Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are often referred to together as Renaissance Drama, or just Elizabethan Drama, however they are from two different periods in history and Elizabethan Drama covers plays written and performed during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) while Jacobean Drama refers to plays written and performed during the reign of James I (1603-1625) (English Renaissance Theatre. 2007).
There are noticeable differences in the way that plays from these two eras were written and performed, although there are also many similarities as the two monarchs ruled for less than a century in total and many playwrights lived and wrote under both. Some characteristic qualities from each period can be compared using Websters The Duchess of Malfi, first performed in 1614 at the Globe Theatre in London, and Arden of Feversham, performed before 1592, which is anonymous and has been attributed to writers such as Shakespeare, Kyd and Marlowe over the past three centuries.
Arden of Feversham is the tale of the murder of Thomas Arden by his wife, Alice, and her lover, Mosbie, and is based on true events from Kent in England during 1551. Mosbie and Alice enlist various men to kill Arden using promises of land or monetary rewards, but time after time the attempts are unsuccessful until eventually Arden is murdered in a clumsy and rushed manner in his own home with Alice delivering the final blow.
The murderers take the body to a field to try and persuade everyone that Arden was killed by a traveller, but their footprints are not covered by the snowstorm and their guilt is proven by blood spots in the house. They all quickly confess and are sentenced to death. The playwright was very careful to be true to the facts of the case, keeping the many failed attempts upon Ardens life by hired criminals Shakebag and Will in the plot, however, the character of Franklin, Ardens friend who voices his suspicions about Alice and Mosbie throughout the play, is an imagined addition.
Arden of Feversham is frequently referred to as the first example of a domestic tragedy, a type of drama popular during the Elizabethan period in which the tragic protagonists are ordinary middle class or lower class individuals (Domestic Tragedy, 2007) to whom the audience could relate to more easily than the aristocratic protagonists of classical and Neoclassical drama. The Duchess of Malfi is more loosely based around true events, this time from around 1508-1513 in Italy.
The play is set in the court of Malfi at the beginning of the 16th century and covers a period of six years. The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with a servant, Antonio, but since she has been forbidden to remarry by her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, she must marry Antonio in secret. Thanks to a spy, Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal find out that the Duchess has had a baby, but they do not know who the father is.
Ferdinand threatens and disowns the Duchess who fears him so much that she arranges for Antonio and her to flee with their children, she unsuspectingly tells Bosola her plans and he relays them to her brothers who have her arrested. Ferdinand tortures her with wax models she thinks are the dead bodies of her husband and children before he has her and her two youngest children killed. When he sees what he has done he is driven to madness.
Bosola also has a change of heart and vows to protect Antonio and kill the Cardinal, unfortunately when Antonio goes to see the Cardinal to attempt to reconcile Bosola mistakes him for the Cardinal and kills him. Bosola then kills a servant and stabs the Cardinal before Ferdinand arrives and they all stab each other to death. The play ends with Antonios son taking his place as the new Duke of Malfi.
The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy, it could even be described as a Horror Tragedy (Jadis Shadow. 07) as it has many of the qualities which Jacobean audiences favoured, including a complex plot and extreme violence. Arden of Feversham does not have the same complexity to its plot, most of the action in the first four acts is repeated murder attempts on Arden or Alice and Mosbie doubting each other, neither does it have the same level of violence, with only one character dying onstage compared to The Duchess of Malfis nine. Another difference between tragedies from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras is the divide between comedy and tragedy.
In Arden of Feversham comedy elements may be found, for example in act II scene II when Black Will and Shakebag miss their opportunity to murder Arden when a merchant lets his stalls window down on Wills head and breaks it, the would-be murderers are foiled again in act IV scene III when they cannot find each other in the thick fog and Shakebag falls in a ditch, however there are no examples of this kind of humour in The Duchess of Malfi as the Jacobean audience preferred a more clear division between comedy and tragedy and preferred black humour to the cruder comedy of the Elizabethan era.
It was this broader separation of tragedy and comedy that gave rise to the Horror Tragedy. These differences in the style of the tragic genre are better understood if a little is known about the social context of each these eras. England, during the Elizabethan reign, was less influenced by Italy than countries from the continent like Spain and France, instead it followed on from traditional medieval religious theatre, and built upon the work which had come before to develop secular theatre.
Before Queen Elizabeth took the throne the theatre was seen as immoral, and there were restrictions on playhouses and performances. Drama flourished under Elizabeth I and large, open playhouses were built where cheap admissions meant that almost all strands of society could go to the theatre. There were galleries where wealthier audience members could pay extra for a seat, but most of the audience stood in the pit, they were known as Groundlings or Stinkards. They were not as well mannered as todays audiences, they could be loud, inattentive and heckled actors frequently, sometimes from the stage itself.
Little or no scenery was used and both the audience and the stage were lit by the sun which meant that performances were normally held in the early afternoon as it was still light but not too hot. In Arden of Feversham we can see that this lack of scenery has been used to the plays advantage by the unknown author. There are many examples of what has been called continuous staging where the actors remain on the stage and the dialogue continues while the imaginary setting is supposed to change. (McIlwraith, A. K. 1971. his can be seen from act I where it is obvious that the action changes between different areas of Ardens house and gardens.
By the time King James came to power English theatre was beginning to be more influenced by Italy, there was also a great deal of political and social unrest in the country. It was still a time of literary growth and exploration, the King himself wrote four books. The largest change for the theatre was the move from large outdoor Elizabethan theatres, like The Globe, to smaller indoor venues where the whole audience was seated and lit by candlelight, such as The Blackfriars Theatre in London (Jadis Shadow, 2007).
This move to a smaller venue meant that tickets could cost five or six times as much as for outdoor theatres, which in turn lead to a more elite audience whose tastes shaped the plays being written at the time. Because of this new, more refined audience, the Jacobean playwright could focus on political and social issues without having to worry about entertaining the lower wit of the lay person. It was common for plays to be set in exotic countries so that the playwright could make comments or raise questions about power, corruption and justice in England without upsetting those in power or the public.
The Duchess of Malfi is a good example of this as it is set against the background of Italy and discusses issues very relevant to England at the time such as; women in power, in the form of the Duchess; religion and corruption, through the Cardinal; and social status and power, with Antonio and the Duchess relationship. Practical issues of being performed on a different stage also had an effect on the playwrights of the time.
The indoor theatres were lit by candles, which lead to the need for intervals- to change the burned-down candles, but this also meant that the actors could be lit differently to the audience, drawing a focus to the stage and creating a division between the actors and audience which had not existed before. Now the audience was much closer to the stage and atmosphere could be, crudely by todays standards, manipulated through the use of light and this lent itself to the new style of darker and much more intense plays.
The actor could tone down his performance slightly, as he had a smaller and more attentive audience, and deliver a more intense character to match the script. Both eras, however, used young males to play the parts of women, in fact it was not until Charles II came to the throne that women were allowed on stage. There are also many other similarities between Elizabethan and Jacobean drama because, as mentioned above, they cover such a short period in history.
The five-act play was the accepted standard, as can be seen in both plays, and, with tragedies, the themes of adultery, murder and deceit never failed to interest the audience, whatever their social standing. The differences between Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre reflect the changing tastes and interests of the people from each time. Elizabethans were enjoying a time of imagination and creativity after the repression of medieval views and politics and this new-found freedom prompted the literary growth seen after the Reformation.
The theatre was open to people of all backgrounds and so the content of plays had to appeal to many different tastes, with wit and rhetoric for the refined audience members, and slapstick and innuendo for the groundlings. As the theatre moved into the Jacobean era, and so indoors, the audience still influenced the content of new plays as it was they who the playwrights depended on for success, and so the Jacobean tragedy became focused on entertaining its more sophisticated audience and left behind the qualities intended to amuse the less educated.
There was more money to be made in the private theatres so not many new plays were written for the public stage and the Elizabethan favourites were mainly shown at the old-style outdoor theatres. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, although distinct in their time frames, are not two entirely separate forms, Jacobean theatre is an extension of Elizabethan drama just as Elizabethan drama flows from and builds on the religious theatre of the middle ages and Jacobean theatre in turn feeds into restoration comedy.