Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, was the first regular tragedy. It was very dull and written in poor blank verse. Thomas Kyd improved the tragedy by writing The Spanish Tragedy. It is a tragedy of blood and revenge.
The first great dramatist of the time was Christopher Marlowe. Though he lived a short life, he wrote some powerful tragedies, which are counted among the great works of English stage. He showed originality both in choice of subject matter and the use of blank verse. His powerful blank verse strengthens the drama and the development of character heightens the sense of tragedy. His first tragedy Tamburlaine the Great is written in blank verse with colorful images of power and violence.
The play brought a new kind of life to the English theatre. Tamburlaine is the shepherd and a robber. The play presents his mad ambition for political power and his rise to it. The kings who are defeated by his armies are ill treated. The ruler of the Turkey is taken from place to place in a cage like a wild animal. Other Kings have to pull Tamburlaine’s carriage. When they get tired they are hanged. Though the play is filled with terrible cruelty and violent language and action, Marlowe’s blank verse lines are usually powerful and effective so the play was well received.
In the next play The Jew of Malta a rich Jew refuses to pay taxes to the governor of Malta so his property is taken from him and in revenge he begins a life of violence. He helps the Turks when they attack Malta, and so they make him governor. But he decides to kill all Turkish officers. Unluckily an enemy makes his secret known and he himself is killed. The language of the play is not always violent. He helps the Turks when they attack Malta, and so they make him governor. But he decides to kill all the Turkish officers. Unluckily an enemy makes his secret known and he himself is killed. The language of the play is not always violent and forceful. The sound and rhythm are sometimes very fine.
Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is based on the well-known story of a man (Faustus) who sold his soul to the devil in order to power and riches in the life. Faustus is mad for intellectual power. He agrees to give his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles in return for twenty-four years of splendid life. During these years the devil must serve him and give him what he wants. Finally, when Faustus has to face death, he is filled with fear and the end of the play is very tragic.
Edward the Second is probably Marlowe’s best play. It is comparable to Shakespeare’s best historical plays. It deals with English history and the story is about a young king who is destroyed by his own weakness. Certainly, Marlowe’s writing sets an example for other dramatists in the great Elizabethan age.
William Shakespeare is taken as the finest dramatist of all times. He began his career as a play actor and then moved to play writing. He had great dramatic as well as poetic gift. His plays look like a living world of people. His characters have both individual and universal qualities.
At the beginning Shakespeare wrote historical plays by improving the works of other writings. He then gradually discovered his powers and mastered his art. Some of his historical plays are Richard the Third and Richard the Second, King Henry the Fourth, Henry the Fifth and Henry the Sixth. In Richard the Third smooth blank verse has been used where the sense usually ends with the line. In Richard the Second, there is rather more freedom because the sense pushes through from one line to the next. King Henry the Fourth introduces a funny fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. Henry the Fifth is filled with the love of country and the spirit of war.
Shakespeare also wrote a good number of comedies. They are generally better than his historical plays. The intrigues of gentlemen and the love affair of young people are mainly the subject matter of his comedies. We often do not find a great disaster and very sad events in them. Shakespeare wrote comedies, which were mainly suitable for the Globe theatre. Among his famous comedies are: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and As you Like it.
With his growing power and matured skill, Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. Romeo and Juliet is his first tragedy which presents a tragic love affair. He wrote three Roman tragedies, namely, Julies Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. His other four great tragedies are Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. The central characters in these tragedies are always great men like King, Queen, Prince and so on. The course of events is designed in such a way that it leads the main characters to ruin because of their own error in judgment (tragic flaw). This tragic flaw or the fatal weakness of character is clearly noticeable in all his tragedies. For example, Antony is ruined because of his love of comfort and love. Coriolanus is ruined by his terrible pride. The hamlet’s tragic flaw is hesitation, inability to act when action is needed. King Lear’s weakness is his openness to flattery. Shakespeare’s tragedies are great and world famous because they have universal qualities that pass into the heart of the human soul.
Shakespeare immense power and full maturity are reflected in his last group of plays, which are called the romances. They are Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. These romances are neither fully tragedies nor comedies. Some tragic situations are also found in them, but they end happily. The wrong doers are forgiven. All these works are colored with the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. We also find beautiful islands and girls in them.
One of the great dramatists of Elizabethan age is Ben Jonson. His plays are based on the theory of the four humors or elements (fire, water, air and soil) and they are less beautiful and less attractive than Shakespeare’s. The ancient writers influenced much of the Jonson’s idea. He believed in three unities that are the unities of place, time and action.
Every Man in his Humour is his famous play. Jonson’s main failure as a dramatist lies in the fact that a humour for him was a special foolishness or the chief strong feeling in a man like anxiety and jealousy. Therefore his characters are walking humorous and not really human. Jonson wrote about twenty plays alone and others with other playwrights. Of his comedies Volpone the Fox, Every man out of his Humour, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair and The Silent Woman are famous. His tragedy Sejanus was played at the Globe Theatre. He was also one of the best producers of masques at this or any other time. These masques are dramatic entertainments with dancing and music, which are more important than the story and characters.