concern for biblical authenticity. It thus illustrates the complexity of the history of the English stage during the Tudor century. As a reformist, allegorical, civic pageant it implicitly refutes any simple evolutionary model that traces development from religious to secular, from simple to more complex forms.

Religious Drama

In the late fifteenth century the vast majority of dramas performed in England were religious in one form or another. One of the most important theatrical spaces in 1485 was the parish. It was parish officers, for example, who mounted most of the saint plays and folk drama. Similarly, in aristocratic households the musicians and singers associated with the chapel played a crucial role in the production and performance of a range of dramatic interludes and events, many of which had their roots in the liturgical year. And it was the civic authorities, the guilds and councils, often working with the local clergy, who produced the large-scale biblical mystery cycles in cities such as York, Chester, Coventry, and Norwich. But the dominance of the clergy and religious institutions over the production of the drama did not imply that religious plays were thus either uniformly serious in tone or straightforwardly didactic in purpose. Rather, English drama at the start of the long Tudor century was distinguished by its heterogeneity. Plays like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament combined comic elements from folk drama (a quack doctor and his subversive comic servant) with serious doctrinal teaching, while the civic cycles mixed recognizable, and often comic, contemporary stereotypes, with the very highest and most numinous of religious themes. Thus Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin and stepfather of Christ, first appears in the York pageant, Joseph's Trouble about Mary, as an impotent cuckold, drawing attention to his risible bodily inadequacies, while the shepherds who will be the first witnesses of the Nativity are introduced as characters in a farcical story about a stolen sheep (in the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play) or (in the Chester Shepherds plays) as carnivalesque figures who initially misunderstand the Angel's message. The profane and sacred, learned and popular could and did exist (p. 5) within the same dramatic spaces—textual, architectural and symbolic—in 1500. By 1600 this was less clearly the case. Although the parish remained an important cultural space for drama, this was declining under the effects of godly reformation. Protestant, and even more noticeably puritan, sermons were often highly dramatic, but they were not part of a devotional culture in which drama played an important part.

The most fundamental cultural developments in the period 1485–1603 were confessional. Most obviously there was the succession of changes of formal religion from Henry VII's orthodoxy, through Henry VIII's idiosyncratic mix of traditional piety and humanist reform and Edward and Mary's divisive Reformation and Counter-Reformation, to the increasingly Calvinist protestantism of the Elizabethan church. After the relative religious calm of the end of the fifteenth century, the first seventy years of the sixteenth saw the country lurch from one religious form to another. At the same time, however, it is important to note that the most important cultural development that impacted upon English religious culture was probably not the vagaries of the conflict between catholicism and protestantism, but rather the emerging split between those godly Christians on either side of the confessional divide who were committed to the thorough transformation of Church and society, and the rest of the populace whose devotionalism and piety were increasingly regarded by all zealots, protestant and catholic, as in need of reform. John Bossy has pointed out that, ‘Divorces between the sacred and the body social were to be everyday events in the sixteenth century.’5All godly reformers were committed to redrawing the lines of the religious and popular spheres to ensure the dominance and purity of the former. This had a profound effect on Tudor drama. A play like the Digby Mary Magdalene with its mix of the comic and the sacred, Scripture and hagiography, myth, allegory, and folklore, embodied a degree of generic and thematic mixing that all godly religious reformers found unacceptable. Drama was forcibly divorced from religion, with profound consequences for its place within popular culture.

The grounds of this divorce can be vividly illustrated by examining the relationship between religion, authority, and drama in three plays: the York Crucifixion pageant, John Bale's The Three Laws, and The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. The Crucifixion stages the key event in Christian teaching, history, and belief. It deploys a range of theatrical devices to engage its audience. There is no sense that The Crucifixion regards its status as theatre as undermining its devotional merits or religious authority. The action of the play is focused on the actual moment of Christ's crucifixion which it depicts with horrific realism. The figure of Christ is almost entirely silent during the course of the action as the soldiers who are crucifying him go about their business.

  • III Miles:  Come forthe, thou cursed knave [Christ]
  •   Thy comforte sone schall kele.
  • IV Miles:  Thyne hyre schall thou have.
  • I Miles:  Walke oon! Now wirke we wele.6

The soldiers are pleased with their work. But it is important to note that I Miles’ line in this passage also includes the audience. They too are working well, and walking on. The (p. 6) audience and the soldiers are brought together in a contradictory moment of ‘good work’—the paradoxically ‘good’ work of crucifying Christ and the good work of remembering and restaging his death. The Crucifixion simultaneously emphasizes its fidelity to the historical reality of the events of Good Friday and at the same time stresses their ahistorical, universal nature. And it is theatre that enables the play's author to stage this devotional collapse of New Testament history into the present of fifteenth-century York. The complexity of The Crucifixion is embodied not in the language or the characters of the drama; rather it is articulated through the totality of the dramatic moment. It is Christ's silence as much as his words that are theologically significant and which create the space for participating in The Crucifixion, for actors and audience alike. To be part of the performance of The Crucifixion was an act of devotion, and the theatrical nature of the event was a key element in its devotional meaning.

John Bale's The Three Laws, written c.1538, articulates the same paradox as The Crucifixion, but in a very different context and for diametrically opposed reasons. The Three Laws dramatizes the corruption of the laws of nature, Moses, and Christ by a collection of highly theatrical vices. In Bale's drama, for a character to be explicitly theatrical (if this means to play with language, to mock, joke and perform comic business, and to self-consciously refer to oneself as a figure in a play) is to be marked as a vice, a papist, and as inherently lacking in authority. In The Three Laws the central vice, Infidelitas, is a clown whose speech is often nonsensical. He enters the play dressed as a peddler apparently selling brooms.

  • Brom, brom, brom, brom, brom!
  • Bye [i.e., ‘buy’] brom, bye, bye!
  • Bromes for shoes and powcherynes, purse-clasps
  • Botes and buskins for newe bromes.
  • Brom, brom, brom! (178–80)
  •     (Walker, 2000, p. 497)

It soon becomes apparent, however, that Infidelitas is far from a simple figure of fun. Under the cover of his buffoonery other more sinister vices enter the world of the play. Natural Law is corrupted by Idololatria and Sodomismus, the latter of whom explains to the audience the historical roots of his victory over nature's laws.

  • I dwelt amonge the Sodomytes,
  • The Benjamytes, and Madyanytes,
  • And now the Popsyh hypocrytes
  • Embrace me every where
  • I am now become all spyrytuall,
  • For the clergye at Rome, and over all
  • For want of wyves, to me doth fall,
  • To God they have no feare. (571–8)
  •     (Walker, 2000, p. 503)

There is, however, a tension in The Three Laws between the theatricality of the vices and Bale's desire to use them to articulate his serious arguments against papistry. (p. 7) Sodomismus is a vice, but when he is describing how he corrupted nature's law he is speaking the truth, at least as far as Bale was concerned. The Three Laws does not in the end resolve the tension between the theatrical and the authoritative. Instead what it consistently does is seek to protect from the taint of theatricality those speeches by the virtuous characters and the vices which are didactic. This creates a situation in which, when a character is speaking with authority, their words are not ‘performed’; it is as though they are speaking not as a character but rather simply reading a written polemical or instructive text. For example, Sodomismus tells the audience that,

  • We made Thalon and Sophocles,
  • Thamiras, Nero, Agathocles,
  • Tiberius, and Aristoteles,
  • Themselves to use unnaturallye:
  • I taught Aristo and Fulvius,
  • Semiramis and Hortensius,
  • Crathes, Hyliscus, and Pontius
  • Beastes to abuse most monstruouslye. (611–18)
  •     (Walker, 2000, p. 504)

It is difficult to understand this speech as being spoken by the character Sodomismus. Instead what Bale is doing here, as he does in the rest of his drama, is separating complexity, in the lines above in relation to classical learning, from characterhood. Thus, if being a dramatic ‘character’ implies linguistic coherence and consistency of persona, then the only ‘real’ character in The Three Laws is Infidelitas. Bale, like other mid-Tudor playwrights did regard the theatre as a potential vehicle for serious and complex issues but at the same time he consistently sought to separate theatrical complexity (performative, linguistic, and characterly) from the serious points he wanted to make. Whereas the author of The Crucifixion used the complex tension between the theatrical moment and the biblical story to reinforce the devotional effect of their drama, Bale separates theatricality personified in Infidelitas from religious complexity and didactic instruction to deliver the polemical agenda of his. This move is not, however, specifically protestant. It can be seen in plays such as Everyman where the role of the clergy is simultaneously valorized and explicitly protected from theatrical contamination by the non-appearance of a priest on stage at the key moment in the action. To receive absolution Everyman has to leave the performance space.

Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors explores and at the same time celebrates this same separation of theatrical complexity from religion. The majority of the play takes place in the city of Ephesus, which Syracuse Antipholus informs Ephesus Dromio is a place of trickery and mystery.

  • They say this town is full of cozenage,
  • As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
  • Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
  • Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
  • (p. 8)
  • Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks
  • And many such-like libertines of sin.(I.2.97–102)

Ephesus is a place of transformation where people lose their sense of self. It is an obvious metaphor for the theatre. As Syracuse Antipholus points out, there is nothing simple about Ephesus, but its complexity plays out around issues relating to appearance, changeability, and disguise. At the end of The Comedy of Errors far more serious issues briefly raise their heads, but Shakespeare is careful to place them outside the city, in a ditch beside the walls of a convent, where the numinous moment of rediscovery, reunion, and symbolic rebirth of the characters is played out. In many ways the space in which or more accurately at which The Comedy of Errors concludes is the reality of the place, geographic and symbolic, of Elizabethan public theatre—in a disreputable extramural space outside the reach of law and religion, a space no longer authoritative and certainly not devotional. Religion has a place in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but like the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors, it has to be found and when it is it tends to be extremely limited. The theatrical complexity of The Crucifixion is transformed and concentrated in late Tudor drama into the intricacies of characterhood. This had the effect of creating complex characters but at the same time what had been public debates concerning central and authoritative issues, the nature of Christ's teaching or the shape of a godly commonwealth, were reduced to the ruminations of ‘disguised cheaters’—actors and the characters that they performed. And such things were, by the 1580s, increasingly the business of a special place reserved for their production and consumption: the theatres.

The Coming of the Theatres

Although, as recent scholarship has suggested, the coming of the theatres had a less cataclysmic effect on the provincial touring circuit than was once thought, in one important respect, the creation of purpose-built playhouses in and around London in the last third of the Tudor century did change English drama fundamentally: it turned play-writing into a profession.

Prior to the moment in 1576 when James Burbage built his eponymous Theatre in Shoreditch, play-writing was, for the most part, something one did occasionally rather than as a full-time job of work. Much of the drama produced before the 1550s was also site-specific, in that it was produced within communities (be they aristocratic houses, civic guilds, or parishes), and relied upon local history, geography, and broadly topical issues for many of its most powerful meanings. Its authors, similarly, were often local people. Such plays might be regularly revised by members of those communities, in order that they could be played repeatedly before the same or similar audiences. At the same time, those acting companies that did make their living by performing plays (p. 9) outside their own communities did so largely on the move. Rather than audiences going to see plays, drama travelled the country in search of its audiences, whether they were to be found in great halls, town halls, inn-yards, urban streets, churches, or open fields. Companies hawked their plays around in much the same way that other peddlers did, and risked the same social stigma as a result.7

In such an environment, it is difficult to talk with any confidence about playwrights as a specific group of writers. Men like John Heywood or John Bale wrote plays as part of their official roles within their households or as part of their religious ministry, and among other forms of literary output, they did not write to make their living. Similarly, the authors of parish or civic religious drama seem, from the limited surviving evidence, to have been primarily local clerics, men who had the education and the time to turn their hand to producing or revising the plays that spoke to local spirituality, devotion, and other concerns. By the later 1570s this was changing. With the building of the theatres, a number of acting companies found more permanent metropolitan homes, and were able to stay in or close to London for much of the year, avoiding the hard slog of perpetual touring. And, as a result, London became a place where it was possible for an educated man with sufficient talent and self-discipline to carve out a career writing for the theatres. But the playhouse was a demanding employer, with an insatiable demand for new material. In the days of regular touring, a company might eke out a career with only a handful of plays in their repertoire, confident that they would find a fresh welcome in each new town or household. Once the companies settled in London, they had continually to tempt a single, albeit very large, audience with fresh wares, and so needed a constant stream of new plays. We know the titles of around 436 plays performed in London between 1560 and 1600 (probably only part of the dramatic output in the capital in the period), but the rate at which demand was accelerating can be judged from the fact that 266 of those date from the final decade of the century.8 In a very obvious sense, the building of the playhouses professionalized the crafts of both playwright and actor in early modern England, and turned the theatre from a pastime to a metropolitan industry.

As Walker has argued elsewhere, we can gain a sense of this cultural shift by comparing two texts, one written towards the beginning of the Tudor century, the other at the very end.9 The idea that ‘all the world's a stage’ had been around for as long as there were stages. But with the building of the playhouses it took on a very different set of associations. When Thomas More compared princely politics to stage plays in his History of King Richard III (c.1514–18), he described a situation in which the actors inhabited an exclusive world, and the common man stepped onto the stage at his peril.

And so they said that these matters be King's games, as it were stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds. In which the poor men be but lookers on. And they that wise be, will meddle no further.10

When Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) revisited the life-as-theatre metaphor in ‘On the Life of Man’, not only had the material conditions of performance changed—he imagined the performance played out in a playhouse, equipped with curtains and a tiring-house, (p. 10) rather than as a pageant presented in the streets as in More's anecdote—but the players were no longer the keepers of a dangerous mystery, but the humble purveyors of a commodity. The ‘lookers on’, were transformed into a sophisticated, fee-paying public, who might make or break the actors’ fortunes with their verdict on the performance.

  • What is our life? A play of passion;
  • Our mirth the music of division;
  • Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be
  • Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
  • Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
  • That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
  • Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
  • Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
  • Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
  • Only we die in earnest—that's no jest.
  •     (Walker, 2002, p. 156)

We need to take More's description of the dangerous mystery of the stages with a pinch of salt, of course. What we know of both the early Tudor great hall and the urban religious drama suggests that a degree of boisterous interaction between the actors and their audiences was a crucial part of their performance dynamic. And the idea that the lookers on might indeed meddle in the drama was built into a number of the plays. Merry Report steps directly into Heywood's Play of the Weather, seemingly from among the crowd, as, still more spectacularly, do the servants known simply as A and B in Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece. And, if the testimony of his earliest biographers is to be believed, the young More was himself adept at just such improvised intervention in the performances in Cardinal Morton's house in the 1490s: a possibility dramatized at the end of the century in the play Sir Thomas More, which sought to recreate the conditions of great hall drama on the playhouse stage.

But a cultural shift did undoubtedly occur as a consequence of the move from playing primarily in halls and on the streets to the playhouse stages. And with this change, a drama that had been a vehicle for an authoritative moral and religious critique of worldly life—what we might identify as secular, consumer society—became unmistakably an integral and compromised part of that same commercial culture. Play-going had always been only problematically related to sober living and moral improvement, but with the development of the playhouses, it could no longer seriously be maintained that it was primarily a pious activity, like attending a sermon or reading a work of improving literature. The very geography of the theatres proclaimed as much through their proximity to those other centres of licentious indulgence and ‘waste’, the cockpits, bear-baiting rings, bowling alleys, and brothels of Southwark and the northern suburbs. And in the plays of the 1580s and 1590s those links became all too obvious.

One effect of this shift was to de-legitimatize theatre as a vehicle for serious authoritative discourse. Early Tudor plays such as Everyman, Wisdom, or The Three Laws were overtly didactic, and the mid-Tudor interludes revived this didacticism in the interests of protestant, ‘commonwealth’ reform. These plays were designed to expound and (p. 11) explore real authoritative truths. This idea was becoming increasingly problematic from the 1570s, and by 1603 the godly would have regarded the idea of writing an Everyman as at best a waste of time and at worst a sinful, ‘popish’ excess. This collapse of formal legitimization, however, had the positive effect of creating the space for the artistic and commercial speculation of the public stage as it emerged at the end of the Tudor period. It was only for a theatre that no longer spoke for authority that Christopher Marlowe could produce a work like Dr Faustus. The story of the additional devil appearing on stage during a performance of Faustus is sometimes used to indicate the power of early modern theatre. In practice what it reflects is the extent to which the scope and prestige of the theatre had diminished. In the York Corpus Christi play or the Digby Mary Magdalene the devils represented were as real as the other biblical characters who populated the stage. This was clearly still the case in 1565 when the Grocers produced their play. The metaphysical sensationalism of Dr Faustus reflects not simply the power of the theatre, but its emerging status as a risky popular art form which could play with important cultural fears and desires precisely because it was no longer regarded by ecclesiastical authority as a potential vehicle for serious debate or devotional practice.

But if the creation of the playhouses brought about serious changes in the cultural capital of playing, bringing about a fundamental transformation of the business of theatre at least in part by turning theatre into a business, it did not change the nature of the plays performed in those theatres quite as quickly or as fundamentally. A spectator used to the great hall drama of Medwall, Skelton, and Heywood, suddenly transported to the Globe and confronted with a Shakespearian comedy in full swing, would undoubtedly have found much to marvel at in his or her new surroundings, but also a good deal that was familiar, both in the topography of the stage and the nature of the drama he or she was watching. Although the scale and shape of the playhouse, with its banks of galleries and high stage thrust out into a yard full of standing spectators, would probably have seemed very new and strange, he or she might nonetheless have detected in the configuration of the stage itself, obtruding from a rear wall with two doors and a gallery above, a reassuring echo of the late medieval great hall with its two screens entrances surmounted by a minstrels’ gallery.11 There would thus have been the same flow of entrances and exits through two principal portals into a largely undifferentiated playing space, with all the implications that this simple arrangement might have for the management of roles and the sequential division of the action into ‘scenes’. There would also have been the same creation and management of stage space through appeal to the audience's imaginations rather than any appeal to spatial logic or naturalistic settings. The cavalier ability to have Africa on one side of the stage and Asia on the other, just by saying it was so, that so enraged Sir Philip Sidney was as evident in Medwall's or John Lyly's work as it was in the Prologue to Henry V's still more explicit appeal that spectators should use their imaginary forces to conjure horses and armoured knights in the bare ‘cockpit’ of the playhouse. So, while the social and cultural relationship between actors and spectators may have shifted from one of supplicants and patrons (in the case of the hall plays) or participants in a shared mystery (in that of the religious drama) to purveyors of a commercial (p. 12) product and their customers, the internal dynamics of secular dramatic performance itself may have remained comfortingly similar throughout the century.

It is, however, important to note that, while the civic authorities in places like London were interested in managing, controlling, and at times closing public theatres, their attitude was largely driven by practical and pragmatic considerations. For example, there has been an assumption that Elizabethan theatre builders sought out sites in the liberties within and beyond London's walls for political reasons; they wanted to escape the ideological control of the city authorities. This is, however, at best an unproven assertion. It may well be that London's liberties were attractive to men like James Burbage simply for practical reasons, such as the availability of cheaper rents and more compliant neighbours. The great wave of theatre building that took place during the period 1570–1642 witnessed the creation, either purpose-built or from existing buildings, of twenty-three commercial playhouses. This is an impressive achievement. Before 1560 there were no permanent playhouses in London. At the same time, however, it is clear that there was a potentially lucrative market for plays and drama in this earlier period. As Janette Dillon has demonstrated, John Rastell appears to have been able to run a lucrative costume hire business in the 1520s.12 The late Elizabethan playhouses did not create an entirely new market; rather they represent an extremely successful attempt to magnify and exploit one that already existed. In the process they took existing elements of Tudor drama to new levels while at the same time curtailing some of its more radical and demanding elements. The space of the theatre was more fixed and permanent in 1600 than it had been in 1485, but its scope had been reduced and bound. The commercial playhouses that playwrights like Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote for were new buildings and they represented a new business of theatre—one far more secular and commercially successful, but also one more ideologically weak than the theatre which preceded them.


The other key cultural force, alongside religious reform and the building of the playhouses, that shaped the development of drama in the Tudor century was humanism. Although it is hard to define it precisely, it is useful, if simplistic, to see humanism as a self-conscious movement dedicated to integrating classical learning with a reformed Christianity in the pursuit of individual and collective virtue. The ultimate aim of scholars like Sir Thomas More was to create a better, more virtuous society through social and religious reform. Humanist writers stressed the importance of education as the preparation for leading a good life. To be a virtuous Christian meant having at one's fingertips the wealth of classical learning as well as the biblical texts that could be drawn upon and applied to life. Erasmus’ most successful book, the Adages, was a collection of proverbs accompanied by discussions of their provenance, meaning, and application to the contemporary world. There was clearly an expectation that his readers would not simply read the work but would carry its wisdom into their everyday, public lives. Humanists (p. 13) stressed the ways in which rhetoric could generate virtue, at the level of both the state and the individual. The Adages imagined a world, albeit a largely disembodied textual one, in which learned men used the communal shared nature of the learning contained in classical proverbs to become ever more sophisticated embodiments of rhetorical wisdom. Erasmus’ ideal humanist is a slightly strange character: a fully rounded virtuous individual whose sense of self was largely based on the ability to master and weave together the words and texts of classical writers and their humanist popularizers. The ultimate humanist was meant to be a person who had fully internalized the teaching of writers like Erasmus, but he could also look disturbingly like an actor simply performing virtue, sophistication, and individuality. More was haunted by the dark side of language, the ability of words to corrupt and deceive, the potential ethical hollowness at the heart of the greatest feats of rhetorical skill or humanist wit. More's Utopia mocks the ideal of a fully reformed virtuous land while his History of Richard III depicts a humanist anti-hero who uses his skills as a performer to flatter, corrupt, and lie his way to power.

In the long term, however, what humanism allowed writers like Kyd, Shakespeare, and Marlowe to do was to exploit, and indeed create, a form of drama in which the performance of complex, conflicted characters was the norm. It is this that leads to the disappearance, after about 1603, of the narrator or chorus figure who in earlier plays had told audiences how they should view the drama they were watching. The characters that populate later Tudor drama are humanist in their interiority and complexity, their capacity to explore a moral or political issue within themselves, rather than exemplify just one aspect of it. It is arguable that such roles, if they were to be performed successfully, demanded a degree of acting skill that could only be provided by professional actors. Such demands, and the need for daily performances in the new playhouses, meant that the days of the amateur were over, although they still had a foothold in the world of civic and court drama where it was still possible for an actor to emerge from among the crowd.

The danger of all ‘religions of the book’, of which Renaissance humanism was one, however, is that they can breed fundamentalism. In the case of humanism this came in the form of an overly precise regard for the decorum in artistic forms which was thought to be characteristic of classical practice. Hence Sir Philip Sidney, the archetypal Renaissance man, could condemn the dramatists of his day in his Apology for Poetry (published posthumously in 1595), for their inability to follow what he saw as the inviolable rules of drama laid down by Aristotle.

All their plays be neither right Tragedies, nor right Comedies … [they] thrust in clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion, so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained.13

What annoyed Sidney most was the playwrights’ lack of propriety, their failure consistently to apply classical precepts, resulting in a generically hybrid product, neither one thing nor another. And indeed the Elizabethan theatres were fundamentally diverse, hybrid institutions. They were socially diverse, allowing entry to anyone who could (p. 14) afford the penny that was the minimum entrance fee. But, more importantly for their critics, they were tonally and thematically diverse. Sidney's criticisms of ‘mongrel tragi-comedy’ had a powerful influence on subsequent writers, critics, and playwrights alike. John Florio in his Second Fruits (1591) repeated them almost word for word, and in 1597, Joseph Hall rephrased the complaint, describing the ‘goodly hoch poch’ that results ‘when vile Russetings / Are match’t with monarchs’ (Walker, 2002, pp. 159–60). Some playwrights attempted to correct these assumed abuses and produce a drama characterized by decorum and classical principles. Sackville and Norton's Gorboduc (notably the only contemporary play for which Sidney expressed any enthusiasm) adopted the consistent seriousness of tone as well as the five-act structure and choruses of what its authors took to be ‘pure’ Senecan drama. And Ben Jonson brought to the public stages a drama based on the unities of time, place, and action, and sought to remove the frivolous gestures and anachronisms which he felt marred the work of contemporaries like Shakespeare. Yet, even in Jonson's most successful ‘classical’ experiments, such as Volpone (1606) or The Alchemist (1610), disparate matter is brought into explosive and productive combination.

Sidney's criticisms were not wholly new, however. Even in the drama of the early Tudor period there was a conflict between the theoretical desire for greater generic order and the teeming energies of a diverse and multiform dramatic practice. Works like Fulgens and Lucres, probably performed before Cardinal Morton, Henry VII's Archbishop of Canterbury, embody a humanist desire to reproduce classical forms, but also an omnivorous capacity to contain and refract other, less ‘pure’ vernacular traditions and routines. They represent an artistic agenda, driven by humanism, to discipline the more excessive elements of traditional drama, but at the same time offer a clear reflection of the power, and the attractiveness of those same elements. Hence the play dramatizes a powerful and nuanced debate, drawn from impeccable scholarly sources, about the nature of true nobility; but what audiences probably remembered most vividly from its performance was the obscene joust ‘fart prick in cule’ between the two servants, A and B, in which they launched themselves at each other in squatting positions with poles thrust between their buttocks, joking about incontinence and farting.

Heywood's The Play of the Weather is in some ways another perfect illustration of the tensions between classicalism and tradition. Its central argument revolves around the classical figure of Jupiter, and the debate around which the drama is constructed (who can speak best in defence of their desired form of weather?) seems almost to have been designed with humanist pedagogy in mind. At the same time the existence of the vice, Merry Report, and the Chaucerian estates satire that is at the heart of the play's structure evoke the very different world of medieval vernacular literature. The mixing of styles and genres that Weather exemplifies remained the norm for Tudor drama throughout the century. In these terms, while the physical space of drama, and the career patterns of those who wrote and produced it, radically changed, the plays themselves varied far less obviously in terms of their relaxed attitude to genre and form. Janette Dillon has commented that, ‘Generally, until well into the seventeenth century, the notion that different kinds of engagement belonged in different kinds of plays was alien.’14

(p. 15) In the past it has been assumed that the constriction of playing spaces, and in particular the growing restriction of drama to specialist buildings, was repeated in relation to the forms of Tudor theatre. There was an assumption that during the sixteenth century ‘medieval’ forms died out and more specific dramatic genres emerged, principally comedy and tragedy. One reason for this assumption was that, under the joint pressures of puritan hostility and legal prohibition on the representation of divine figures, the last years of the sixteenth century did witness the almost complete disappearance of directly religious drama. It is, however, a mistake to assume that the generic diversity embodied in works like the York Corpus Christi play disappeared when the play itself stopped being performed. The Tudor period witnessed a blossoming of new theatrical forms and genres. It was during the sixteenth century that the morality play as a genre reached its apogee. At the same time the Tudor court was home to many different types and forms of drama, including interludes, mummings, jousts, and masques. Often a single entertainment, for example the reception of important ambassadors or dignities, would go on over a number of days and would include a range of different and overlapping dramatic events and performances. Above all what remained constant during the period 1485–1603 was the need to entertain. Dr Faustus in its own ways is as mixed a play as the Digby Mary Magdalene, and this diversity was clearly something theatre audiences had come to expect and enjoy.


Scholars have recently begun to see the virtues of rearranging the periodicity of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to reflect continuities in literary production as well as change. The idea that 1485 marked, however nominally, a stark division between the medieval and the early modern is now thoroughly discredited. The history of Tudor drama is similarly marked by radical change and also the persistence of traditional forms, performances, and spaces. Civic authorities remained important producers of drama throughout the Tudor period, for example, but there was an increasing separation between what they produced and what was being performed in the new public playhouses. But, while there is agreement that the old chronologies and taxonomies must change, there is as yet little consensus on where the rearranged landmarks and boundaries should be placed, whether in the history of drama or more generally. While James Simpson has seen the 1530s as the key period of rupture between medieval reform and revolutionary reformation in literary culture,15 Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank have sought to remove the interior walls altogether to produce a single open-plan century of ‘Tudor’ literary endeavour.16 The same inclusiveness seems still more desirable in terms of dramatic production, where the notion of a long Tudor century from the 1480s to the 1600s can be a useful corrective to models of periodization based on ever more intricate subdivisions: late medieval, early Tudor, Henrician, early Reformation, mid-Tudor, (p. 16) early Renaissance, high Renaissance, early modern, not to mention the minute division of the work of Shakespeare, into early, mature, late, and collaborative semi-retirement.

‘Tudor drama’ is, then, a problematic category, but it nonetheless points towards continuities in dramatic form, function, and practice that tend to be elided by the more traditional taxonomies of dramatic history which are based on disjunctions. What the essays in this volume collectively demonstrate is that such dichotomies are fundamentally misleading. There is no straightforward evolutionary story to be told about the drama of the long sixteenth century that does not simplify the evidence to the point of obfuscation: no teleology from medieval to Renaissance, from religious to secular, drab to golden age, or from the simple and didactic to the complex and exploratory, and no necessary link between catholicism, symbolism, and allegory on the one hand, or protestantism, innovation, and interiority on the other. As the Norwich Grocers’ play shows, the allegorical mode was alive and well in the early years of Elizabeth's reign, and at least one reformist playwright thought that the addition of overtly allegorical figures to his drama increased rather than decreased the contemporary, protestant credentials of his play.

Similarly there is no difference in kind between the drama of Shakespeare and the rest. Shakespeare's work might represent the pinnacle of dramatic achievement in this—or any other—period, but his plays are not so different dramaturgically to a number of those produced and performed much earlier in the century. Many of the features of his comedies, for example, are also evident in the earliest surviving secular interlude, Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece, written a whole century earlier. Medwall's work displays the same bravura meta-theatrical playfulness, the same deft interweaving of bawdy humour and high morality, the same mix of high and low characters and sub- and main plots, as a play such as Twelfth Night, which is regularly praised for subverting the genre or pushing its boundaries. Indeed, Medwall's audacity with the form is arguably the greater: for nowhere did Shakespeare risk outraging his audience so boldly as by staging a game of ‘fart prick in cule’ in the middle of a humanist dialogue (and with the Archbishop of Canterbury probably among the audience too!), or have his actors appear from among the audience as if to join the action uninvited, as Medwall did with his servants A and B.

This volume aims further to erode the misleading chronological distinctions (which are at the same time often implicit quality distinctions) between the ‘medieval’ and the ‘Renaissance’ or ‘early modern’ in early drama. The contributors examine the whole sweep of dramatic production of the long sixteenth century from the 1480s to 1603 because we believe that there is more to be learned about dramatic history from viewing the Tudor period whole than from dividing it piecemeal. Even in chronological terms such distinctions are unhelpful. The religious plays that are for most observers archetypal of medieval drama were being revised and performed well into the last third of the Tudor century; the York cycle until 1569, Chester until 1575, Coventry until 1579. The Renaissance thus ran parallel to ‘the medieval’ in dramatic terms for a good deal of the Tudor period. In 1561–2, for example, one could have watched performances of the York and Chester Passion sequences in situ and Gorboduc in the Inner Temple in London and at court, and could have bought newly printed copies of Godly Queen Hester, Jack Juggler, the anonymous interlude, Thersytes, and Jasper Heywood's translation of Seneca's (p. 17) Hercules Furens. Only hindsight would probably have suggested that some of these were representative of dying forms, others examples of brief intellectual fads and the rest the harbingers of a new dispensation. Indeed in the decade that followed, the York and Chester pageants were probably played both more frequently and to larger crowds than either the interludes or their neoclassical cousins. An awareness of this ‘goodly hoch poch’ of mongel diversity, and an appreciation of the particular energies and possibilities it created in sixteenth-century dramatic culture, are what we hope our readers will gain from the chapters that follow. (p. 18)


(1.) Norman Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, Early English Text Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 11.

(2.) Paul Whitfield White, Drama and Religion in English Provincial Society 1485–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 84–8.

(3.) Ibid., pp. 89–99.

(4.) Ibid., p. 87.

(5.) John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 154.

(6.) Greg Walker, Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 135.

(7.) Greg Walker, ‘The Renaissance in Britain’, in The Sixteenth Century, The Short Oxford History of the British Isles, ed. Patrick Collinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 145–87 (pp. 154–5).

(9.) Ibid., pp. 155–7.

(10.) R. Sylvester, ed., The Complete Works of Thomas More, Vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 81.

(11.) This suggestion, initially made by Richard Hosley (‘The Origins of the Shakespearian Stage’, Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), 29–39 passim) and developed by Richard Southern (The Staging of Plays Before Shakespeare (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), pp. 299–310), has received considerable criticism (e.g., John H. Astington, English Court Theatre, 1558–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 88–90). It has been argued that the configuration of a hall would normally have been altered for performances by the erection of scaffolds, stages, and ‘houses’ which would disrupt the relationship between dais, screens, and audiences. While there is some evidence for this (often for college halls or significant court occasions) it is far from clear that it was the norm, however.

(12.) Janette Dillon, The Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 41.

(13.) Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), p. 135.

(14.) Dillon, Early English Theatre, p. 157.

(15.) James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution: The Oxford English Literary History: Volume 2: 1350–1547 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 1–6 and passim.

(16.) Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank, eds., The Oxford Handbook to Tudor Literature, 1485–1603 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 1–18.