Making Elizabethan Plays Understandable and Fun to Read

This website is dedicated to rescuing and presenting for the first time ever fully annotated Elizabethan plays, which may be read either online or downloaded to your e-reader.

(Find all the plays here.)

William Lyon Phelps, in his introduction to a collection of plays by dramatist George Chapman, called the plays of the Elizabethan era “the greatest part of the greatest period of the greatest literature of the world.”

From the moment Christopher Marlowe electrified audiences in 1586 with his monumental drama Tamburlaine the Great to the closing of the London theaters in 1642 (thanks to a wave of Puritanism sweeping England), London theater-goers were treated to a seemingly never-ending succession of brilliant tragedies, histories and comedies written by some of England’s most famous dramatists, including Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Philip Massinger and John Ford, as well as that other well-known poet, William Shakespeare.

Indeed, though most people only think of Shakespeare when they think of Elizabethan drama, Shakespeare wrote only 37 plays (a couple in collaboration) that we know of; happily, more than 600 plays from this era survive.  This means that, for those who savor the potential exquisiteness of the English language, our ancient dramas can be the source of a lifetime worth of reading enjoyment.

What’s So Good About This Website?

The overwhelming majority of plays written before 1642 are not available on the internet, except in photocopied pages from century old editions, and can be viewed only in PDF files of those pages, or Plain Text formats – that is, if you can find them, and if you know what you are looking for (we should be thankful to the folks at Project Gutenberg for making them at least this available to us).

The plays on this site, however, have been edited and annotated for the modern audience, and contain several unique features:

(1) Most exciting is that you can download these plays as e-books onto your Nook or other e-reader (all except for Kindle) directly from this site; or, if you prefer, you can read them on your computer, or print them out for easy hard-copy enjoyment.

(2) Most of the plays are annotated. The annotations provide not only meanings for archaic words, but also paraphrases and other commentary on characters and situations, all with the goal of making the plays UNDERSTANDABLE and SATISFYING to read.

The feature that makes my annotations unique is that the commentary appears immediately next to the lines they are glossing. As far as I know, no one has ever done this before. Other websites’ annotations appear as footnotes, which must be constantly clicked on if you wish to see the commentary. This disrupts the reading of the lines, and frankly makes reading the plays a chore.

(3) Each play that appears with annotations is also available for viewing and printing without the annotations, for advanced readers who prefer to negotiate the plays on their own.

(4) The plays on this website are available for free.

Defining Elizabethan Drama

Technically, the “Elizabethan era” lasted only so long as Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England, which was from 1558 to 1603; however, for purposes of this website, Elizabethan Drama also includes the plays written after 1603, during the reigns of both James I (reigned 1603-1625) and Charles I (reigned 1625-1649), all the way to the closing of the theaters in 1642. It may be more accurate to refer to this literature as English Tudor and Renaissance drama, but I do not think any harm will result from considering it all by the name that comes to most people’s minds when they think about the plays of this era.

Who Am I?

Reading ancient literature has been my hobby for two decades. Reading Elizabethan drama has been my hobby for the last 7 years. I have created for my own use a fully annotated set of most of Shakespeare’s plays, creating a master copy in which I incorporated the notes, glosses and annotations of the plays from multiple sources. I have also read through and taken notes on over 250 plays of the period, spending as much time absorbing the information contained in the footnotes as reading the text of the plays themselves. From this background grew a desire to share my passion and acquired skill in interpreting these plays with anyone interested enough to seek out them out on the internet.

Other Resources for Plays of the Era

It is surprising how few websites there are which present modern, readable versions of Elizabethan drama (outside of Shakespeare’s plays, of course). Even fewer websites – only two, as far as I can tell – offer annotated plays for their readers. My goal is to fill that gap with as many annotated plays as I can before God calls me from this earth.

The two websites containing annotated Elizabethan plays are as follows:

  1. Many of Thomas Middleton’s plays can be viewed online, thanks to the work of Chris Cleary, at tech.org/~cleary/middhome.html.
  2. The full collection of edited and annotated plays of Richard Brome is available at hrionline.ac.uk/brome.

An eclectic collection of plays can be found at elizabethanauthors.org. The plays are not annotated, but have glossaries attached to them. Unfortunately the site seems to be down at this time. 

A widely cited website is the epic site luminarium.org, edited for many years by Anniina Jokinen. Those who have an interest in all things Elizabethan and beyond are indebted to Anniina and her site. Among many other interesting things on her site, she provides links to the plays of just about every important (and semi-important) dramatist of the Renaissance era. Most of her links take you to those photocopied pages of 19th century collections of Elizabethan plays I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately this site does not seem to be actively managed at this time.

Many of you will be interested to learn more about meter and rhythm in Elizabethan poetry. You are strongly recommended to visit a website which focuses extensively on the intricacies of meter: versemeter.wordpress.com. The blog is written by Mr. Keir Fabian, a true specialist, and a friend to this website.

Some of the plays on this site, especially those of John Lyly, contain a lot of Latin phrases and axioms. Many thanks for the translations are owed to Quintus, the Latin expert. You may procure Quintus’ translations services at thelatintranslator.com.