Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Theater

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Theater in the Later Middle Ages

Religion and State

Medieval drama was religious in nature. Liturgical dramas had long been performed in Europe’s churches on the most popular and solemn religious occasions of the year, and many of these religious plays continued to be performed throughout the continent until the seventeenth century. At the same time new dramatic developments became evident in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe. At court, traditional jousts and tournaments grew more elaborate as their functions became more clearly a theatrical celebration of noble prowess. In towns and cities throughout the continent enormous mystery cycles staged by local guilds and confraternities appeared, too. Royal entries, a long-standing ceremony that welcomed a monarch to one of his cities, similarly expanded, taking on new elements of drama and theater. While all these forms traced their roots to medieval precedents, their imposing expansion during the early Renaissance demonstrates the increasing role that ritual played in European society at the time. Out of this fondness for ritual grew some of the new dramatic forms that inspired the even greater developments in the Renaissance theater that occurred during the sixteenth century.

Mystery Cycles

Each year most major European cities held a summer festival that included a trade fair combined with religious festivities. In most towns the guilds of merchants and artisans staged these fairs, which grew to become important expressions of urban pride and religious devotion. In the fourteenth century the guilds often celebrated their fairs with religious processions that included floats decorated with scenes from the Bible. Typically, each guild was responsible for mounting a different scene, and the scenes ranged from the Garden of Eden, through major events in the Old Testament, and culminated with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Subjects drawn from the life of the Virgin Mary were also popular. Over time, these pageant wagons grew more elaborate as guilds competed to outdo each other. The guilds hired carpenters, sculptors, and local painters to decorate the floats, and many placed costumed mimes atop them that acted out the events of their float’s theme. Soon, spoken dramas became part of the celebrations in many cities, and actors performed short scenes along the parade route or at the conclusion of the procession in an important town square. Thus religious processions like these provided the foundation upon which one of the greatest developments of late-medieval drama—the mystery cycles—appeared. These cycles, like the festivals themselves, also became venerable objects of civic pride, and they grew in many places to enormous lengths. In the city of York in England, 48 separate dramas were performed in the annual mystery cycle during a single day. The action of these dramas consumed so much time that the theatrical performance was begun at 4:30 in the morning. At London, the town staged a mystery cycle that required anywhere between three and seven days to perform, while in Paris the town’s annual cycle was 35,000 verses long and required 220 actors to stage. Although these great late-medieval cycles were enormous, and their rehearsals sometimes stretched throughout the entire year, the tendency was for ever larger and grander mystery plays to develop. By the sixteenth century, for example, some towns staged daily performances that stretched over an entire month, thus entertaining those who came to the now greatly extended market fairs each day during the annual festivities.


Relatively few of the texts for these mystery cycles survive, and those that did survive come mostly from French and English cities. But the popularity of these theatrical performances was great throughout Europe, and the texts that still exist suggest that common themes pervaded most of the plays. The subject of the plays was the salvation of humankind, and the individual scenes wove the tale of human redemption out of the events recorded in the scriptures and the traditions of the church. Most cycles began in Eden with the creation of Adam and Eve, and proceeded to recount the events in the Garden in a vivid way, with Lucifer being embarrassed and made to slither on the ground and Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden in a brutally realistic fashion. The subsequent scenes ranged far and wide over the events of the Old Testament, showing the process by which God eventually came to identify the Jews as his chosen people and then to make salvation a possibility for all humankind in the sacrifice of Christ. Usually, the cycles concluded with Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and Second Coming. The action was often violent, particularly in the scenes of Christ’s torture and Passion, where bloody realism and illusionistic techniques served to entertain the crowds. In scenes like the beheading of John the Baptist or the martyrdom of a saint, the actors went to great lengths to create special effects to enhance the action. Trick limbs, fake heads, and animal guts were often part of these illusions. Although not every play’s actions and verses fit with the fine discrimination of the church’s theology, the flavor of the cycles was undeniably orthodox. To emphasize the interconnections between the individual scenes and the great culmination in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, the writers often inserted commentators into the drama who spoke between the scenes. Most mystery cycles similarly opened with a prologue and a conclusion. Prefiguration and recurrent motifs also became devices to tie the entire structure of the cycle together. While blood and gore were a part of the cycles, comic episodes inserted between the greater dramas provided a measure of relief from the generally serious tone of the action.


The staging practices used in the mystery cycles evidenced a great variety throughout Europe. Generally, though, the cycles were not acted upon a single stage, but a scene or a number of scenes were performed in front of a set referred to as a mansion. These mansions were sometimes elaborately constructed, or at other times minimalist and severe. Three different ways of using these mansions seem to have been popular, although local variations were common. In the English cycles pageant wagons carried the mansions around the city to sites where the actors performed their part of the drama several times during the day. The mystery cycle performed annually at York seems to have been the most complicated of these moving dramas, requiring about 50 pageant wagons annually to stage the drama and teams of six to eight men to pull these throughout the town. In other places horses pulled the wagons. While the size of many of these wagons appears to have been generally small, some accounts survive of pageant wagons with elaborate scenery and which carried more than twenty actors. Staging in this way must have been a logistical and scheduling challenge. At York, for instance, there were anywhere from a dozen to sixteen different staging areas scattered throughout the city in various years. To keep local citizens and visitors informed of where the dramas were to occur, the town placed banners in the squares and streets at the various sites. The second style of staging that flourished at the time placed the different mansions in the round in a city square or open area. This style of presentation seems to have been popular in German-speaking Europe, and in parts of England, too, where round amphitheaters were sometimes built to stage the dramas. Finally, the most popular method seems to have been to build a central platform, with the scenic mansions arranged beside each other in succession on the platform. This method of staging the plays was most popular in France, but also appeared in Spain, Italy, Germany, and in some English towns. In this platform style of staging, towns often built bleachers so that the audience could be elevated to an appropriate height to view the action. Boxes placed atop these bleachers could accommodate local dignitaries and important visitors. The size of these great platform stages differed depending upon the number and complexity of a play’s individual mansions, but most platform stages were between 100 to 150 feet long and about thirty feet in depth. Staging in this way had several advantages because it allowed for acting to occur in several different mansions at once. Souls in limbo could be depicted writhing in torment, for instance, while in Heaven another actor pleaded for God’s mercy. Thus the presence of multiple stage sets placed several scenes before the audience simultaneously and produced a highly visual art that was not dissimilar to the effects of the modern cinema.

End of the Mystery Cycles

In Northern Europe the Reformation of the sixteenth century discouraged the mounting of the great mystery cycles. The teachings of many of the plays conflicted with the new religious ideas of Protestantism. Many, but not all, the cycles had traditionally been performed in connection with a town’s celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, which had first been approved by the pope at the beginning of the thirteenth century in connection with a series of visions that a Flemish nun had experienced of the Eucharist. Corpus Christi, meaning literally the “body of Christ,” celebrated the Eucharist as the key force of Christian salvation, and the day’s processions carried a consecrated wafer throughout the town as a kind of blessing to urban space. In many parts of Europe the processions of Corpus Christi grew to enormous heights of popularity at the end of the Middle Ages, and festivities—including the performing of mystery plays—surrounded these events. Protestantism generally found such outpourings of devotion directed toward the Eucharist idolatrous. For the reformers, salvation was a free gift of God’s grace, produced not by participating in the Eucharist, but through faith. In France during the Wars of Religion that raged in the country between 1562 and 1598, Calvinist sympathies ran high, eventually attracting about a third of the country to the movement. Here Corpus Christi often became an occasion for bloody riots as Protestants and Catholics staged riots in protest. Many mystery cycles consequently disappeared, the guilds now unwilling to underwrite the productions any longer. In England and those parts of Europe where Protestantism became the officially sanctioned religion, reformers curtailed mystery cycles. Elsewhere in Catholic Europe the mysteries sometimes survived, but they now came to be known as Passion Plays. These new forms, descendants of the late-medieval mystery cycles, were particularly popular in the rural areas of Central Europe, the most famous being the Passion Play at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. Every ten years since 1634, the play has commemorated the town’s deliverance from an outbreak of the plague.

Morality Plays

The mystery cycles aimed to teach their viewers and participants a history of human salvation by drawing on the traditional accounts of the scriptures and events in the history of the church. Their overall structure followed the lines of Judeo-Christian history, which had begun in Eden, and was one day in the future to end with the Second Coming of Christ. Another kind of drama, which was widely popular throughout the fifteenth century, was the morality play. Morality plays were highly allegorical productions in which virtues and vices were the central characters. Unlike the mysteries or other liturgical forms of drama, they did not have to be performed at a certain time of year. They seem, in fact, to have been popular at all times and were performed by troupes of amateur actors, groups that were increasingly popular at the end of the Middle Ages. The morality plays portrayed a battle between the forces of good and evil, that is, between God and the devil, and they showed their central characters facing great moral dilemmas, often illustrating the disasters that attended those who followed the paths of the Vices and the Seven Deadly Sins. By contrast to the mystery cycles, which retained a relatively static form year after year, the genre of morality plays showed great change and development over time. Playwrights experimented with both shorter and longer forms of drama, and these new dramas were of several different types. Religious morality plays were often almost as long as the mystery cycles themselves. At York, a town with a famous mystery cycle, a new Paternoster play written in the later Middle Ages alternated its performance with the city’s long-standing mystery cycle. The York Paternoster play, like the traditional mystery cycles, had performances atop moving wagons dispatched to different points in the city. In the morality play at York, the requests that Christ makes in the Lord’s Prayer waged battle against the Seven Deadly Sins. In another typical example of the fifteenth-century morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, Lust and Folly tempt the figure of Youth. The action shows Youth transported to a castle that is held by the Virtues against the besieging Vices. The Castle was a long play of more than 3,500 lines, and a central part of the action—the approach of Death—actually became the independent play, Everyman, the most famous of the surviving late-medieval morality plays. In it, Everyman is struck at once by the fickleness and impermanence of all human relations. He places his faith in the figures Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods—characters that represent friendship, family, and material possessions—only to find that each of these desert him as the play progresses. Along the way to the play’s conclusions, Everyman tries to embrace the figure of Good Deeds, but even this proves insufficient to survive in the world, although it does encourage him to call upon the figure of Knowledge, who leads him to the sacrament of penance. As he approaches his final comforting realization, he is also accompanied by the figures of Strength, the Wits, and Beauty, though even they leave him in the end as he comes to prepare for death and his welcoming into Heaven. Thus in this way Everyman stylized the Christian’s internal battle against doubt, temptation, and worldliness as an external, highly allegorized pilgrimage. In later centuries the moralistic novels of the seventeenth century imitated its forms, particularly in John Bunyan’s great Pilgrim’s Progress.

Comic and Political Moralities

The allegorical structure of the morality play was also adaptable to other circumstances, and gave birth to comic and political forms. In the comic morality play Mankind from about 1470, the world is depicted as chaotic and disordered—so much so, in fact, that the play serves as a satirical commentary upon the more standard conventions of traditional morality plays. The conflict between the play’s central characters Mercy, the Vices, and the Devil remained in the background of Mankind, and instead the actors performed a series of songs, dialogues, and dances intended merely to entertain those in attendance. In these, the figures of the Vices stole the show with their witty repartee and lively use of song and dance. Around the end of the fifteenth century a final form of the morality play became popular: the political morality play. Performed before kings and princes, the plays intended to teach them the virtues necessary for good rule. Just as in the religious morality plays, these political versions showed the figure of the king beset by threats to public order and buffeted between the wise advice of ministers and dangerous sycophants. Early in the reign of Henry VIII about 1516, the poet John Skelton wrote and produced his Magnificence before the king. Skelton had been Henry’s tutor as a young man, and he intended his drama to encourage his now mature student to abandon his overly extravagant ways, including his involvement in a series of continental wars that threatened the financial well-being of the state. The central character Magnificence represented the king, and in the action the figure of Fancy brings him to ruin by making him abandon Measure. Adversity and Poverty strip him of his worldly goods before Mischief and Despair lead him to the verge of Suicide, but Goodhope arrives and wrests Magnificence’s sword from him. At the play’s conclusion Redress arrives to lead the king back to Perseverance. Political moralities like Magnificence continued to be popular throughout the sixteenth century, particularly in England and Scotland. In 1562, for instance, the lawyers of the Inner Temple in London staged a political morality that aimed to encourage Queen Elizabeth to settle the matter of the succession. Their play, Gorboduc, was originally performed in the lawyers’ own hall, but later the players staged a performance before the queen in her London palace at Whitehall. The action of Gorboduc showed the tragic consequences of an ancient British king’s decision to divide his kingdom between his two sons, and it relied on the traditional conventions of the morality play.

Royal Entries

The occasions of royal entries into cities also included street theater, living tableaux, and musical performances. Royal entries were a form of royal spectacle that traced their origins to the Middle Ages. At first they had been quite simple and had involved the processions of a town’s major officials, prominent burghers, and its guilds, all of which met the king and his entourage and accompanied them into the city. By 1400, a town’s guilds mounted pageants similar to those that occurred alongside religious processions to celebrate the entry. The scope of these pageants grew steadily throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By 1500, for example, a king and his courtiers might pause as many as twenty times along a processional route lined with elaborate pageant wagons, triumphal arches, and other kinds of gateways. As the architectural and artistic Renaissance of the sixteenth century spread to the kingdoms of Northern Europe and Spain, these festivals included a greater wealth of decorative and thematic detail drawn from Antiquity. In the fifteenth century, though, their elements were usually traditionally medieval and Christian in flavor. The role of the royal entry was largely ceremonial, but towns still used these occasions to remind their monarchs of their hopes and demands. In 1440, the city of Bruges in the Duchy of Burgundy (now a town in modern Belgium) relied on the entry of their duke to gain pardon for a recent revolt staged in their town. The town fathers processed to meet the ruler with bared heads and feet to show their humility before his authority; as the duke processed with them to enter the city, the local officials had the prince stop before a series of tableaux that reenacted examples of ancient kings who had shown mercy to their rebellious subjects. On other occasions, the royal entry was an occasion for a town to remind the ruler of the traditional laws and local customs that limited the monarch’s authority in their city. Great drama rarely arose from these circumstances, but the impact of the royal entry was felt in other areas of the theatrical arts. During the fifteenth century the scenery used for the royal entries grew increasingly elaborate. Castles, pavilions, arcades, arches, and complex façades were among the scenic devices used to suggest times and places, and these rode atop the pageant wagons traditionally used in processions. Of all the major scenery forms, the castle was the most important in the fifteenth century since it suggested the traditional powers of the monarch to subdue his enemies and defend his realm. To enhance the staging of the tableaux before these sets, towns sometimes adopted the use of revolving stages, elevators, and other machinery that enhanced the action. In the sixteenth century, many of the innovations in set design and stage machinery that had developed out of the royal entries made their way into the new commercial theaters. Royal entry sets were particularly important, too, in inspiring the popularity of the proscenium arch in the sixteenth century.

Tournament Dramas

By the later Middle Ages the conventions that governed tournaments had largely become conventionalized and dramatic in nature. While in the past, these occasions had provided knights an opportunity to demonstrate their prowess through jousts and other military feats, the weapons used in the late-medieval tournaments had been blunted, and a series of rules limited the danger inherent in these displays. At the same time the dramatic and symbolic nature of the tournament grew. Pageantry came increasingly to characterize the late-medieval tournament, and while the combat at these events still titillated the audience, it now tended to pale in comparison to the processions, parades, dances, and poetry that occurred alongside them. The late-medieval tournament usually commenced with a dramatic entry. Spectacle governed these entries, as in a London tournament in 1490 where a total of sixty ladies each led a knight into the arena tethered by a chain. The use of pageant wagons, too, gained favor with the crowd, and the knights who participated relied on fantastic costumes to attract attention from the audience. In the more elaborate late-medieval tournaments a storyline governed the action, and the traditional feats of prowess became embedded into this narrative. In many places the design of the tournament field was similar to a large round amphitheater, and tournaments took place in actual Roman amphitheaters where they survived. In England, the tournaments’ popularity among the Tudor monarchs of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries necessitated that the tournament fields be lined with a series of pavilions with elaborate boxes for members of the court, the monarch, and his family. This pattern of building galleries inspired the designers of later Elizabethan theaters, who built several galleries above the stage and floor level pit to accommodate higher paying and ranking patrons. Although the popularity of jousts and tournaments persisted throughout the Renaissance, its dangers came to be ever more circumscribed. In 1559 King Henry II of France died as the result of a tournament accident, and a series of new regulations in France and elsewhere tried to limit the inherent dangers in these events even further.

Banqueting and Masques

Tournaments were public events, staged in the open air before crowds of nobles and peasants alike. As such, they had a political role in demonstrating the strength and power of the aristocratic classes. In the later Middle Ages drama also found its way into the private life of the court. Medieval banquets at court or in a substantial noble household were long affairs that included many courses. Between these courses it became customary to introduce dramatic interludes, known in Italian as intermezzi. European princes sometimes chose a theme for the entire banquet, and these various intermezzi thus became linked together in a kind of narrative. One of the most famous occasions that relied upon a narrative occurred at the Feast of the Pheasant in 1453 at the Duke of Burgundy’s court. The Duke of Burgundy’s nephew, the Duke of Cleves, threw this banquet as the conclusion to a several-week period of tournaments and entertainments staged for the noble members of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Distressed by the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, he used the occasion to try to enlist support from the Fleece for a new crusade to retake the Holy Land. He had the hall decorated with spectacular caves and forests, and the food lowered to the table with mechanical devices that looked like triumphal carriages. Small scenes and tableaux entertained those at the feast as a way to encourage the men of the order to pledge their support to the crusade. While many apparently did, their enthusiasm seems to have faded relatively quickly after the event since the military campaign was never undertaken. Another entertainment at court, the masque, was just beginning to appear in the later Middle Ages. Masques grew out of the popular medieval custom of mumming, a custom particularly widespread in England. In these performances masked villagers, known as mummers, visited the manor houses of local lords, entertaining the household with short pantomimes, dances, and games. Originally, mumming served as a fund-raiser for local relief efforts in the village, but by the late fourteenth century a variant of the custom, the masque, was quickly developing in the royal court. In 1377, a group of about 130 masked Londoners visited a dance held by King Richard II. Dressed in elaborate costumes that suggested powerful figures in the church and state, these masked entertainers stayed to dance alongside the royal courtiers. Like most court entertainments, these early masques grew more elaborate at the end of the Middle Ages, and the official entry of the king’s herald often preceded them, in order to set out an elaborate pretext for the evening’s entertainment. Noblemen donned masks to present short dramas that they themselves had prepared, and professional actors, singers, and dancers lent these affairs greater finesse, as did special stage sets constructed about the hall. This combination of amateur and professional court entertainments remained popular throughout the Renaissance, inspiring the elaborate masked balls that became customary in royal courts and noble households in the seventeenth century.


The later Middle Ages was a time of great innovation in the theater. Several new forms—the mystery cycles and morality plays—grew out of the traditional liturgical dramas of the earlier Middle Ages and came to maturity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The mystery cycles were noteworthy for their dramatic realism, impressive scenery, and narrative complexity, while many of the morality plays of the period were, by contrast, masterpieces of religious allegory. The other venues in which dramatic forms developed in the era—royal entry tableaux, tournaments, and the early masque—tended toward spectacle. The inclusion of games, songs, and dance in these forms points to the eclectic nature of entertainments favored in Europe’s courts. Here the appearance of narrative structures to explain the action as well as the development of new kinds of scenery and theaters inspired later generations.

The Renaissance Theater in Italy


In Italy humanism was the dominant intellectual movement of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and its methods affected most areas of cultural life. The early humanists Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) had been fascinated by the genres and literary style of Latin Antiquity. They envisioned a revival of culture based upon ancient literary models. As the humanist movement developed, it acquired a new sophistication about the role and uses of language. This sophistication gave birth in the fifteenth century to philology, a new discipline that studied the historical and contextual uses of languages in ancient documents. Philology developed rigorously scientific methods that by the second half of the fifteenth century allowed scholars to establish the authenticity of ancient texts. At about the same time, humanism also supported a revival of the study of ancient rhetoric as well as the Greek language. As this snapshot suggests, humanism was from its first a literary, rather than a philosophical, movement. There was no humanist manifesto or creed, but a general conviction that the development of men and women who were critical readers and thinkers as well as elegant writers might ennoble society. This same conviction prompted the humanists to study ancient forms of drama. Their efforts produced a classical revival of the masterpieces of Antiquity, even as they eventually inspired Renaissance playwrights to imitate the ancient genres. In tragedy, however, Italian dramatists long remained slaves to ancient models. Although many Renaissance Italians wrote Greek and Roman styled tragedies, no masterpiece in this genre appeared until the eighteenth century. Italian scholarship of the ancient classics gave rise to works that today are only of historical interest. At the same time Italian humanist scholarship traveled to the rest of Europe, and in Renaissance England, France, and Spain, great tragic dramas did appear. In comedy, by contrast, Renaissance Italians evidenced greater success, producing a long string of learned or erudite comedies that also inspired playwrights throughout Europe.

Revival of Antiquity

The rediscovery of the comedies and tragedies of the ancient world gave birth to new editions of the works of Sophocles, Euripides, and the Roman playwrights Seneca, Terence, and Plautus. Seneca, the ancient author of Rome’s greatest tragedies, was the first ancient playwright to attract the humanists’ attentions. Already in the fourteenth century scholars had turned to study his tragedies. The comic playwright Plautus was the next great classical figure to undergo a revival. In 1429, the humanist Nicholas of Cusa rediscovered twelve plays by Plautus, and in the years that followed, Italy’s growing ranks of literary scholars pored over these documents. By the second half of the fifteenth century, the printing press permitted scholars to print editions of the classical plays. A collected edition of the surviving works of Terence appeared in 1470, followed two years later by the works of Plautus. These printed editions allowed hundreds of identical texts to circulate among scholars and authors simultaneously, thus inspiring readers to try their own hand at imitating the ancient forms. The new editions also prompted Italy’s wealthy patrons and nobility to commission translations of the works into Italian and to undertake productions of the plays. By contrast, the study of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes proceeded more slowly since, in the fifteenth century, Greek dramas could only be read by the most erudite of scholars. By 1525, this situation had begun to change when three of the most famous Greek tragedies, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris and his Cyclops as well as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, had translations in Italian. Translations of major Greek dramas appeared throughout the sixteenth century, producing calls for the revival of Greek theater, as well as a more general interest in classical dramatic conventions.


Humanist interest in ancient tragedy developed early, as Italian scholars examined the ancient tragedies of Seneca. Around 1300, the early humanists Lovati Lovato and Nicholas di Trevet produced commentaries on Seneca’s tragedies. The critical interest in Seneca was not accidental. Seneca was a Stoic, a member of the ancient philosophical sect that taught that the human passions were the source of evil. Stoicism embraced a world-renouncing creed that was not dissimilar to the Christian philosophy of many medieval figures, nor was it unattractive to the early humanists. Petrarch saw in Stoicism’s teachings an effective way to manage one’s relations with the world. On balance, the renewed popularity of Senecan tragedy, however, had a dampening effect on the revival of the form as a theatrical drama. Seneca treated tragedy largely as a literary genre, and today most scholars believe that he was, even in Antiquity, a writer of “closet dramas,” that is of plays intended to be read rather than performed. In their attempts to understand this writer’s works, the early Renaissance humanists also relied on medieval theorists such as the sixth-century philosopher Isidore of Seville or the thirteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri—both of whom had treated ancient tragedy largely as a kind of poetry that dealt with the vile deeds and justified downfall of immoral rulers. Isidore and Dante’s attitudes toward the form thus downplayed the richly variegated philosophical, psychological, and visual elements that lay within ancient tragic forms. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Italy’s humanists largely agreed with these traditional assessments. The writers of the earliest Renaissance tragedies imitated the literary style of Seneca even as they discounted the genre’s theatrical potential. In 1315, Albertino Mussato was among the first to compose a tragedy in the ancient style. In his Ecerinis Mussato drew his plot from recent historical events, recounting the wicked deeds and downfall of Ezzelino da Romano, a thirteenth-century Italian despot. Like all Italian writers of tragedies until the mid-sixteenth century, Mussato downplayed the theatrical elements of his story, and instead developed the work’s great literary potential. He wrote his drama not for the stage but for a small group of readers who were to recite the play. This notion—that tragedy was best consumed by a small circle of cultivated readers rather than on stage—survived for many generations. It persisted even in the sixteenth century when printed editions of tragedies replaced manuscript versions of these plays. Even the rising popularity of Greek tragedy in the sixteenth century did little to dampen the enthusiasm for “closet dramas” read in private or in small reading circles. In 1515, for example, the humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino became the first Italian to write a play using the conventions of ancient Greek tragedy. His Sofonisha employed the ancient Greek elements of chorus, song, and spectacle, and he relied on the solemn unities characteristic of these ancient works. But like most Italian Renaissance tragedies, Sofonisha was read in small groups long before it was performed on the stage. The play went through six printings—a sign of its popularity—but it was not staged until 1562. Another popular tragic drama of the time, Giovanni Rucellai’s Rosmunda similarly claimed a large readership, but was not performed until the eighteenth century.

Staged Tragedies

Despite the relatively arid way in which tragedy was consumed during much of the Renaissance, the form retained great popularity as literary entertainment. By the sixteenth century, though, a growing understanding of the conventions of the ancient theater inspired a new realization of the dramatic potential that lay within the genre. Here the rediscovery of an uncorrupted version of Aristotle’s Poetics was a particularly decisive development. In this ancient treatise on poetry and the dramatic forms, Aristotle showed how tragedy possessed great power to appeal to the human passions. As knowledge of the Poetics spread it produced changes in the ways in which playwrights wrote tragedies. Authors addressed their works more and more to the audience for these dramas, and they stressed the visual elements of their dramas. In his Poetics written in 1529, the playwright Trissino noted that the first, and consequently one of the most important, elements of a tragedy is its scenery because this might excite pleasure in the audience. A new curiosity, evident in Trissino’s statements as well as continuing attempts to track down ancient dramas, inspired the first performance of a Renaissance tragedy in 1541, Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi’s Orbecche. The great success of this production inspired noble patrons throughout Italy to commission authors to write new tragedies intended from the first to be staged rather than merely read. These included Pietro Aretino’s Orazia (1546), Gugliemo Dolce’s Marianna (1565), and Orsatto Giustiniani’s Edipo (1585). While tragedy never became as popular as other Renaissance dramatic forms—most notably comedy—it still managed to acquire a significant following. Its themes, which were grave and often foreboding, meant that tragedy was a theatrical form that appealed to the relatively educated few. And since tragedies usually treated the lives of noble figures, their staging requirements were costly and elaborate. In the absence of a professional theater dedicated to tragic productions, these costs could only be borne by the occasional noble patron who commissioned such works. While these factors limited tragedy’s appeal, significant productions were nevertheless undertaken toward the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time, the knowledge Italian scholars had amassed about the performance standards and structures of ancient tragedies was transmitted throughout Europe; and in late Renaissance Spain, England, and France, tragic theater found a more congenial home.

Erudite Comedy

The study of ancient comedy and its conventions first developed in the fifteenth century, somewhat later than the initial revival of tragedy. From the first, though, renewed interest in ancient comedy generated theatrical productions, and in turn, the staging of the ancient dramas inspired the new Italian genre of Erudite Comedy. These learned comedies influenced dramas written elsewhere in sixteenth-century Europe. The revival of knowledge about ancient comedy began in 1429 when the humanist Nicholas of Cusa re-discovered a dozen previously unknown works by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. The circulation of these comedies soon produced Italian imitations like the Chrysis of the humanist scholar Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, written in 1444. At the same time a fashion developed for the works of Plautus. At Ferrara, for instance, the dukes staged both Latin and Italian translations of the ancient playwright’s works from the 1570s onward. These performances inspired the great poet Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533) to compose several widely admired Italian comedies in the first decade of the sixteenth century. In Florence, the development of a genre of theatrical comedies took a somewhat different path. There the great humanist Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) revived the works of the ancient comic playwright Terence by editing the author’s accomplished drama Andria. Florentine authors of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries also studied ancient Greek comedies, and discussed these in a sort of salon patronized by the Rucellai family at the time. After his exile from the Florentine political world, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) began writing political theory and histories as well as comedies to support himself. Of all three kinds of writing the statesman undertook, comedy proved to be the most lucrative. In his dramas he put to work the theoretical and practical literary knowledge he had acquired from living in Florence during the heyday of the comic revival. He produced several plays, of which The Mandrake Root (1517) was his most popular and influential. In ways reminiscent of some of the tales of the Decameron, it re-told the story of an old braggart who is cuckolded by a clever young man.


The new plays modeled on the examples of Terence and Plautus were called erudita, meaning erudite or learned, because their structures imitated those of ancient Rome. Although the contours of these dramas relied upon some ancient conventions, erudite comedy grew to become far more than a merely imitative form. In several cases playwrights wrote these comedies in verse. But most often they relied on a prose written in the vigorous Tuscan dialect in use throughout northern and central Italy at the time. The dramas often used local dialects or words that were foreign in origin to underscore a character’s nature as a simpleton or a foreigner. Most of the comedies followed the five-act format of ancient Roman models. They took place in an Italian street scene populated with wealthy patricians, their servants, and their clients. Courtesans, pimps, innkeepers, peddlers, and soldiers were also frequent characters in the plays, showing the taste for real-life situations rather than the fantasy settings that had often been used in earlier medieval forms of comedy. One important development in the history of erudite comedy was the foundation of the Intronati at Siena around 1531. A group of university-educated intellectuals and wits, the Intronati extended the boundaries of comedy by bringing romance plots into the genre. Eventually, their innovations attracted a broad readership throughout Europe, and inspired many similar works, including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Beyond the many plots they developed from medieval romances, the Intronati also made use of stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron, favoring those tales in which highly intelligent and heroic women get the better of weaker male characters. News of their innovations spread quickly throughout Italy, and new groups in Florence, Padua, Rome, and other cities soon imitated them.

Counter Reformation

The great comic tradition that was built up in Italy between the late fifteenth and mid-sixteenth century also was affected by the religious controversies of the time. As the Counter-Reformation aimed for reform of both the church and society, the forms of erudite comedy grew increasingly more serious and high-minded in tone. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a new form known as commedia grave treated more serious themes. While these new plays mixed pathos and humor, the commedia grave more generally inspired yet a third genre known as tragi-comedy toward the end of the sixteenth century. In contrast to ancient and erudite comedies, the messages of tragicomedies were more essentially Christian in nature. In plays like Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd), the writer Battista Guarini, an early master of tragicomedy, showed the central character facing the sufferings of the world, yet still achieving ultimate redemption through the powers of Divine Providence. This new strain of drama played more to the tastes of the Counter Reformation for high-minded themes that might uplift viewers and teach moral values.

Commedia Dell’arte

The audience for the comic art form known as Commedia dell’Arte (a name invented after the Renaissance to describe this phenomenon) was broader and more popular than that of erudite comedy. There were at the same time many connections between the two forms. Members of the professional Commedia dell’Arte troupes frequently attended erudite comedies in search of inspiration. But in contrast to erudite comedy, the Commedia dell’Arte was largely an improvised art form. The transmissions between erudite comedies and the Commedia, too, usually worked only in a single direction, since the authors of the more learned comedies generally avoided the slapstick humor and crowd-pleasing effects that were the stock-in-trade of the Commedia. There were, however, a few notable cases in which learned writers borrowed characters and gestures from the more popular form. The Commedia dell’Arte began to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. At Padua, a contract survives from an eight-man troupe that joined together for the purpose of traveling and acting out comedies. By the 1560s these roving comic troupes were common throughout Italy, and many hastily erected temporary stages in town squares to entertain urban people. At the conclusion of these shows, the performers collected donations from the crowd. Other troupes developed a noble and distinguished clientele, and instead of giving spontaneous street performances, they provided entertainment at the wedding feasts and banquets of princes and wealthy townspeople. There were no scripts for most Commedia dell’Arte performances, and the action was spontaneous and quick. Acting in this way required troupe members to develop a great spirit of teamwork, to have a sense of comic timing, and to acquire an enormous reservoir of jokes and stories. The actors seem to have read widely and to have attended the theater regularly in search of inspiration. Most scenarios usually included a central couple that were attractive lovers and well accomplished in the rhetorical forms of the Tuscan dialect. In addition, several characters that played maids to these figures were common features of most troupes. These characters provided the essential comic twist by confounding and commenting upon their master and mistress’ love interest. Men usually undertook these roles and they played them unmasked. Beyond the lovers and servants, most troupes had a host of stock characters, many of who were older and who were usually depicted using masks. There was often a doctor from Bologna, a Venetian grandee, as well as groups of clowns and buffoons. Other figures that marched across the Commedia’s stages included gypsies, drunkards, Turks, executioners, and innkeepers. Since most of the troupes were small, actors doubled-up on roles to achieve this great variety of characters.


As the sixteenth century progressed, the most distinguished Italian troupes entertained in courts and cities throughout Europe. By the 1570s, Commedia troupes were also making their own journeys to France, Spain, England, and Poland. The popularity of the form, both among city people and the nobility, was undeniably great. By the end of the century, for example, Italian Commedia dell’Arte troupes performed at some of the most important weddings throughout the continent, including that of Marie de’ Medici to Henry IV of France in 1600. The comic form survived into the seventeenth century, when it continued to compete successfully against the many new kinds of theater that were common throughout Europe. The popularity of the art inspired some Commedia actors to publish their monologues and dialogues in their retirement, and these editions affected later written comedy. Although the Counter Reformation generally found the off-color, even lewd, overtones of the Commedia distasteful, the art form’s audience was so large and the troupes so vital to local economies that it was never effectively suppressed.

The Pastoral

The Renaissance dramatic genre of the pastoral arose from roots in poetry and became a highly original theatrical form that long outlived the Renaissance. In the theater, as in literary pastorals, these plays were set in rustic locales and their characters—shepherds, shepherdesses, and sometimes nymphs—met in cool shade or by clear brooks to sing, dance, and socialize. The happy consequences of faithful love were a frequent theme. The genre, produced by urban people, arose from a nostalgic longing for the simpler pleasures of rural life. The literary roots of pastoral drama stretched back into both Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century the poets Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all wrote poems that imitated the rustic eclogues of Vergil. Although they mastered the ancient form, each used the style to convey allegorical truths. Over time, though, the pastoral poetry of the Renaissance became less allegorical in tone. At the end of the fifteenth century, for instance, the accomplished Florentine humanist Angelo Poliziano was just one of several Italian authors to try his hand at writing poetic pastorals. Poliziano enriched the genre by working the conventions and storylines of the medieval romance into the traditionally bucolic pastoral form. During the sixteenth century the increasingly sophisticated knowledge of Greek theater also left its mark on pastoral theater. The Greeks had developed “satyr plays” as a genre of theater distinct from tragedy and comedy. Usually, these dramas had been performed as lighter interludes during the staging of long tragedies. The translation of Euripides’ play, Cyclops, in 1525—the only completely extant example of a Greek satyr play—proved to be the final impetus to the development of a distinctly Renaissance genre of pastoral theater. Cyclops, like most of the ancient satyr plays, had been populated with drunken satyrs, subhuman creatures who were believed to live in the Greek countryside. The drama recounted their lustful exploits and mocked the traditional conventions of mythological stories. It is from the word “satyr” that the modern word “satire” takes its origins. In 1545, Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi completed his Egle, the most successful imitation of Euripides’ satyr play to appear during the Renaissance. As pastoral theater came of age in the second half of the sixteenth century, it made use of these ancient Greek and Roman models as well as the conventions of medieval romances. Among the greatest Italian dramatists to write pastoral plays was Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), whoseAminta became the most influential drama of this type. It was first performed in 1573 at the court of the dukes of Ferrara by the Gelosi troupe, a popular professional theatrical group who also regularly performed Commedia dell’Arteproductions for distinguished clients. Afterwards the influence of Tasso’s work spread throughout Europe and inspired dramatists in England, France, and Spain, including Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Cervantes. Another influential work in the pastoral vein was Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido (1580) or The Faithful Shepherd, a pastoral play that also helped create the new theatrical genre of tragicomedy. Like Tasso’s Aminta, Guarini’s play became popular in courts throughout Europe and inspired John Fletcher’s own version of The Faithful Shepherd in England. By the early seventeenth century the pastoral play had appeared everywhere in Europe, inspiring a tradition of pastoral visual art and music that survived for several centuries.

The Opera

A final theatrical form, the opera, was just beginning to emerge in the last years of the Renaissance, and was shaped by the developing taste for pastoral drama as well as the conventions of classical Greek theater. Opera’s earliest origins lay in the city of Florence, the cultural center from which many innovations issued in the Renaissance. The first dramas to be set to music were performed in the palaces of the city’s wealthy merchants and in the Medici court. Thereafter, as opera spread throughout Europe, it remained a form of court entertainment for many years. Dafne has long claimed the title of Europe’s first opera; it was performed in the Florentine palace of Jacopo Corsi, a local silk merchant, in 1598. Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) wrote the libretto for Dafne, which was set to music by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621). Unfortunately, the score of this work has not survived, although Rinuccini and Peri soon collaborated on a second work, Euridice, which was performed before the Medici court in Florence in 1600. The music from this opera does survive, and the score shows that the libretto dominated the performance, with words sung in simple recitative. There were as yet no arias or grand musical flourishes. Instead Peri and Rinuccini, like the composers of other early operas, were affected by the late sixteenth-century discussions of the Florentine Camerata, a group of scholars that had coalesced as an informal academy in the city to investigate ancient Greek music. Although little evidence existed to suggest the performance practices of the classical period, the group believed that the music of that time had possessed a great power to ennoble its listeners because it was monodic, that is, it consisted of a single melodic line. The Camerata also idealized ancient Greek music because they perceived that its performers had given greater weight to the texts they had sung. The members of this Florentine group often discounted contemporary music, particularly the popularity of the Renaissance madrigal, because of these forms’ polyphony, that is, the presence of many different melodies superimposed atop each other. Polyphony, they charged, confused listeners and lacked any power to spur its audience to virtuous living. For these reasons, the recitative style—the simple recitation of text set to music—dominated the early operas performed in and around Florence. The recitative opera, though, was short-lived. Already in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi introduced the more intensive form of arias into his work Orfeo in order to underscore the most important parts of the libretto. The reliance on arias and the somewhat later return of polyphony to the opera moved the art form away from the severity its pioneers had intended, a severity they believed might recreate the grandeur of the original Greek drama.


Except for the survival of ancient Roman amphitheaters, few permanent theaters existed anywhere in medieval Europe. During the sixteenth century the building of permanent theaters increased, first in Italy and later in Spain and England. Still, there were far more temporary theaters in the period than there were permanent ones—usually set up in the halls and courtyards of public buildings or in the palaces and villas of the nobility. In one part of his Architettura, which was published in 1545, Sebastiano Serlio treated the subject of theater design and included illustrations for the construction of a temporary theater similar to one he had already built in Italy. At that time Renaissance artists and architects also functioned as designers of sets, stages, and theaters for their noble patrons. Leonardo da Vinci, Baldassare Peruzzi, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto were just a few of the many distinguished artists who undertook these tasks for their noble and princely patrons. Serlio’s design for a temporary theater attempted to compress as much of the architecture of an ancient Roman theater as he could into the background of his stage. This formal architectural screen had five doorways that opened on to a central acting space. Prompted by the popularity of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, this style of production was popular in the temporary theaters erected in Rome and other cities throughout Italy at the time, particularly those built for noble households. Serlio designed a temporary structure that might be assembled and taken down as needed, yet several permanent sixteenth-century theaters in Italy made use of some his elements. These included the Venetian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi’s design for the Teatro Olimpico at Sabbioneta (which was built around 1588) and a similar structure at Piacenza from 1592. A more complete attempt to recreate the designs of an ancient Roman theater also occurred at Vicenza, where the Olympian Theater was constructed according to plans originally set down by the great architect Andrea Palladio. This structure transformed Serlio’s pattern by adding stepped-up amphitheater seating. Palladio also placed a two-story portico of columns on the stage, which he decorated with classical statuary. Beyond the five entrances that punctuated his façade, deep perspective vistas of Italian city scenes were later added to fill the spaces behind Palladio’s original screens. These created the illusion of great depth in the theater, despite the fact that the stage was relatively shallow.


The culture of humanism, with its taste for all things ancient, deeply affected the development of the Italian theater during the Renaissance. Although older styles of religious dramas did not disappear in Italy during the period, the theater of ancient Greece and Rome inspired a new taste for secular themes and subjects. An initial fascination with the works of Seneca, Plautus, and Terence gave rise to new genres of recited tragedy and erudite comedies written in the Italian language. Somewhat later, the revival of Greek drama exerted an influence on the tragedies of the period. Still, the dramatists of Renaissance Italy were not slavish in their devotion to classical genres. While inspired by the enormous achievements of the classical world, they also created new forms like the opera, the pastoral, and the tragicomedy. Although some of the elements of these new genres were classical in inspiration, Renaissance playwrights developed them in ways that were uniquely contemporary in expression. Finally, a vigorous popular theater that was secular in spirit developed in the Commedia dell’Arte, an art form that spread rapidly throughout the peninsula in the mid-sixteenth century. This street theater, like many of Italy’s theatrical innovations, traveled widely in Europe, thus enriching the continent’s national theaters in the final years of the Renaissance and in the generations that followed.

The Renaissance Theater in Northern Europe


At the dawn of the sixteenth century, humanism gradually gained popularity among educated townspeople and court circles in Northern Europe. At court, the fashion for Antiquity left its mark on spectacles and in the dramatic interludes that were regularly performed at banquets and other entertainments, as they had already done several generations earlier in Italy. At the same time religious mystery plays continued, but the impact of the Protestant Reformation discouraged their staging. In Germany the falloff in production of the mystery cycles that Protestantism caused encouraged development of other dramatic forms, including village farces and polemical plays designed to popularize either Protestant or Catholic sympathies. The traditional Fastnachtspiele, or Shrove Tuesday plays staged before the onset of Lent, continued under both Lutheran and Catholic auspices and became a new vehicle for moralistic teaching. A new feature of the sixteenth-century theater in Northern Europe was its increasing professionalism. As in Italy, the mid-sixteenth century in the north of the continent saw the rise of small traveling theatrical troupes who made their way through the country to stage short farces and comic interludes. In the largest cities of the region such as Paris and London, the increasingly professional nature of the theater came to inspire new permanent theaters with repertory companies that aimed to entertain a broad swath of the urban population. In Paris, the commercial theater took on a new importance as the religious mystery cycles were forbidden by an edict of the city’s parliament in 1548. In England, the mystery cycles survived somewhat longer, but their popularity waned under the new teachings of the Reformation. The foundation of the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris in 1548 and the slightly later appearance of professional theaters in London satisfied the demands of city people for entertainment. The commercial theaters also quickened the development of a reservoir of national dramatic literature in these countries that was aimed at a truly popular urban audience. In both England and France the Golden Age of national theater lay ahead in the early seventeenth century, but a number of admirable plays appeared even in the years before 1600. In the productions that were mounted for these new commercial theaters, playwrights used the knowledge of Antiquity they had acquired from Renaissance sources. At the same time, commercial pressures caused them to address their plays to as broad an audience as possible. As a consequence, the imitation of Antiquity that dominated much of sixteenth-century Italian drama was not as extensive in the new commercial theaters of London and Paris. Playwrights tailored their productions to fit popular tastes, and the evidence of rising attendance shows that in both countries they proved more than astute in satisfying audience demands.


The medieval custom of staging elaborate royal entries into cities throughout a monarch’s realm continued unabated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Northern Europe. The taste for spectacle, imposing processions, and solemn rituals connected with these ceremonies grew and reflected the tastes of the Renaissance for the ancient world. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the burgeoning knowledge of ancient history in Italy inspired new entries there that were staged in imitation of the imperial triumphs of ancient Rome. In 1326, the despot Castruccio Castracane entered his subject town of Lucca like a Roman emperor driving a chariot and prisoners through the streets. A century later, the trend to style the entrance of Italian rulers into their towns as Roman triumphs had grown even more complex. Italian Renaissance entries now often elaborately melded Christian and ancient imagery together, such as in the entrance of Borso D’Este into the town of Reggio around 1450. A figure dressed like the town’s patron saint bore the keys of the city atop a heavenly cloud. Angels and cherubs claimed the keys and presented them to Borso. A pageant wagon crowned by an empty throne approached to bear the duke into the town, while figures representing the classical virtues showed the benefits that accrued from the duke’s rule. The procession concluded in front of the town’s cathedral, where Borso d’Este reviewed again the classical and Christian characters that had marched in the procession from atop a golden throne. Finally three angels swooped down from a nearby building and presented the duke with a palm of victory. Spectacles like these grew increasingly commonplace in Italy toward the end of the fifteenth century, their popularity fueled, in part, by the poetry of Petrarch. In his poetic Triumphs, the fourteenth-century humanist had celebrated the myths and victorious imagery of ancient Rome in a series of poems that showed the conquests of the figure of Love by the figures of Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. The poems were popular, and by 1500 they inspired a number of artistic portrayals that, in turn, shaped the taste for the entry’s pageantry.

Northern European Changes

As the fashion for antique imagery spread to Northern Europe after 1500, royal entries were transformed into events similar to those being undertaken at the time in Italy. While the taste for the new classically styled triumphal entries was theatrical, it produced subtle, yet important shifts, particularly in France, that underscored the new grand role that kings expected to play in the governing of their realms. In the fifteenth century monarchs had paused along the route of the entry to observe symbolic tableaux and to listen to short dramatic interludes staged by local townspeople. These short dramas had often been pointed, with messages that underscored local liberties and the limits of royal authority over the town. For cities that had recently evidenced signs of a rebellious spirit, the tableaux and short dramas had often been used to remind the king to practice justice tempered with clemency. As the taste for classical spectacle grew more elaborate after 1500, these dramatic elements were crowded out of the entry in favor of processions that took on ever more the nature of a juggernaut. The key symbol of the new entries celebrated in sixteenth-century Northern Europe was the triumphal arches or, in many cases, a series of triumphal arches through which marched a panoply of elaborately decorated pageant wagons, Roman gladiators and centurions, bound captives, and classically clad figures of the Virtues. The scope of the celebrations that surrounded the entry itself grew similarly grand, with ancillary spectacles and entertainments surrounding the festivities and lengthening the time needed to undertake a royal entry to days, and in some cases, weeks. In these later Renaissance entries, particularly those that occurred around the mid-sixteenth century in France, traditional religious imagery was downplayed in favor of new classical symbols. Slightly later, chivalric elements played an important role as well in the spectacles. The new style of entry developed most definitely in France, and entries elsewhere did not always take on the same level of fantastic elaboration. In England, the rituals continued to be relatively small and traditional until the accession of the Stuart kings in the early seventeenth century. But in most places the tendency to eliminate medieval street theater from the festivities developed, and for the entry to become a mute, yet imposing testimony to the central authority of the monarch.

Religious Drama

Religious dramas along the lines of the great mystery and morality plays of the later Middle Ages survived in Renaissance Europe. In France, an edict of the Parliament of Paris forbade the performance of the great mystery cycles in the city in 1548. The action was precipitated both by Protestant attacks upon the theological errors the cycles contained and because of a growing sentiment among Catholics that the plays were an inappropriate vehicle for conveying religious truths. Despite the moves in Paris against the plays, mysteries continued to be performed in some parts of the country. As new forms of drama competed against these cycles, though, the mystery cycles’ audience became increasingly circumscribed to the poor and largely uneducated rural population. In Germany, the fate of the mystery cycles, there known as Passion Plays, was largely similar. Although these great productions lasted in Catholic regions into the seventeenth century, they disappeared in the new Protestant territories. By the mid-seventeenth century Passion Plays had increasingly become a kind of Catholic “folk art,” confined to largely rural regions throughout the countryside. In England, no state action was taken against the mystery cycles until the years of Elizabeth I’s reign (r. 1558-1603). It is difficult to gauge just exactly when most of the plays ceased to be performed in England, given the sketchy nature of the documentation. In the northern English town of York, the great medieval cycle was last performed in 1569, and abandoned the following year after an abortive rebellion by pro-Catholic earls in the region. Chester’s play was performed until 1575. By this time, though, the evidence suggests that many of the cycles had already disappeared.

Polemical Drama and Lent

At the same time, new kinds of religious drama proliferated in Northern Europe. In Protestant Germany, the traditional vehicle of the interlude, a short dramatic sketch performed at banquets and other entertainments, became ripe for polemical condemnation of the Catholic Church. Short Protestant interludes performed on feast days in the cities attempted to popularize the Reformation and to teach its new doctrines to the people. These Protestant polemical plays were quite long-lived, surviving in some Lutheran regions into the mid-seventeenth century. Protestants imitated the custom in England, where similar kinds of sketches promoted the Reformation among urban populations. The religious issues of the time also left their mark on the traditional Fastnachtspiel or “Shrove Tuesday Plays,” which had long heralded the onset of Lent. Journeymen members of the guilds, who were enjoined to be celibate and forbidden to marry, had originated this form of drama. In Nuremberg, where the genre became particularly popular, the plays became a way for guildsmen to let off steam in the revelries that occurred before Lent. Filled with lewd language and salacious imagery, the Fastnachtspielturned the normal sexual and moral conventions of urban life upside down. By the mid-sixteenth century, the moralizing of Nuremberg’s Protestant reformers had clearly exerted an influence upon these productions. In the many Shrovetide plays that he wrote to be performed in his hometown, the accomplished poet Hans Sachs (1494-1576) transformed traditional carnival lewdness into mild horseplay, and he used his short dramas to teach proper bourgeois values.

Jesuit Drama

The origins of another kind of religious theater, the Jesuit school play, lay in the fifteenth-century revival of ancient drama that had occurred in Italy. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, university professors there had begun to stage Latin revivals of the ancient comedies of Terence and Plautus in order to perfect students’ use of classical Latin. In the secondary schools that the Jesuit Order founded throughout Europe in the mid-sixteenth century they relied on a standardized curriculum, closely modeled on humanist examples. As a consequence, they adopted the custom of staging Latin school dramas. The first performance of a school play seems to have occurred at the Jesuits’ first institution at Messina in Sicily during 1551. By 1555, the first Jesuit play had been produced in Vienna, and by 1560, many schools the order now ran in Germany and Northern Europe staged these dramas. In its early stage of development the Jesuit Theater produced classical and biblical stories with ennobling content. Popular themes included the stories of Hercules, Saul, and David. Gradually, however, the Jesuits adopted stories in which female heroines like Judith, Esther, and St. Catherine were the central characters. The choice of these materials forced the order to relax the prohibition against young boys playing female parts. Latin remained the dominant language used in the plays for most of the sixteenth century. The first example of a non-Latin Jesuit play, Christus Judex, originated in Spain, but schools in Italy and Germany soon had translations. Over time, the Jesuit productions grew more elaborate. Around 1600, the Jesuit dramas already had large casts of characters, and in the course of the following century operatic arias, intermezzi, and even ballet became components of the productions. Similarly, their staging became more elaborate, with lighting effects, costumes, and scenery machinery adopted from those used on the professional stage.

French Theater

Although the tone of most medieval mystery plays was often solemn, short farces had sometimes served as relieving interludes within these dramas, the performance of which sometimes stretched across several days. As in Germany, comic carnival plays, too, provided a safety valve through which people prepared for the self-denial and rigorous disciplines of Lent. Between 1450 and 1600, these traditional comic forms became the basis for the establishment of a popular theater in France. Broad segments of the French urban population, rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike attended productions staged in this popular theater. In contrast to other forms of drama, then, the subjects treated in these plays by necessity had to have broad appeal and general intelligibility. The comic farce was thus one of the most common staged dramas in the French popular theater of the time. Its characters were, by and large, drawn from daily life. A parade of ordinary family members, scheming servants, priests, and tradespeople marched through these plays. In contrast to the morality plays still popular at the time, which had characters with names like Avarice, Hope, and Charity, the farce aimed to represent real-life situations, albeit with a comic twist. French farces were usually written in eight-syllable (octosyllabic) verses. Their plots attacked gullibility, misplaced trust and idealism, and human faithlessness in ways akin to comic traditions stemming from the days of Chaucer and Boccaccio. The stories were often predictable, as characters became embroiled in cases of mistaken identity or tangled in webs that grew from deceit or seemingly harmless lies. In some cases the line of plot development was relatively thin, and witty verbal games dominated the action.

Famous Plays

The two most famous farces to survive from this period are still performed today: Le Cuvier, or The Tub (c. 1500) and Master Peter Pathelin, (c. 1460). In The Tub, a shrewish wife dominates her husband and keeps him busy with a long list of chores. While he is thus occupied, his wife falls into the tub and cannot get out. The husband checks to see if helping his wife out of the tub is included on his list of duties. It is not, and so the play concludes with his proposition to help her, so long as he becomes master of the house, a Renaissance happy ending that reinstated male dominance. In Master Peter Pathelin, the play’s hero is a shady legal type who tricks a local merchant out of cloth by offering to pay for it later. When the merchant arrives at his house to collect the payment, Pathelin has taken to his bed in a feigned and hilarious delirium that lasts for weeks. Later a local shepherd who works for the same merchant comes to Pathelin, asking him to protect him from his employer—the very same merchant Pathelin has already tricked—because he has eaten the flock he was supposed to be guarding. Pathelin advises him to say merely “Baa” to any questions that are asked of him. In court, the merchant becomes confused about the two crimes in which he is a victim, and a comic scene ensues before the judge. As a result Pathelin is momentarily victorious in defending the young shepherd, but when he tries to collect his fee, the shepherd merely responds with a “Baa.” Among the many popular farces staged at the time, Pathelin stands out because of its sophisticated plays on words, its comic timing, and plot development. The play is almost twice as long as any other farce produced in fifteenth-or sixteenth-century France, yet the author manages to sustain the protracted schemes of Pathelin over this enlarged scale. Plays like Pathelin acquired a broad audience in France and earned the respect of both intellectuals and ordinary people. Several translations of French farces into English played a role in shaping later comedies.

French Learned Comedy

By the second half of the sixteenth century the effects of humanism grew more visible in French theater. The play Eugène has long been seen as the first truly “Renaissance” comedy to appear in the country, meaning that its author Étienne Jodelle made use of the classical conventions of Roman comic form by dividing his play into five acts. Jodelle was a member of the Pleiades, a group of authors who labored to revive classical poetic and dramatic forms in France in the mid-sixteenth century. The group took its name from the major constellation, which according to Greek myth, had been formed from the remains of seven prominent Greek poets. The sixteenth-century Pleiades’ fashioning after the famous constellation expressed their hope to revive classical forms in French literature. Like Jodelle’s Eugène, many early efforts of this group still relied on elements of traditional French poetry and drama. Eugène, for instance, is composed in the octosyllabic verse typical of the older farces, rather than the prose typical of comedies of the Latin revival. Its plot also combines some elements of the traditional farce with newer dimensions drawn from the more recently rediscovered comedies of Terence and Plautus. Like the ancient forms, it makes use of power struggles and sexuality in a more direct way than the traditional farces. The play’s conclusion is also morally ambiguous since the central love interest is adulterous and the conflict is resolved in the couple’s favor at the drama’s conclusion. Despite these innovations inspired by ancient comedy, the play’s characters, language, and Parisian setting are undeniably French.

Other Comedies

The bourgeois world that Jodelle created in his Eugène was the favored setting of other humanist-influenced comedies written in the years that followed. These dramas adopted the five-act structure typical of ancient Roman comedies, but until 1573 none was written in prose, each retaining the octosyllabic verse that seems to have been much prized by French writers and audiences alike. In some cases the new comedies took their plots directly from earlier works of Terence and Plautus. The theme of the adulterous spouse who manages one or several affairs simultaneously was a popular one, and the characters that populated these dramas were largely those who might appear in upper-class urban life. Doctors, lawyers, military officers, and both helpful and scheming servants were common figures in the play. In the wake of Antoine de Baïf’s The Braggart (1567), a series of plays appeared in which the central character or characters were boasting and rambunctious fools. De Baïf was a member of the Pleiades group, and he based his play on Plautus’s Miles gloriosus. Although he did not surpass his source, his drama is almost as appealing as the original. Another theme popular in the humanist comedies of the time was impersonation, and the central heroes’ disguises as peasants, fatherly figures, and so forth became the linchpin around which the plot revolved. Another sign of innovation at the time was the revival of Greek comedy. In his Cloud-cuckoo City, Pierre Le Loyer relied on the ancient Greek Aristophane’s Clouds to create a comedy that was more informally structured than previous examples. His work also made use of verses of varying forms. A final milestone in the development of humanist comedy in France was the publication of Pierre de Larivey’s first set of six comedies in 1579. These works were very similar to Italian comedies of the period, although their language was a lively French. Despite certain similarities in plot, the humanist comedies of the later sixteenth century in France display considerable variety. Although their characters are often selected from a stock repertory, French humanist playwrights drew their characters so that their foibles and strengths elicit the admiration of readers and audiences alike. Not all of these dramas found life on the stage, however, since many were likely exercises in language and the application of new dramatic theory. But later playwrights seem to have read and learned from them, and the quality of their drama still retains a great freshness and vitality.

French Tragedy

While French humanists wrote many comedies, their output of tragedy was even more extensive. In many of these works dramatists imitated the conventions of the ancient tragedies of Euripides and Seneca. Some French humanists relied on the dramatic form to propagandize for their Catholic or Protestant sympathies, as in the Calvinist Théodore De Bèze’s play Abraham’s Sacrifice from 1550. Others, like Étienne Jodelle, used the forms of classical tragedy to enlarge French literature. Jodelle crowded his Cleopatra in Prison (c. 1552) with verses of varying lengths and a wealth of rhetorical flourishes designed to expand the literary possibility of the language. Others viewed the writing of tragedies more as an intellectual exercise befitting to men of letters. A few French tragedies drew their subjects from the Bible, but the vast majority treated classical themes. While some adapted Greek themes, most were Roman in nature. The greatest French writer of tragedies from the second half of the sixteenth century was Robert Garnier, who published seven tragedies between 1568 and 1583. They relied on the classical forms of the genre, including the use of a chorus, monologues, and dialogues. All of Garnier’s plays treated classical themes, although the author saw the political rivalries and wars that his dramas recounted to be applicable to the contemporary situation of France. During the Wars of Religion that raged in the country between 1562 and 1598, staged tragedy became a vehicle for commenting upon and lamenting the country’s civil conflicts. French tragedies from the period are filled with much pathos as well as moralistic pronouncements about the danger of tyrannicide, political ambitions, and human desires. Like the similar dramas written in Italy at the same time, they are largely concerned with rhetoric and ethics, and they appear to modern scholars to be more a form of literature than staged drama. The number of plays read as social commentary by an elite audience probably outweighed the number performed on the stage.


In the second half of the sixteenth century French dramatists began to mold classical comedy and tragedy into forms suitable for their own native expression. While they wrote many new plays in these genres, relatively few of the works inspired by Renaissance humanism had audiences outside the royal court and noble households, beyond those intended for use as school exercises. For most of the sixteenth century, the French theater continued to be dominated by royal spectacles and court entertainments and street performances of farces, morality plays, and other popular forms of drama that could be performed in towns and cities throughout the country on hurriedly constructed makeshift stages.

Hôtel De Bourgogne

The Parisian theater was an exception. Paris was the largest city in sixteenth-century Europe and developed one of the continent’s first professional stages. In 1548, the Confraternity of the Passion built a theater on the second floor of a town-house that had once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1402, the French king had awarded the Confraternity, an organization that grew out of the city’s guilds, a monopoly over the performance of all religious dramas in the city. Their new hall was long and narrow (45 feet wide by 108 feet deep). The platform stage was only 35 feet deep and 25 feet wide with a secondary stage above its main floor. The theater’s pit was for standing spectators, while above, ranks of boxes filled the sides. At the rear stepped up benches faced the stage. With this scheme the Hôtel probably accommodated an audience of more than a thousand spectators. The construction of the confraternity’s new theater coincided with the Parisian parliament’s decision to outlaw the traditional mystery cycles in the city. As a result, the confraternity became a troupe of actors who staged secular dramas and farces far different from the mysteries and passions for which they had originally been chartered. These plays were performed before paying audiences with as much spectacle as could fit onto the facility’s small stage. The confraternity’s theater relied on the medieval style of simultaneous staging, with five or six different sets displayed on the stage at the same time. During the 1550s the theater was successful, but with the ills of the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) audiences at the house shrank. By the 1590s the guild began to rent out their space to other French and foreign troupes; the confraternity’s continued monopoly over theatrical production in Paris forced other professional troupes to negotiate with the guild to perform in the city. The problem of negotiation coupled with the climate engendered by the civil conflicts of the Wars of Religion doomed most foreign or French troupes to failure. This situation began to change around 1600, as the company of Valleran le Conte visited the theater annually. Le Conte developed a highly profitable relationship with the playwright Alexandre Hardy (c. 1575-1632), who in his relatively short life wrote hundreds of comedies, tragedies, tragi-comedies, and pastorals. His plays were notable for their coarse language, sexual suggestiveness, and violence, as well as their short scenes and sudden plot twists. Like the medieval spectacles of the mysteries, limbs were severed, eyes plucked out, and characters beheaded. The results proved to be crowd pleasing, and the Hôtel de Bourgogne finally attracted a reliable clientele. Eventually, Valleran’s troupe, known as the “Royal Comedians,” took up permanent residence at the Bourgogne, and Alexandre Hardy became, from 1611, the group’s official dramatist. By the mid-seventeenth century, the continuing monopoly of the Confraternity of the Passion over theatrical productions in Paris angered many playwrights. Dramatists attacked the Confraternity, a one-time religious organization that was now a force over the secular stage, as a symbol of archaic decadence. In their great masterpieces, the seventeenth-century masters of the French stage—Corneille, Racine, and Molière—also aimed to distance the French drama from the blood and gore of the days of Hardy and Valleran at the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

The Commercial Theater in England

From Participants to Audience

As religious sensibilities changed in sixteenth-century England, styles of participation in drama altered. In the later Middle Ages many English men and women had taken part in the mounting of the great mystery cycles, but as these plays came gradually to be abandoned, and later to be suppressed, the vigorous traditions of community participation in drama disappeared. Where once English men and women had been active participants in staging local theater, they now became a receptive audience for plays that were performed by professional troupes of actors. London, far and away the largest city of the realm, became the great center in which a national theater emerged at the end of the sixteenth century. The playwrights who wrote for the new commercial theaters in London were, by and large, highly educated men. They possessed the advantages of humanist education, with its attention to the ancient dramas of Greece and Rome. From their boyhood days, most of these figures had likely participated in the classical dramas regularly staged in secondary schools throughout the country. At the same time, London’s commercial theaters were always paying propositions, and those who wrote for them needed to take account of the educational level and middlebrow tastes of urban people. London’s theater survived on the penny admissions paid by the city’s day laborers, shopkeepers, and servant class. Thus the thorough imitation of Antiquity that was to be found in dramas staged in urbane courts throughout Europe never played a role in the public theater of England. Late Tudor drama had no wealthy patrons to underwrite production, so it had to appeal to an audience that was truly broad. This called for fast-moving, adventurous productions filled with elements of spectacle, song, and even occasional outbursts of violence. The evidence of attendance at these dramas as well as the steady proliferation of new theaters in the capital point to the growing popularity of the theater during the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign. This popularity steadily mounted under the early Stuart kings in the seventeenth century.

Legal Considerations

Yet before the professional theater could flourish, certain legal considerations and controversies had to be resolved. As elsewhere in Europe, city governments in England feared the itinerant troupes of players and entertainers who increasingly set up shop in the streets and market squares. Vagrancy, perceived as a great social ill at the time, caused urban governments in many places to look upon the spontaneous performances of street players as a form of beggary, since troupes regularly “passed the hat” to underwrite their expenses. They also perceived such spontaneous productions as a threat to public order because actors or plays might express dangerous political or religious sentiments that could foment rebellion. In London, like many cities throughout Europe, local officials might have preferred to legislate the theater out of existence altogether, if the actions of Parliament and the queen had not intervened. In 1572, an act of Parliament specifically exempted “players” from the list of people considered vagrants, so long as they worked in noble households or were employed by other persons of high degree. Two years later, Elizabeth granted one of her court favorites, the Earl of Leicester, a royal license that allowed his own players to perform in the city of London, so long as the royal censor, known as the Master of the Revels, first observed the troupe’s plays. While London’s officials tried to countermand the queen’s will, Leicester’s troupe set up shop in the town in 1574 and began performing regularly on weekdays.

London Theaters

Despite royal sanction the players still faced the determined opposition of London’s leadership, and two years later the troupe’s leader, James Burbage, decided to build a company outside London’s city walls in the northern suburb of Shoreditch. Here in the area known as the Liberties of London, the troupe might be free from interference from the city’s officials. Long tradition had identified these fringe suburbs as areas of license, sexual immorality, and disease. The city’s lazarettes, the place of isolation for those with leprosy and other contagious diseases, had long been located there, as were many brothels. Initially, then, the move to the Liberties bolstered the shady reputation of theaters in many Londoners’ eyes, and the theaters were widely condemned—perhaps nowhere more vigorously than in the sermons of the city’s Puritan preachers. At the same time, the sense of danger and the forbidden proved to be a popular draw for those in search of excitement. Burbage had grasped that the freewill gifts of his audiences were never going to provide sufficient income for the new scale of his enterprise, and so he introduced the paid admission. For just a few pennies, Londoners could indulge their longing for spectacle and drama to relieve the tedium of daily existence. Burbage called his new structure simply the Theater, and the design he chose was for a simple polygonal structure with three tiers of galleries that surrounded the stage. Later in 1598, as the lease on the land on which the Theater was built expired, the company had the building dismantled. They carted the timbers across the Thames and constructed the new Globe Theater, the site that in the seventeenth century was to see some of Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs. But in the months and years that immediately followed the building of Burbage’s original Theater in Shoreditch, other acting troupes copied the structure, and soon Leiceister’s original company had considerable competition. A few months after Burbage’s house had opened in Shoreditch, a rival company erected another theater known as the Curtain in the same area. A few years later, two financiers, Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley, built the Rose at Bankside, on the southern shores of the River Thames. With the construction of the Rose, a small theatrical district began to grow in Bankside. By the end of the century the Swan and the rebuilt Theater of James Burbage (now the Globe) had also taken up residence there. Finally, to the north of the city, the Fortune was the last of the great sixteenth century houses to be constructed. But even it was to be followed in the seventeenth century by a series of new theaters constructed like a ring around the city.

Restrictions on Actors

English law prohibited women from appearing on the stage, thus making it necessary for female roles to be portrayed by men. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries boy troupes were popular in the city as well. One of these, the “Children of Pauls,” was a group of young boys originally drawn from the ranks of choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Another troupe, the Children of the Royal Chapel, served the Tudor court as choristers and performers. A series of able playwrights wrote for both boy companies, and by the end of the 1570s these troupes were competing successfully against the adult companies in London’s new commercial theaters. The Children of the Royal Chapel, sometimes called merely the Chapel Boys, had by this time actually blazed a trail in occupying a theater within the city walls in London. At Blackfriars monastery, an institution whose religious mission had been abolished by the Tudor monarch Henry VIII, the boys’ impresario Richard Farrant decided to convert a series of rooms into an indoor theater. The City of London opposed his designs, but since the boys were royal choristers and Blackfriars’ monastery possessed liberty from the City of London’s control, town officials were unable to stop his plans.


At the end of the 1580s the star of the adult troupes moved in the ascendant. Between 1587 and his death in 1593, the great playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote a series of widely admired tragedies that were generally unsuited to being performed by boys. Marlowe relied on the commanding skills of the actor Edward Alleyn, a figure who was larger than life, to play his Faustus and other major roles. At the same time opinion in London also turned against the boys, as the managers of the troupes involved themselves in religious controversy. Puritanism, a fervid religious opponent of the theater, was at the time coming to influence the city’s ministers and officials, despite the growing opposition to the movement on the part of the queen and court. In the Marprelate Controversy of 1588-1589, the archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift attempted to silence this Puritan opposition by a strict application of his authority to censor the press. Widespread indignation inspired pamphleteers to publish furtively a series of satirical tracts under the name “Martin Marprelate,” and these, in turn, soon inspired many Londoners to withhold their tithes. As the controversy mounted, the leaders of the boy’s troupes supported the archbishop’s position, and as a result, public sentiment turned against them. Both the Children of the Royal Chapel and the Boys of Pauls spent the next decade largely touring the countryside, staging their plays for provincials throughout England. By 1599, the situation had cooled off, and the Boys of Pauls returned, to be followed a few months later by the Children of the Royal Chapel. They took up residence in private theaters, the Chapel troupe returning to its former space at Blackfriars. Eventually, there were eight of these private theaters in London and, like the boys’ troupes themselves, these theaters appealed to a more cultivated clientele. They were fully enclosed, protected from the elements, and lit with candles. For these luxuries the private theaters charged anywhere from three to six times the admission fees of the much larger public theaters on the city’s outskirts. In the early seventeenth century they performed the most up-to-date repertory in London. Blackfriars was always the most successful and exclusive of the private theaters, and in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Children of the Royal Chapel scored a number of successes in the productions they staged there. At this time, the troupe developed a particularly fruitful relationship with the comic author Ben Jonson. He seems actually to have preferred to write for boy troupes, perhaps because, unlike other playwrights of the time, he was jealous of his texts. The troupes’ impresarios tightly managed the actors, thus allowing Jonson to preserve the integrity of the dramas he had written. Buoyed by the success of Jonson’s light, satirical fare, the Children of the Royal Chapel staged a string of early seventeenth-century successes.

Practical Considerations

The early theaters were not always profitable. They were ordered closed during times of epidemic and plays were not permitted during certain seasons of the year, including the 40 days of Lent and periods of royal mourning. An outbreak of the plague during 1592 also resulted in a long period of closure that forced many playwrights to scramble to find new sources of income. The lack of proper artificial lighting meant that plays could only be performed during daylight hours at the large public theaters. Particularly bad weather cancelled many performances, since the theaters were open to the elements. In order to make them profitable the owners of early theaters sometimes allowed other amusements. The designs of the earliest theaters, with their galleries arranged above a pit for standing spectators, were equally well adapted to bear baiting and cockfighting, both popular amusements at the time. The earliest theaters seem to have alternated their plays with these “sports.” But by around 1590, these sidelines were no longer necessary to establish profitability. In 1587, for example, Philip Henslowe remodeled his Rose theater, expanding its seating from around 2,000 to 2,400. His renovations effectively curtailed the structure’s adaptability to bear baiting. The building of larger theaters became a trend. Built around 1595, the Swan had a capacity for around 3,000 patrons. The Swan, however, seems always to have been a particularly unlucky theater. In 1597, a performance there found disfavor with the government and the queen’s Privy Council banned all theatrical performances around London. The company disbanded, and when the theaters reopened, the Swan proved unable to recover. Amateur groups, several touring professional troupes, and prizefight events rented out the building. By the 1630s, contemporaries noted that it had “fallen into decay.” The decor of places like the Swan alternated between the grand and the mundane. The stage and columns supporting the galleries were ornamented with rich carvings, and the stage’s roof was usually painted underneath so that it appeared like an elaborate canopy. The floors of the pit, though, were paved with industrial slag, a waste material frequently used on sixteenth-century streets. Above in the galleries, there were benches upon which people might sit, but the space accorded each spectator seems to have been less than twenty inches wide.


Theater owners and troupes were remarkably pragmatic in choosing the works they performed. They favored authors who could turn out plays quickly and who had a keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of the players in their particular company. Plays frequently had multiple authors, and actors in the troupes often moonlighted as playwrights. Artistic value was not as important as dramas with a broad popular appeal, and writers who could churn out a great succession of suitable plays had the greatest success. Writers often took advantage of recent spectacular events in the city, such as notorious murders and other crimes, for their material. This meant that authors had to work quickly, investigating these tragedies and quickly exploiting them in popular stage productions. Consequently many late sixteenth-century English dramatists were more like modern journalists than literary artists. At the same time, the late sixteenth century did see the appearance of a group of sophisticated playwrights who became known as the University Wits. The term was at first used disparagingly by the actors in London troupes to describe the more sophisticated tastes and elegant style of a group of playwrights who possessed university training. These included John Lyly (1553-1606), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), George Peele (1558-1596), and Thomas Nashe (1567-1601). John Lyly was the first of this group to make his mark upon the theater. Trained at both Oxford and Cambridge, he made his way into court circles in London with the aid of powerful patronage. In his prose literary works Lyly established a complex and ornate style which became known as “euphuism,” in reference to the author’s first romance Euphues, published in 1578. His most successful play was Endimion, a work in which his central character Cynthia is a flattering portrait of Elizabeth I. Although euphuism had many imitators, by the end of the century a new fashion for fast-paced dramas made Lyly’s ornate verse and stately prose seem old fashioned.


The greatest of the university-educated playwrights of the time was Christopher Marlowe, who had been born the son of a Cambridge shoemaker and later attended the university in his hometown. The queen’s minister Thomas Walsingham recruited Marlowe as an undergraduate to spy for England. He traveled to France where he uncovered evidence of plots being staged against England’s monarch. Returning to Cambridge, he received the MA in 1587, but only after a row with his college’s administrators, because Marlowe refused to take holy orders, a condition of the scholarly stipend he had received to this point. He settled in London, sharing rooms with the playwright Thomas Kyd and making acquaintances with powerful friends at court, including Sir Philip Sydney and Sir Walter Ralegh. In the very same year that he arrived in the city, he startled London viewers and actors with his innovative play, Tamburlaine the Great, the first English drama to be written in blank verse, a form of unrhymed poetry that was immediately hailed for its great strength of expression. He followed the successes of Tamburlaine with The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Doctor Faustus, all three tragedies. Although the last play is among his most famous, many critics consider Edward II (1592) to be his most accomplished work. In it, he relates the story of an ill-fated homosexual king murdered by his powerful barons in a plain, but powerful style. Before Marlowe’s time, the writing of historical plays had been a relatively crude dramatic genre. In Edward he elevated the historical play to a point of high art, one that was to be extended even further in the early seventeenth century by the great histories of Shakespeare. Of the three masterpieces that Marlowe wrote in the final years of his short life, Dr. Faustus has been much revived in the twentieth century. It was the most religious of Marlowe’s creations, with its personification of the battle between good and evil and its powerful condemnations of the overweaning pride of humankind. In 1593, Marlowe came under suspicion of heresy; he appeared in court to answer charges that he had uttered “atheistic” statements. On his way he was killed at the home of Eleanor Bull, apparently in a quarrel, although mystery has long surrounded the precise circumstances. It appears plausible that the play-wright’s espionage activities doomed him to an act of official assassination.

Other Playwrights

Other members of the circle of university-educated playwrights in London—George Peele, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe—each produced interesting works that shaped the tastes of lesser dramatists. After graduating from Oxford, George Peele came to London where he at first staged civic pageants and wrote ceremonial verses for the court. After writing several works of middling quality, Peele completed The Old Wives Tale. The work satirized contemporary dramatic genres and displayed a warm-hearted comedic style. Thomas Nashe, a Cambridge-educated playwright, seems to have been altogether more tempestuous. Seemingly expelled from Cambridge before he took the MA, he came to London around 1587 and began to collaborate with Marlowe on the writing of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Several years later he established his literary reputation with the publication of a short pamphlet, Pierce Penniless, that told the story of a writer so hard up for cash that he sells his soul to the devil—a fate that Nashe seems to have shared. Several other Nashe pamphlets attacked great figures in the Elizabethan world, and from time to time he fell afoul of the authorities. In 1597, he collaborated with the playwright Ben Jonson in writing The Isle of the Dogs, a drama produced at the Swan Theater which caused such an uproar, the Queen’s Privy Council issued an order for the destruction of all London’s theaters. Although the destruction never took place, the theaters remained closed for several months, and the scandal forced Nashe to flee town. The reason for such a violent reaction has long remained a mystery, since the government immediately seized and destroyed all copies of the text. The author Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) is today remembered for a single masterpiece, The Spanish Tragedy, first produced around 1589. Unlike his roommate Marlowe, Kyd was not university-educated although he had received primary and secondary schooling in London. He had studied Seneca’s tragic forms, and he adapted these as the structure for his famous tragedy. While the work is a masterpiece in its own right, it has long been seen as the model for Shakespeare’s even greater and far better known seventeenth-century tragedies. Long standing but unproven theories have speculated that Kyd also wrote a version of the story of Hamlet that has since been lost, but which influenced Shakespeare in the writing of his play. He died in 1594 after having been implicated in heresy together with his roommate Marlowe. Kyd had been tortured to give evidence against Marlowe, and never seems to have recovered fully from his wounds.


Another great playwright who was perfecting his craft as the century drew to a close was Ben Jonson (1572-1637) Jonson went on to write a series of brilliant comedies in the years between 1605 and 1614. This achievement came after a long period of apprenticeship, in which he followed a variety of careers and became embroiled in several controversies. After receiving a brilliant education at the public school in Westminster under the direction of the English humanist William Camden, he served for a time as a bricklayer with his stepfather. He then became a mercenary who fought in Flanders, before going to London to try his fortunes as an actor. In 1597, he worked with Thomas Nashe on the ill-fated play, The Isle of the Dogs, the work that for a time threatened to extinguish the London theater altogether. A year later he became embroiled in another court trial after killing a fellow actor in a duel, and he narrowly escaped execution by pleading that he was a member of the clergy. The independent streak that Jonson continued to display throughout his life might easily have snuffed out the life of a lesser soul. Many Tudor playwrights died in brawls or fell afoul of royal and civic authorities, but Jonson survived to write a series of fine works, most of which date from the period between 1605 and 1614. King James I frequently recruited him to produce formal masques for the court.


England’s greatest poet and playwright is also in many respects the country’s most enigmatic and least known. Unlike the university wits that stormed onto the new commercial stage in London in the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare did not possess a higher education. Little is known about his early life, in part, because the author seems to have lacked the desire for self-promotion typical of the more flamboyant figures like Marlowe, Kyd, and Nashe. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, the son of a prosperous local glove maker and one of the town’s councillors. He likely attended a local school, but he may not have completed his education. His father’s business soon went bad, and the future playwright seems to have entered into a hasty marriage with Anne Hathaway in 1582, just as he turned eighteen. Six months later the couple had a daughter, who later married a prosperous local physician. The marriage also produced twins in 1585, one of whom died at age eleven, the other surviving to live a long life. Between the births of these children and 1592, nothing is known of Shakespeare’s life. He may have left Stratford to tour with a troupe of London actors, as some have argued. But in 1592, the first notice of Shakespeare as a writer establishes that he was already well known on the London scene. The university wit Robert Greene referred to Shakespeare in one of his own plays as an “upstart crow” and hinted that the author had plagiarized some of his verses from other dramas.


Other evidence suggests that at this time Shakespeare served a kind of apprenticeship alongside professional playwrights in the city, and scholars have identified a long list of plays in which the author may have played a role. But since many of the texts used in late sixteenth-century theaters were the products of players, troupes, and groups of authors, it is impossible to identify Shakespeare’s contributions with any kind of certainty. In 1594, Shakespeare bought into the company of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a popular troupe in the city. How he earned or received the capital to do so has never been established, but some evidence suggests that the powerful Earl of Southampton was his patron at the time. By 1594, Shakespeare had already completed three of his famous comedies: The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew. Other works from this early period included his famous Richard III and Titus Andronicus. In this period Shakespeare lived close to the Theater, which was still on its original site in Shoreditch, and in the years between 1594 and 1598 he continued to write plays, usually at the rate of about two each year. Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet are among the best known dramas from this period of Shakespeare’s first maturity. As the uproar over the production of The Isle of the Dogs threatened London’s theaters with permanent closure, Shakespeare began to invest in other businesses, including a brewery. Even though the crisis the play occasioned eventually subsided, the playwright’s fears of the uncertainties of theatrical life seem to have persisted. He later bought several properties to secure his future. Besides threats of closure, the examples of many of his fellow playwrights who fell victim to charges of heresy and sedition no doubt deepened his concern. In 1599, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved into the new Globe Theater in Bankside, a building constructed from the remains of Burbage’s original Theater in Shoreditch. In the first decade of the troupe’s residency at the facility Shakespeare produced his greatest works. These included his finest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It ; his great Roman historical plays and tragedies, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra ; and the tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. By 1613, this extraordinary period of creativity and productivity was largely at an end. In that year the Globe Theater burned down, and the author seems to have retired from any further involvement with his company. It has never been determined whether Shakespeare spent the last years of his life in London or in Stratford.

Tudor Roots of Stuart Achievement

The enormous achievement of Shakespeare, an achievement that belongs more to the seventeenth than the sixteenth century, can easily obscure the other craftsman-like, accomplished, and even brilliant playwrights who plied their craft in the Elizabethan period. While much drama in this period was little more than crowd-pleasing and soon forgotten after its initial performances, many playwrights produced truly great works in Elizabethan London. Had Shakespeare never written his later plays, the achievements of Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe might now loom as large as Hamlet or Macbeth. The plays of the late sixteenth century garnered the attention of the urban population and forged an art form that was distinctly middlebrow, aimed as it was at a broad, truly popular audience. Within forms that audiences found pleasing, many of England’s most learned playwrights still managed to elevate their dramas and at the same time make their moral, political, and intellectual pronouncements intelligible to a wide swath of the urban population. In this way, learned authors played an important role as transmitters, both of the knowledge contained in older medieval traditions as well as that drawn from the newer humanist learning of the Renaissance.

Renaissance Theater in Spain


The theater of Renaissance Spain was similar in many ways to the rest of Europe, although it displayed a number of innovative developments. Religious dramas, much like the great mystery cycles of France, England, and Germany, had been important in Iberia in the later Middle Ages. Since Muslim forces had held much of Spain during the Middle Ages, these religious dramas had developed earliest in Catalonia, the northeastern region of the country and the first to expel the influences of Islam. As the Reconquest of the peninsula proceeded, religious dramas developed in those places recaptured from the Muslims. In the absence of a widespread Reformation in the sixteenth century, many of these dramas survived into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and some even into modern times. During the sixteenth century, the Feast of Corpus Christi, long the most important time for theatrical spectacles and dramas, continued to be a force in local religion. While evidencing these conservative elements, new religious forms of drama came to flourish as well, some inspired by the Counter-Reformation. As they did elsewhere in Europe, the Jesuits used school drama in Spain to perfect their students’ Latin, although over time the Jesuit Theater produced plays in Spanish as well. The adoption of Spanish was not so much an innovative element of the sixteenth-century Jesuits, but a bow to longstanding tastes. Latin had not been used extensively in the Spanish religious dramas that flourished in the peninsula during the later Middle Ages. Instead the vernacular or local languages had long been the preferred medium of expression. At court and church festivals in the sixteenth century a genre of Autos sacramentales, or religious plays on various themes, came increasingly to be dominated by professional playwrights and producers. A final important trend in the Renaissance theater in Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, was the growth of troupes of itinerant professionals, the first evidence of which comes to us from the 1540s. Both Italian Commedia dell’Arte groups and native professionals toured the peninsula in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As in England and other parts of Europe, these groups often raised the ire of local authorities that complained that the itinerants were little more than thieves and tricksters. Spanish troupes displayed from the very start a love not only of drama but also of dance and song, and the street performances that were common in Iberia were eclectic, mixing elements of all the dramatic arts. While feared as a source of disorder, these very same performers integrated their dancing and theatrics into the celebration of local religious festivals at the request of church and civic officials.


Politically, modern Spain was a country that was still very much in the process of being created in the sixteenth century. While the two largest kingdoms in Iberia—Castile and Aragon—had been joined in the late fifteenth century by the dynastic marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Spain was ruled for much of the sixteenth century as two separate kingdoms, each with their own law code, customs, and civic liberties respected by the Habsburg dynasty. Both Charles V (r. 1516-1558) and Philip II (r. 1556-1598) presided uneasily over powerful noble families who were jealous of their ancient rights. In addition, strong traditions of civic liberty in Spain further limited the authority of these rulers in the towns. Even though Charles V was the grandson of Ferdinand of Aragon, he had been raised in the Burgundian lands in the Netherlands, long one of the most elaborate and spectacular courts in Europe. Although he introduced some elements of Burgundian spectacle into Spanish court life, Charles tread carefully, aware of the envy that these displays might produce in his great nobles and urban patricians. And while Philip II was a great lover and patron of the visual arts and literature, he found elaborate court spectacle distasteful. For a large part of his reign he isolated himself in the Escorial, a combination monastery, church, and royal palace built outside Madrid as a memorial to his father. In these circumstances the dramatic and imposing forms of court life popular in France and other great sixteenth-century courts—royal entries and spectacles, masques, and elaborate banquets—generally played little role in sixteenth-century Spain. The tenor of Habsburg court life in Spain remained altogether more restrained throughout the sixteenth century.

Humanist Elements

Juan del Encina (c. 1468-c. 1530) was the first Spaniard to integrate humanist elements into his dramas and literary creations. Born the son of a shoemaker, he had been christened Juan de Fremoselle, but later changed his last name to Encina. Educated in law at the University of Salamanca, he entered the service of the powerful Duke of Alba in 1492, where he was appointed the master of revels, a position responsible for ensuring that the duke had a steady stream of musical, dramatic, and poetic entertainments. He held this position until 1500, and during these years he wrote fourteen verse plays and more than sixty songs, the lion’s share of his literary and dramatic output. His most important achievement lay in the drama, in which he made use of the Renaissance revival of Vergilian eclogue to create religious plays that were pastoral in their imagery. The first of these were only a few hundred lines long, but he gradually expanded the dramas to more than several thousand lines of verse. Over time, they acquired a surer skill and artistry. Although they did little to inspire the great dramatists of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they introduced Renaissance forms into Spain and were notable for their conflicted imagery. On the one hand they displayed Encina’s deeply Christian sentiments, and on the other, they showed the realities of a court that had a fondness for the erotic and pagan elements of Renaissance classicism. Encina tried to harmonize these two elements into a refined style, and toward the end of his time with Alba he succeeded in producing works of great elegance. The finesse of these later works came after he had made several trips to Rome, and in these plays he adopted a more forthright eroticism. The most experimental of the fourteen dramas was Plácida and Victoriano, which was actually staged in Rome during 1513. That work included parodies on the rituals of the church, invocations of pagan deities, and daringly erotic interludes. In the course of the sixteenth century, however, the rapid development of Spanish literature made his bucolic verses seem outdated, and his frank eroticism put his plays on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Even in his own lifetime Encina disavowed his embrace of pagan eroticism; in 1500, he left the Duke of Alba to pursue a clerical career. Ironically, later Golden Age dramatists revived his elegant Spanish style in the seventeenth century to suggest the unsophisticated nature of peasant speech.

Torres Naharro

Slightly later in 1517, Bartolomé de Torres Naharro (c. 1485-after 1520) published a collection of poems and nine plays entitled Propalladia or The First Fruits of Pallas. These plays made use of the firsthand knowledge of humanism and politics he had acquired while living in Italy. The Propalladia plays were notable not only for their classical forms but for the work’s Prologue which articulated the first dramatic theory in Spain. Torres Naharro argued that there were only two types of dramas: one based on actual events and the other on imaginary but still believable forms of fiction. Unlike many dramatic theorists at the time who maintained that drama was primarily a literary art, Torres Naharro insisted that plays needed to be performed so that all their elements could be appreciated and comprehended. Among the best known of the Propalladia plays is theHimenea, a work that deals with the theme of feminine honor; critics have long seen it as a precursor to the many seventeenth-century Spanish plays treating the same theme. In the work Himenea’s brother, a marquis, threatens his sister with death for compromising the family’s reputation, but the last-minute arrival of her lover and his reasoned arguments stay the marquis’s hand. Two of Torres Naharro’s Propalladia dramas are satires. One, the Comedia tinellaria, treats the less than pious behavior of the servants of a cardinal, and the other the Comedia soldadescasatirizes a pope’s attempts to raise an army. This latter play was a thinly veiled commentary on Julius II (r. 1503-1513), who was known as the “Warrior Pope” since he marched into battle with his troops. In his relatively brief pontificate Julius aimed to expand the secular territory controlled by the papacy and, in so doing, he embroiled the Papal States in a variety of international intrigues. His policies engendered opposition from Europe’s two great powers, France and Spain. Thus while Torres Naharro’s choice of theme might appear a daring one at first glance, his satirical jabs at the papacy actually fit with Spain’s international aims as an opponent of papal expansionism. These plays introduced a sure understanding of the dramatic structures of the ancient Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus into Spain. At the same time their author also made use of native literary traditions. His works, for instance, evidence an indebtedness to the Celestina, a popular novel written in prose dialogue around 1500. The Celestina’s author had intended the work to be read out loud rather than staged, and its dramatic, sometimes highly emotional style finds its way into Torres Naharro’s plays. Spanish playwrights imitated this lively style in the following decades, although no figure seems to have developed the same finesse or to have acquired a following as large as Torres Naharro in the decades that immediately followed the Propalladia. Instead court spectacles staged in the palaces of the country’s grand nobles and religious dramas were the dominant theatrical forms of the mid-sixteenth century.

Professional Theaters

If the mid-sixteenth century produced little in the way of drama that was innovative, it saw at the same time the rise of commercial theaters in Spain’s largest cities. In Italy, the ducal courts had largely supported the construction of both temporary and permanent theaters. In France and England, these endeavors had been from their first inception more commercial in nature. At Paris, the late-medieval guild of amateur actors, the Confraternity of the Passion, possessed a royal monopoly over dramatic performances in the city—a right that they were willing to share with other traveling troupes in exchange for money payments. The pattern in England was again slightly different, with the crown granting license patents to companies that fell under the cloak of patronage from nobles and other distinguished subjects of the realm. Spain’s commercial theaters evidenced yet a third pattern of development, since from the first they were supported by the charitable confraternities or brotherhoods that ran urban hospitals. These brotherhoods ran the theaters as commercial ventures to support their charitable activities. These theaters first began to appear in Madrid, not long after the city had been chosen as the center of royal government in 1561. Until this time Madrid had been a relatively sleepy provincial town, perched on the high central plain of Spain. After Philip II’s decision to build his royal palace, the Escorial, outside the city and to move the offices of royal administration to the town, a period of explosive growth began. By 1600, the population had more than tripled, and twenty years later these numbers were almost seven times the city’s size in 1560. This expansion in population produced a corresponding rise in the number of professional theaters located within the city. The first of Madrid’s corrales—known as such because they were at first merely closed-in yards or “corrals”—was built in 1579. The second came in 1582, and by 1630 there were seven theaters in the city, making Madrid second only to London in the vibrancy of its dramatic life. Each of these theaters contained a large yard surrounded by a U-shaped gallery of boxes arranged in tiers facing the stage. The most visible and desirable of these boxes frequently rented for more than twenty times the admission to the pit-like floor. With this arrangement of space the average Madrid theater could accommodate about 2,000 spectators, about a third smaller than the largest theaters in London at the time but nevertheless an enormous auditorium given Madrid’s size (about 130,000 inhabitants in 1620). At their inception these structures were merely functional, quickly erected in yards that surrounded the confraternal hospitals. Over time, however, as the new professional theaters spread to other Spanish cities, more sophisticated designs emerged. By the end of the sixteenth century theaters had been built in every large Spanish town, and although plays were widely popular, the theater was also controversial. As elsewhere in Europe, the new professional theaters inspired attacks from Christian moralists, and the Council of Castile, the body charged with regulating actors, granted licenses to only a small number of troupes. Censorship was strict, and a royal official viewed each play before it could be shown to the public. But in Spain, in contrast to most places in Europe at the time, there was no prohibition on women actors. The regulations governing their roles were relatively liberal, allowing them to even dress as men when their parts called for it.

Rise of Golden Age

The early years of the new Renaissance professional theater produced no dramatist of distinction, but the rising popularity of the institution attracted a number of great playwrights to the stage after 1600. The seventeenth century in Spanish art and culture has long been known as the Golden Age. This great flowering of the arts came at a time when Spain’s international political influence and its national economy were in decline. By 1600, in fact, the great period of Spanish expansion was at an end. Thus the great flowering of Spain’s high culture developed, as in High Renaissance Rome, at a time of increasing political tensions and an ever more precarious domestic situation. New immigrants flooded Spain’s growing cities, fleeing an increasingly impoverished countryside. In the newly swollen cities, an all-too modern cycle of structural poverty and crime developed. In this new environment the theater provided a welcome and often relatively cheap release from some of the more harrowing aspects of urban life. As in England, the culture of humanism had made its impact on Spain during the Renaissance. Yet in the new commercial realities of Spanish cities, where numbers were increased by thousands of new immigrants from the countryside annually, Golden Age dramatists were never able to adopt Renaissance forms in a pure way. Instead they had to please crowds with dramas that were relatively quick moving and geared to middlebrow tastes. The five-act style of comedy that had been favored in ducal courts in Italy because of its roots in Terence and Plautus did not prevail in Spain. In the summer, performances began in Madrid’s corral theaters at 4 p.m.; in the winter when sunlight was more limited they commenced two hours earlier. With these practical considerations in mind there was no place for the elaborate five-act comedies of Renaissance Italy, which had frequently been extended to great lengths through the staging of interludes and other spectacles between the acts. The demands of the new theater were instead for crowd-pleasing, fast-paced action that would leave the audience craving for more.

Emerging Forms

Miguel de Cervantes and the other great figures of the early Golden Age thus attempted to adapt classical forms to native traditions and Spanish realities. In the plays that he wrote around 1600 Cervantes relied on a four-act structure, and he drew a clear distinction between tragic and comic forms. One of his earliest successes, Numancia, dealt with a tragic event from Spain’s ancient past, the destruction of the Celtic Iberian city of Numantia in the second century B.C.E. The play has since seen many revivals at crisis points in Spanish history, as, for instance, during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century and in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) of the twentieth. It did not produce a wide circle of admirers, though, when first staged in the early seventeenth century. By 1615, shortly before his death, Cervantes tried to adapt to a new style, shifting the directions of his theatrical writing to conform to a quicker paced three-act comic formula. By then, the author’s taste for grand themes, carefully and subtly elaborated, had marked many of his earlier plays as outdated. He published eight of his plays in the new three-act formula, a formula that owed its existence to the rising popularity of works by Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562-1635). In his plays Lope drew no distinction between comic and tragic forms, dividing each of his plays into a three-act production—a factor that made them relatively easy to stage in the emerging commercial houses. He also relied on quick action coupled with witty, octosyllabic verses—traits that were very different from Cervantes’ Renaissance sensibilities, with their tendency toward the gradual elaboration of grand themes. Into his new three-act formula Lope poured historical, religious, and mythological themes, and at the height of his popularity he completed a new play every few weeks. In his lifetime he may have written as many as 1,800 dramas, and the more than 300 of these that survive today show that he had a tremendous talent for creating engaging and appealing works. Still, despite this enormous productivity, great variety exists in his enormous opus—so much variety, in fact, that scholars are still finding hidden treasure in his works today. Lope often started with a scenario drawn from his reading of history, an incident from Spain’s past, from the lives of the saints, or from mythology. To each of his creations he brought a fresh perspective, so that even plays that seem to share similar themes are, upon closer inspection, very different from one another. When he died in 1635, his funeral became an event of public mourning in Madrid. By that time, though, his example had inspired many other authors in Spain to undertake writing for the stage. By 1632, for instance, one commentator listed almost eighty contemporary playwrights active in Castile alone. Some of these figures were as prolific as Lope de Vega, and as a result thousands of plays survive from seventeenth-century Spain.

Toward the Future

The enormous outburst of dramatic creativity that appeared in both Spain and England as the Renaissance faded into the new Baroque sensibilities rested on a firm foundation of native tradition and classical models. Like much of the theater of England in the years immediately following 1600, Spain produced many excellent, mediocre, and bad dramas at the same time. The enormous popularity of the new commercial theater reveals important changes that were at work in European society. In place of the community plays staged in the Middle Ages, the tendency appeared for drama to be mounted more and more by a paid cast of professional actors whose primary job was to entertain. Although seventeenth-century society remained vastly poor by modern standards, the increasing division of labor that was appearing in these societies, coupled with rapid urbanization, produced a public with more leisure time, more disposable cash, and a discriminating taste for the drama, indeed for all entertainments. The results of this transformation, rooted in subtle shifts of taste and larger economic realities, helped sustain the theater as one of Europe’s most important art forms into modern times.