Post Shakespearean drama/Jacobean drama (that is, the drama of the age of James 11603-1625) was a decadent form of the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The Elizabethan age was the golden age of English drama.With the turn of the century the drama in England also took a turn. It does not mean that there were no dramatists left. There certainly was a large number of them, but none of them could come anywhere near Shakespeare.Just as after Chaucer, poetry in England suffered a decline, similarly after Shakespeare had given his best (that is, after the sixteenth century) drama also suffered a decline. With the passage of time it grew more and more decadent, till with Shirley in the age of Charles I the old kind of drama expired and even theatres were closed (in 1642) by Puritans. Long says “It was inevitable that the drama should decline after Shakespeare, for the simple reason that there was no other great enough to fill his place.”
Factors Responsible for the decline of Drama during the post Shakespearean period
- The Change of Patrons
- Down fall in Dramatic Technique
- Moral Decline
- Poor Characterisation
- Unnatural Themes
- Other Channels of Expression
- Lack of Genius
- Opposition by the Puritans
- Exhaustion of Creative Spirit
The Change of Patrons
One of the reasons for the decadence in Jacobean/Post-Shakespearean drama was its loss of national spirit and patronage. In the Elizabethan period, drama was patronised by feudal lords. From the time of James I, dramatists depended on the king and the queen and royal domination. Dramatists wrote plays to cater to the taste of the court, so the theatre was cut off from common life.
Loss of a national appeal was the growth of immortality in the drama. The low standard of the audience frequenting the theatre was responsible for the steep decline of moral standards. To please this riff-raff, unpleasant themes such as incent and sexual infidelity were freely adopted. Chastity was a virtue scoffed at by dramatists. The standard of morality suffered and with it came the decline of drama.
The post-Shakespearean dramatists were interested in dramatising unnatural themes. Illicit and incestuous love captured their imagination and such subjects as the life of prostitutes and whores began to have an appeal to them as can be seen from the titles of the plays produced during this period The White Devil, and The Honest Whore were the popular plays of the time. In the field of tragedy, dramatists were attracted by the stories of murder, horror and blood. The dramatists of this period had a morbid taste for murder and madness.Webster and Tourneur revelled in bloodshed and horror in their tragedies. Marston, Ford, Shirley were “deliberate dramatic sensation mongers.”
Lack of Genius
It was inevitable that the drama should decline after Shakespeare, for the simple reason that there was no other great enough to fill his place. Just as Chaucer’s successors failed to maintain the greatness of Chaucer, Shakespeare’s successor had little of the genius of Shakespeare. In the hands of his successors comedy became eccentric and tragedy lost its epic grandeur. Ben Jonson failed in the field of tragedy.
Exhaustion of Creative Spirit
Shakespeare in spite of borrowing his material from different sources had the creative imagination, and in his hands the borrowed material ‘suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange.’ After Shakespeare this creative spirit in drama began to decline and all that the dramatists could do was to attempt satirical comedies with good deal of criticism about the prevailing tendencies of the times. Critical and creative genius may sometimes appear together, but it is more usual for a critical spirit to appear when the creative spirit has begun to be exhausted, and the highest creative genius is as a rule not critical. Ben Jonson’s comedies are critical and exhibit a woeful lack of creative spirit.
Down fall in Dramatic Technique
The post-Shakespearean dramatists showed an advance in construction and sometimes in dialogue, yet they could not kept up the ‘mighty line’ of Marlowe, and their blank verse became weak and vapid. The blank verse of Beaumont and Fletcher is similarly inclined to a free use of weak and feminine endings. The “mighty line” of Marlowe and terse verse of Shakespeare in the prime are lost. As the fifteenth century followers of Chaucer failed to retain the charm of their master’s versification, so the later dramatists were quite unable to recapture the vital quality of dramatic blank verse.
The post-Shakespearean dramatists had little skill in creating characters. They could not create new characters. They had certain stock-characters which they represented again and again in their plays. The whore, the lustful king, the adventurous panderer, were their wooden characters and they repeated them with mechanical regularity in their plays.
Other Channels of Expression
Dramatic literature suffered a setback due to the growing popularity of poetry and novels as medium of expressing literary thoughts. These two forms of literature proved more fascinating to authors, and instead of diverting their energy to drama which was on its way to decline, they directed their thoughts and ideas to the field of poetry and fiction.
Opposition by the Puritans
The Puritan opposition to drama is also responsible for the decline of drama during this age. Since the drama became popular in England, the Puritans waged a war against it.
They regarded the drama and all other forms of entertainment as the Devil’s work to be avoided by all men who sought salvation. In 1579 Stephen Gosson directed his School of Abuse. In 1583 Philip Stubbes claimed biblical support for the condemnation of drama In 1632 Prynne attacked the stage. In 1642, only twenty-six years after Shakespeare’s death, both the House of parliament voted to close the theatres as breeders of lies and immortality.
Post Shakespearean Dramatists
The dramatists of the post-Shakespearean period can be divided into two classes as follows: the satiric group and the dramatists of the old school.
- Ben Jonson
- Thomas Dekker
- George Chapman
- Thomas Heywood
- John Marston
- John Webster
- Thomas Middleton
- Francis Beaumont
- Cyril Tourneur
- John Fletcher
Ben Jonson (1573-1637)
Ben (amin) Jonson is the real name of Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson was born in 1573 in Westminster and followed the trade of his step father of a bricklayer. He then became a soldier serving Low Countries. From this he turned to acting and writing plays. In 1617 he was created poet to the king. His best works were produced between 1603-1615 at the close of James reign. Ben Jonson was considered undisputed ruler of English Literature. For Jonson chief aim of literature was to
instruct. Ben Jonson’s first play The Case is Altered (1598) is purely experimental in character. Every Man in His Humour stormed his career into popularity and success. This play of his is first of three satires. Its special aim was to ridicule the humours of the city. The second Cynthia’s Revels (1660) satirizes the humours of the court and the third The Poetaster (1660), the result of his quarrel with his contemporaries was leveled at the false standards of the poets of the age. Every Man Out of His Humour is a comical satire. It is an English play, full of the atmosphere of the contemporary London. The three well-known of Jonson’s comedies are Volpone or The Fox (1605), Epicone or The Silent Woman (1609) and The Alchemist (1610).
The Bartholomew Fair is the most expansive of Jonson’s mature satiric comedies and the most English in atmosphere. Jonson’s later comedies The Devil in an Ass (1616), The Staple of News (1625), The New Inn or The Light Heart (1629) and A Tale of Tub (1633) show signs of wickedness. Besides these comedies, Jonson also wrote two great tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Cataline (1611). Jonson had his own theory of comedy in which he claimed that comedy must above all things be realistic and its aim should be to hold “a mirror up to nature” for the bettering of morals. According to him the inclusion of tragic element in comedy was not permissible. To him the purpose of comedy is cathartic and corrective. As a dramatist he was a classicist and stood against the romantic comedy of the Elizabethan Age and advocated the practice of realistic comedy with a marked accent on realism and satire. Ben Jonson died in 1637. The epitaph inscribed on his grave “O rare Ben Jonson ” expresses his greatness as a man, poet and dramatist.
Chapman attempted both tragedies and comedies, but his comedies are better than his tragedies. His best known tragedies are Busy D’ Ambois (1598), Revenge of Busy D’ Ambois (1608), Caesar and Pompey and The Tragedy of Chabot. In Busy D’ Ambois Chapman sets himself to answer in drama the ancient questions of how men endowed by this creator with reason, strength and knowledge of virtue can live in a world corrupted by evil. His later tragedies Caesar and Pompey and The Tragedy of Chabot reveal his attempts to resolve moral conflicts which figure prominently throughout this period. The comedies of Chapman are All Fools and Gentleman Usher. The value of these comedies lies in the pleasant romanticism and not in characterization. His best work in comedy is found in Eastward Ho written in collaboration with Marston and Ben Jonson.
John Marston (1575-1634)
Marston showed his followers how to end a play in the bloody holocaust (mass murder or destruction) of a final masque scene. He was the master of dramatic irony, and his tragedies carry forward the revenge tradition set up earlier by Kyd. His chief tragedies are Antonio’s and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge. The influence of The Spanish Tragedy is perciptable in both these plays. Marston’s comedy Malcontent foreshadows Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is cynical in tone and expresses the pessimism of Marston. In Eastward Ho, Marston joined hands with Ben Jonson and Chapman, and produced a fine work resembling of the fifteenth century.
Thomas Middleton (1570-1627)
Middleton had strong ties with London but instead of flattering the citizens he depicted their follies and foibles. He began his career by writing satirical tales of low life in London in the manner of Greene and Nash, and then turned his genius to write farcical comedies such as A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World, My Masters and A Chaste Maid in Cheap Side. Middleton suddenly switched on to tragedy writing and wrote a few good tragedies such as Women Beaware Women representing like The White Devil, the life of an Italian prostitute. The tone of his tragedies as of his comedies was generally hard and dry. But in his power to convey the impression of reality he surpassed all.
Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626)
Cyril Tourneur (1575 – 28 February 1626) was an English dramatist who enjoyed his greatest success during the reign of King James I of England. His best-known works are The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607) and The Atheist’s Tragedy (1607-11) are melodramatic to the highest degree. The Revenger’s Tragedy is certainly superior in technique and moral viewpoint to the Atheist’s Tragedy. The remarkable things about these two tragedies is the highly moralistic and didactic note with which they are suffused
Thomas Dekker (1572-1632)
Dekker took interest in London, and presented London Life. Sympathetically. His famous works are Shoe Maker’s Holiday and Honest Whore. In Shoe Maker’s Holiday Dekker created the famous Eyre, the shoe maker, who finally becomes Lord Mayor. This play exhibits the optimism of Dekker. His plays, chiefly comedies, have an attraction quite unusual for the time. They have a sweetness, an arch sentimentality, and an intimate knowledge of common men and thing that have let to his being called the Dickens of the sage. The great fault of his plays is lack of unity and even incoherence of plot. We are very rarely certain that any of his plays were written without help and they were all probably written in great haste because of the need of money. He has received harder treatment from the critics because the lack of connection between plot and sub-plot.
Thomas Heywood (1575-1650)
Thomas Heywood was the last of domestic and topical drama. His strength was in the portrayal of people belonging to the middle class section in society. His tenderness and pity brought him closer to Dekker, Lamb called Heywood “a sort of prose Shakespeare.” Like Shakespeare Heywood was conservative. His famous plays are A Woman Killed With Kindness and King Kindness. He is moral and virtuous and does not admit the triumph of evil.
John Webster (1575-1624)
The life and career of Webster is still shrouded in mystery. He appears as one of the greatest and most brilliant tragic dramatist of post-Elizabethan period. His genius found its superb expression in the sombre and ghastly, dreadful and terrible exhibition of the anguishes of human spirit enmeshed in evils, murders and bloodshed, in the psychological delineation of characters and in the presentation of his moral vision which is an integral part of his tragic conception. His two tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14) have earned for him an outstanding place in postShakespearean drama. The revenge horror tragedy was popular in Elizabethan England. This type of tragedy dealt with the theme of revenge as a sacred duty, series of inhuman deeds of cruelty, diabolical intrigues and physical suffering. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are based on revenge motif. Webster equally impresses us with the clarity of moral vision.
Throughout the spectacle of greed, jealousy and rapine, a healthy moral outlook on life is maintained. In his play evils breeds evils and finally consumes itself. Webster’s range of characterization is limited. He took for his province the definition of the extremes of wrong and violence, monstrous revenge and murder, cruelty and madness. Within his favourite sphere, he works with mastery. He has depicted strong masterly characters with great intensity. Webster’s plots are based on moral considerations. The plots of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are simple and well organized from the beginning to the end. Webster ranks very high in the post-Shakespearean drama. T.S Eliot calls him “a very great literary and dramatic genius directed towards chaos.”
Francis Beaumont (1584-1616)and John Fletcher (1579-1625)
Beaumont and Fletcher collaborated and produced a number of comedies of which The Knight of a Burning Pestle is the most significant. It is a skit on the city craze for chivalric romance. They also produced two tragedies The Maid’s Tragedy and A King and No King and one Tragi-comedy Philaster. All these plays show a surprising knowledge of the stage. Both of them excelled in comedy especially in comedy of London life. Full of witty dialogue, the plays attain a high level of lucidity and simplicity in their style, but they left the Shakespearean wealth of imagery.