During the Renaissance the concept of drama changed completely. Through their many-sided heroes and heroines, the dramatists of the age led by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and later William Shakespeare (1564 -1616), began to explore the many sides of human nature. Their plays also explored various stages of England’s history, both celebrating the nation’s triumphs and criticizing darker periods.
Christopher Marlowe is the first great playwright in English. His most significant play is Doctor Faustus, which is almost an allegory of the humanist revolution. Faustus’s pact with the devil, to whom he promises his soul in return for unlimited power and knowledge, can be seen as a metaphor both for the humanist idea of man breaking free of God’s control, and for England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. The play ends with Faustus’s penitence, but its revolutionary theme is of man independently choosing his own fate.
Shakespeare’s literary achievement is unprecedented and probably has never been equalled in its originality and range of concerns. Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare’s art “was not of an age, but for all time”. It is difficult to say exactly what separates Shakespeare from all other writers. His works communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behaviour, revealed through portrayals of a wide variety of characters. His use of poetic and dramatic means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions and actions is recognised as a singular achievement, and his use of poetry within his plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in individual, social and universal situations is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in literary history.
Shakespeare formulates the unanswerable questions which continue to plague philosophers and writers: What is the self? (Hamlet) What is love and what are its limits? (Romeo and Juliet, Othello) How should a head of state behave? (Henry V) What is evil and how does it appear in the world? (Richard III, Macbeth) Where does the line between sanity and madness lie? (King Lear)
Before permanent theatres there were troupes of professional actors who toured around giving public performances. Their performances were staged on movable platforms, often in town squares on inn yards. This changed first of all with court interludes - plays which were usually performed for a small élite at court - and then with the establishment of proper theatres.
The first permanent theatre, called simply The Theatre, was erected in 1576 by James Burbage in Shoreditch, just outside the city of London.
Built of wood, permanent theatres were usually circular or polygonal. Around the theatre walls there were three rows of galleries. These seats were expensive and richer people sat there. The lower classes or "groundlings" stood and paid a lower price for admission - in fact, by paying one penny, they could stand in "the pit", also called "the yard", just below the stage to watch the play. Standing in the pit was uncomfortable, and people were usually packed in tightly. They were known to misbehave and even throw food such as fruit and nuts at characters they did not like. They would watch the plays from the cramped pits with sometimes over 500 people standing there.
The actors performed on a stage which projected out into the audience, who stood on the open floor of the theatre. The stage itself was divided into three levels: a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area in the back for "discovery scenes"; an upper, canopied area called "heaven" for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called "hell," accessed by a trap door in the stage. There were dressing rooms located behind the stage, but no curtain in the front of the stage, which meant that scenes had to flow into each other, and "dead bodies" had to be dragged off.
In 1599 the acting company with which Shakespeare was involved, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, built a new theatre, The Globe Theatre with lumber from the demolished Theatre. Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, it is the theatre most closely associated with Shakespeare's plays, and he was one of the shareholders in the enterprise. Two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written during the year in which the Globe opened. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, a fire broke out and destroyed the Globe, but it was rebuilt the following year.
The new Globe Theatre, 200 metres from its original site and after almost 400 years, was officially inaugurated by the Queen on Thursday 12 June 1997. Every summer it offers performances of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries on the type of stage they were originally written for. The late Sam Wanamaker, an American actor, was responsible for the Globe's modern reconstruction. When he visited London in the late 1940s, he was disappointed to find nothing marking the site of the original Globe Theatre. He came up with the idea of reconstructing The Globe in its original location. Progress was slow however. The Globe Playhouse Trust was founded in the 1970s, but the actual construction of the new theatre did not begin until the 1980s. They used the same techniques that were used in construction during the late 16th century. The design of the new Globe Theatre is a 20-sided roofless theatre with a whitewashed, half-timbered thatched roof crown.
The new Globe Theatre is the first thatched-roof building to be built in London since the Great Fire in 1666.