When Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare began their careers as playwrights c. 1590, the commercial theatre was a new cultural form and the type of play it would traffic in, the secular, five-act drama in English, with its highly developed plots and subplots and psychologically compelling characters was only beginning to be imagined. Shakespeare and the other playwrights who developed this form did so by borrowing and blending features from both the popular, vernacular religious drama of the late Middle Ages and the classical Latin drama that they encountered at grammar school but which very few people in their audience would have been able to read. These traditions carried very different ideas about representation, theatrical space and cognition, and even what a human being was. Put another way, they carried different assumptions about the ontological and epistemological implications of acting and theatrical mimesis generally. The course is founded on the proposition that the power and conceptual open-endedness of Renaissance drama stems from the conversation, clashes, and slippages between these traditions we can detect in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
We will read examples from the dramatic traditions that Elizabethan dramatists inherited. Then we will read some of the greatest and possibly most familiar plays these dramatists went on to write, looking at the ways in which they borrowed from, transformed and derived meaning from these earlier traditions Because the vernacular religious drama, the Latin drama of the schoolroom and the commercial theatre were all known to playwrights through performance we will approach all the plays in the course as performance texts, analyzing their use of space and embodiment as well as language, and train ourselves to think diachronically about the artisanal practices of playwrights and the competencies of their audiences. Our goal will be to recognize where elements of Renaissance drama came from and how their meaning persists or alters in new representational contexts, and thereby cultivate an awareness of the diverse forms virtual experience can take.