Elizabethan drama is great literature.
Indeed, for us in the 21st century, most Elizabethan drama can only be experienced as literature. Other than Shakespeare’s plays, and to some degree Christopher Marlowe’s, very few plays of the period are in production at any one time, and unless you live near Stratford-upon-Avon, you are unlikely to ever see more than a couple of these plays on any stage in your lifetime.
But happily, Elizabethan drama reads as wonderfully as it can be acted. These plays are filled with evil villains, star-crossed lovers, kings and queens, soldiers, jesters, nobles and commoners. There is high comedy and low comedy, violence and sex, honor and disgrace – audiences of the 17th century were no different in their tastes than today’s audiences. The action is fun to follow, and much more accessible than the extensive and mostly dreary poetry of the era, or the political and satirical prose tracts that are so topical and dated and dense as to be unreadable today. And each play can easily be read in 3 to 5 hours.
And then there is the language – the exquisite, sublime and functional poetry that is the greatest legacy the brilliant playwrights have bequeathed to the English-speaking world.
Elizabethan Language: Understanding is the Key
The great music teacher, Professor Robert Greenburg (who also has produced numerous classical music courses for The Teaching Company), in the opening lecture of his epic course Understanding Great Music, made the point that it is not enough to appreciate great music: you must understand it. Composers understood that their audiences had certain expectations, not of quality per se, but of structure and mood that were specific to their genre, and specific to their time and place in history.
When Mozart’s audience went to listen to one of his symphonies, they expected a dramatic and fast first movement, a slow second movement, and so forth; and within the first movement, they expected to hear two opposing themes, a development section, and a recapitulation.
When we, hundreds of years later, understand the implicit code and language incorporated in a piece of music, our listening experience is enriched immeasurably. It is gloriously satisfying to understand exactly what Bach is doing in a concerto, Mozart in a sonata, or Haydn or Beethoven in a symphony. They are communicating to us, and it is astounding and humbling to realize how much we can understand them, when we take the time to learn their code.
So it is in Elizabethan drama. It is possible, within a short period of time, to learn to fully understand the conventions of the language of our ancient authors, so that we can enjoy these plays to their fullest, and at a much deeper level than you could ever believe possible.
This means you should take the time to learn how iambic pentameter works, and especially its variations. You should learn why sometimes a character will address one person as “thee”, and another as “you” – there is a whole code of attitude manifested in those two little words. You should study the conventions of Elizabethan drama, so that you will have, in the comfort of your own living room, the same expectations and comprehension as a 17th century theater-goer. This will all add rich, lustrous layers to your UNDERSTANDING and PLEASURE in reading these wonderful works.
Unless you are an experienced reader of Elizabethan language, and especially if you are a BEGINNER, then I strongly suggest you spend time reading over, and regularly referring back to, the tutorials on this site.
Elizabethan Drama 101 Helps You Learn to Understand Elizabethan Drama
Elizabethan drama has its own style of writing and language that will take getting used to. To that end, I have included in this site brief tutorials to help new readers understand:
- many of the conventions of theater, character, and language of Elizabethan Drama – the implicit code of understanding between the dramatist and his audience;
- iambic pentameter and its variations;
- the critical differences in the use of thee versus you;
- verse vs. prose;
- vows and swears.
It was my experience that, once I understood how these concepts worked, it added to my enjoyment of the plays a thousand-fold, and I hope it does the same for you.
Training For Shakespeare
Personally, I avoided reading Shakespeare for decades. Let’s face it, Shakespeare is difficult. His language is often cryptic. He frequently uses words to mean things that no other writer ever did before or since. To me, he is more difficult to understand than any other dramatist of that era. Thus, reading the much more easily understandable plays of other writers will train your ear for Elizabethan language; and once you become thoroughly practiced in the language and syntax of the era, you can return to Mr. Shakespeare’s work, and become one of the very few who truly understands his language.
(This is not to say his plays cannot be enjoyed as theater productions; but I dare say that very few patrons of his plays really understand the majority of Shakespeare’s words).
Christopher Marlowe is much easier to follow. Philip Massinger is as well. Thomas Middleton may be harder, because his plays are filled with more slang and colloquialisms. But more so than Shakespeare, most Elizabethan dramatists, especially with the help of some modest annotating, are easily readable and understood.
THIS IS EXCITING NEWS, because it means there are hundreds of great plays, most of which many of you may never have even realized existed, available for you to enjoy immediately as GREAT LITERATURE.