Precursors to Elizabethan Drama

A Brief and Exciting History of Drama Leading Up to the Elizabethan Age

Elizabethan scholar Frank Kermode, writing in his book The Age of Shakespeare (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), suggested that the English have always had an urge, an impulse, a playful desire to perform and act out drama in front of an audience. This pleasing image, I think, gives the history of theater in England an endearing quality, and puts a delightful energy into the story of a people slowly working out, over many centuries, a formula for creative excellence that by the greatest literary fortune led to the genius of the Elizabethan age.

Earliest European Christian Drama

From the early Middle Ages, the Catholic church in Europe employed pseudo-dramatic processions to celebrate religious festivals; men would wear masks of beasts or dress as trees, and engage in ceremonial dances. In time, dancers began to act out certain religious scenes in dumb-shows, enactments without words. Concomitantly, Catholic masses themselves were accompanied by songs, to which gestures and action were gradually introduced, and later choruses began to chant dialogue. These streams of primitive drama eventually merged and evolved into what were called mystery plays, or mysteries, the earliest true form of Christian drama. Simply put, mystery plays presented stories from the Bible; a technically separate class of drama, known as miracle plays, dealt with legends of the saints.

English Miracle, Mystery and Morality Plays

We now leave the continent, and focus on the forms that drama took in medieval England. By the 13th century, a tradition had developed in which stories from the Bible were presented by representatives of a particular trade or guild. The English called these shows miracle plays. Such a miracle play could also be called a pageant.

The key differentiating feature of English miracle plays developed in the 14th century, when the pageants of the different trades were combined into a single, longer, collective drama, which come down to us as the mystery play. Several of these plays are extant: the York plays or cycle is the earliest one we have, dating probably from the mid-14th century; the others are the Towneley, Chester and Coventry plays. The York cycle is the longest, consisting of 48 pageants. Each trade continued to focus on its individual pageant within the framework of the entire cycle; so, in the York cycle, the Shipwrights, appropriately, presented the pageant of the building of Noah’s ark; the Butchers, the death of Christ, and so on.

We must not imagine these mystery plays to be all grim and dry; for indeed, the English peasantry desired to be entertained as much as the modern movie-goer, and as a result the mystery plays are filled with humor and lively characterization, in addition to whatever didactic nature the clerics of the time would have desired them to contain.

A separate class of drama, called the morality play, also became popular in medieval England. Morality plays, like the later developed Renaissance masques, may seem a little strange to us, as they were more allegorical in nature. That is to say, the characters were not individuals, but rather abstract concepts. For example, in the most famous morality play, Everyman, some of the characters include Death, Knowledge, Strength and Discretion. The purpose of the plays was, generally speaking, to illustrate the conflict between good and evil.

Here again, we must not believe that such a genre could ever possibly survive were it to be all humorless instruction. The important, and very popular, development of the English morality play was the introduction of a fatuous character called Vice, to which the Elizabethan authors refer repeatedly. Vice, the tempter of man, served the Devil, but his main role seemed to be to “torment and tease” his master, to the guaranteed delight of the audience.


Another type of play, called the interlude, developed in the 16th century. Its great practitioner was John Heywood. An interlude was brief play of a non-religious nature (we must note, however, that the terms interlude and morality play overlap, and it may not be easy, nor is it usually necessary, to absolutely categorize a given play as one type or another); for example, in Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, the god Jupiter has to determine what kind of weather to provide England, and a debate ensues between two Millers, a Gentleman and a Ranger about what kind of weather is most desirable. Again, we see that we have characters that are not developed individuals, but rather character-types.

Transition to Modern Drama

By the mid-16th century, the evolution of the English drama was accelerating at a pace which, in hindsight, is stunning.

In 1548, a bishop known as John Bale tried his hand at drama, and wrote what might be considered the first chronicle or history play, Kyng Johan; though with characters such as Nobility, Sedition (ie., Vice) and Dissimulation, in addition to individuals such as the cleric Stephen Langton, the play is clearly transitional, being steeped in the morality play tradition.

The gradual complete replacement of abstract characters and character-types, however, with individuals was unstoppable. At the same time, English writers began to experiment with different genres. In 1562, the first English tragedy, Gorbaduc, written by the Thomases Norton and Sackville, was one of the earliest to be written completely in blank verse, and in iambic pentameter. Other early history plays such as Thomas Preston’s Cambises kept the ball rolling. The earliest modern English comedy, known as Ralph Roister Doister, by Nicholas Udall, was written sometime in the early 1550’s. The second English comedy, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, was written in rhyming couplets, but without any consistent meter.

The main point here is that these early stabs at new genres and approaches to language and characterizations by early and mid-16th century dramatists, brave, exciting, entertaining, and fresh as they must have seemed at the time they were first produced, will for us, modern readers who have experienced Shakespeare, seem crude, ungainly written, and primitive, as if the authors were grasping for a formula that remained just outside of their reaches.

More important, and more stunning, is the realization that only a few decades separated the clumsy early efforts discussed above, and the brilliant and electrifying productions of Christopher Marlowe, and shortly after him, William Shakespeare. Indeed, for those citizens who had been following English drama in the mid-16th century, and attending interludes and morality plays and early comedies and tragedies, the effect of seeing, and more importantly hearing, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in 1586 must have been the equivalent of a theatrical nuclear bomb exploding, as if a modern movie-goer, having last week watched a Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler as the latest thing from Hollywood, entered a theater today to find him- or herself faced with The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Independence Day combined. The age of mature drama, now under the watchful of eye of England’s Queen Elizabeth, had begun.

Information in this article was adapted primarily from Volume 8 of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1911.