By the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th cent., most European countries had established native traditions of religious drama and farce that contended with the impact of the newly discovered Greek and Roman plays. Little had been known of classical drama during the Middle Ages, and evidently the only classical imitations during that period were the Christian imitations of Terence by the Saxon nun Hrotswitha in the 10th cent.Italy
The translation and imitation of the classics occurred first in Italy, with Terence, Plautus, and Seneca as the models. The Italians strictly applied their interpretation of Aristotle's rules for the drama, and this rigidity was primarily responsible for the failure of Italian Renaissance drama. Some liveliness appeared in the comic sphere, particularly in the works of Ariosto and in Machiavelli's satiric masterpiece, La Mandragola (1524). The pastoral drama—set in the country and depicting the romantic affairs of rustic people, usually shepherds and shepherdesses—was more successful than either comedy or tragedy. Notable Italian practitioners of the genre were Giovanni Battista Guarini (1537–1612) and Torquato Tasso.
The true direction of the Italian stage was toward the spectacular and the musical. A popular Italian Renaissance form was the intermezzo, which presented music and lively entertainment between the acts of classical imitations. The native taste for music and theatricality led to the emergence of the opera in the 16th cent. and the triumph of this form on the Italian stage in the 17th cent. Similarly, the commedia dell'arte, emphasizing comedy and improvisation and featuring character types familiar to a contemporary audience, was more popular than academic imitations of classical comedy.
Renaissance drama appeared somewhat later in France than in Italy. Estienne Jodelle's Senecan tragedy Cleopatre captive (1553) marks the beginning of classical imitation in France. The French drama initially suffered from the same rigidity as the Italian, basing itself on Roman models and Italian imitations. However, in the late 16th cent. in France there was a romantic reaction to classical dullness, led by Alexandre Hardy, France's first professional playwright.
This romantic trend was stopped in the 17th cent. by Cardinal Richelieu, who insisted on a return to classic forms. Richelieu's judgment, however, bore fruit in the triumphs of the French neoclassical tragedies of Jean Racine and the comedies of Molière. The great tragedies of Pierre Corneille, although classical in their grandeur and in their concern with noble characters, are decidedly of the Renaissance in their exaltation of man's ability, by force of will, to transcend adverse circumstances.
Renaissance drama in Spain and England was more successful than in France and Italy because the two former nations were able to transform classical models with infusions of native characteristics. In Spain the two leading Renaissance playwrights were Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Earlier, Lope de Rueda had set the tone for future Spanish drama with plays that are romantic, lyrical, and generally in the mixed tragicomic form. Lope de Vega wrote an enormous number of plays of many types, emphasizing plot, character, and romantic action. Best known for his La vida es sueño [life is a dream], a play that questions the nature of reality, Calderón was a more controlled and philosophical writer than Lope.
The English drama of the 16th cent. showed from the beginning that it would not be bound by classical rules. Elements of farce, morality, and a disregard for the unities of time, place, and action inform the early comedies Gammer Gurton's Needle and Ralph Roister Doister (both c.1553) and the Senecan tragedy Gorboduc (1562). William Shakespeare's great work was foreshadowed by early essays in the historical chronicle play, by elements of romance found in the works of John Lyly, by revenge plays such as Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (c.1586)—again inspired by the works of Seneca—and by Christopher Marlowe's development of blank verse and his deepening of the tragic perception.
Shakespeare, of course, stands as the supreme dramatist of the Renaissance period, equally adept at writing tragedies, comedies, or chronicle plays. His great achievements include the perfection of a verse form and language that capture the spirit of ordinary speech and yet stand above it to give a special dignity to his characters and situations; an unrivaled subtlety of characterization; and a marvelous ability to unify plot, character, imagery, and verse movement.
With the reign of James I the English drama began to decline until the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642. This period is marked by sensationalism and rhetoric in tragedy, as in the works of John Webster and Thomas Middleton, spectacle in the form of the masque, and a gradual turn to polished wit in comedy, begun by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher and furthered by James Shirley. The best plays of the Jacobean period are the comedies of Ben Jonson, in which he satirized contemporary life by means of his own invention, the comedy of humours.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.