Early modern/Renaissance

Plays

video All's Well That Ends Well (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, and when she cures the King of France of his sickness, she claims Bertram as her reward. But her brand-new husband, flying from Helena to join the wars, attaches two obstructive conditions to their marriage – conditions he is sure will never be met Stage director: John Dove. Screen director: Robin Lough. Featuring: Michael Bertenshaw, Sam Cox, Sam Crane, Naomi Cranston, John Cummins, Janie Dee, Ben Deery, Mary Doherty, Sophie Duval, Will Featherstone, James Garnon, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Colin Hurley, Ellie Piercy, Laura Darrall, Nicholas Delvalle, Luke McConnell.

Antony and Cleopatra (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Antony and Cleopatra rival Romeo and Juliet for the title of most famous lovers in Western drama. Shakespeare’s play, probably written around 1606-7 (though not appearing in print until the First Folio of 1623), reflects the popularity of the story in the early modern imagination. Shakespeare’s play is heavily indebted to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, written in the first century AD, and translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579.

Marc Antony is one of three triumvirs ruling Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Neglecting his political duties, he lingers in Egypt with Cleopatra, a queen who sees herself as a demigod, an embodied Isis. When unrest threatens Rome, Antony must leave Cleopatra in order to solidify his power against threats from Pompey and fellow triumvir Octavius Caesar. Despite marrying Octavia, the passive sister of Caesar, for the sake of peace, he soon longs for his ‘wrangling queen’ and returns to Egypt. The ensuing war between the lovers and Octavius Caesar engulfs the Roman world. The eponymous lovers are unable to reconcile their martial defeat and its consequent shame with their hyperbolic self-images, and commit two of the most memorable suicides in the Shakespearean canon.

From its earliest audiences, Antony and Cleopatra has received criticism. Post-Restoration critics knocked the play for the way it disregarded the classical unities of drama, which stated that a play should cover one idea, in one place, at one time. With its action historically spanning a decade, and its scenes ranging from Europe to Africa and back again, the play affronted those who desired a neater retelling of the famous love story. John Dryden took it upon himself to rewrite the tragedy in his play All for Love, first performed in 1677: covering only the last day of the lives of Antony and Cleopatra, the play reaches for a grander love affair, removed from the lust, jealousy and self-inflation of Shakespeare’s play. Scholarly criticism has dwelt upon the play’s use of opposites, the imagery of instability, and the performance of gender on the early modern stage (to which Cleopatra metatheatrically refers, when she fears boy actors will portray her ‘squeaking [. . .] i’th’posture of a whore’ [5.2.219-20].

The staging of the play has long been of special interest to critics and theatre-makers alike: the play calls for a sea-battle, and a colossal monument to Cleopatra up to which the dying Antony must be hoisted. Notable Antonys have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart; notable Cleopatras Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance, in the 1999 all-male production at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London.

video Antony and Cleopatra (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Virtue and vice, transcendent love and realpolitik combine in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of the conflicting claims of sex and power, all expressed in a tragic poetry of breathtaking beauty and magnificence.

Featuring: Ignatius Anthony, Peter Bankole, Eve Best, Jonathan Bonnici, Philip Correia, Jolyon Coy, Phil Daniels, Kammy Darweish, Paul Hamilton, James Hayes, Rosie Hilal, Sean Jackson, Daniel Rabin, Sirine Saba, Obioma Ugoala, Clive Wood.

video As You Like It (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

As You Like It runs the glorious gamut of pastoral romance: cross-dressing and love-notes; poetry and brilliant conversation; gentle satire, slapstick and passion Stage director: Thea Sharrock. Screen director: Kriss Russman. Featuring: Michael Benz, Philip Bird, Naomi Frederick, Peter Gale, Brendan Hughes, Sean Kearns, Jack Laskey, Trevor Martin, Tim McMullan, Jamie Parker, Laura Rogers, Dominic Rowan, Ewart James Walters, Sophie Duval, Jade Williams, Gregory Gudgeon.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton’s masterpiece of Jacobean city comedy, rich in irony and wordplay. Middleton welds together the themes of corruption, money and sex into a complex whole, in which comedy is mingled with disgust.

Moll Yellowhammer is in love with Touchwood Junior, but her avaricious parents have betrothed her to the rich knight Sir Walter Whorehound, just as they have set up their son Tim to marry a rich Welsh heiress. Sir Walter is conducting an open affair with Mrs Allwit, while her happily cuckolded husband congratulates himself on finding an adulterer to support his household. Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Kix and his wife hope to get their hands on some of Sir Walter’s property, but Lady Kix has been unable to conceive, so they employ the ceaselessly fertile Touchwood Senior (the brother of Moll’s lover) to make Lady Kix pregnant any way possible.

The play signals its ironic nature even in the humorously ironic title: Cheapside maids were not noted for their chastity. London’s busiest commercial area is shown to be a crucible of mercantile greed, where money is more important than either happiness or honour, the most coveted commodities to be bought with it are sex and social prestige, and even true lovers must trick their way to marriage.

The play was probably first performed in 1613 at the Swan theatre, possibly by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Queen’s Revels together.

The Comedy Of Errors (Arden Shakespeare Second Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Shakespeare’s dextrous comedy of two twin masters and two twin servants continually mistaken for one another is both farce and more than farce. The Comedy of Errors examines the interplay between personal and commercial relationships, and the breakdown of social order that follows the disruption of identity, until the nightmarish cross-purpose dialogue ends in harmonious reunion.

The play is set in Ephesus, a city where anyone who is from Syracuse will be executed, unless he can pay the ransom. Egeon, who is from Syracuse, is arrested accordingly; he explains to the Duke that he is looking for his lost family. He and his wife Emilia had identical twin sons (both called Antipholus), but in a shipwreck Egeon and one son were separated from Emilia and the other. The son who grew up with Egeon, Antipholus of Ephesus, set off to search for his lost brother, accompanied by his servant Dromio of Ephesus, who had similarly lost a twin.

Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have also arrived in Ephesus where, unknown to them, their twin brothers both live. Antipholus sends Dromio away on an errand, and the two sets of twins become muddled up. A jeweller presents the newly-arrived Antipholus with an expensive chain, and then pursues the native Antipholus for payment. The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus mistakes the stranger for her husband, and locks her real husband out of the house. Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with the woman everyone else thinks is his sister-in-law. Both masters beat each other’s servants regularly for their apparent disobedience – the two Dromios try to obey the apparently contradictory instructions of a single master.

Eventually, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse take refuge in a priory. The Duke arrives with Egeon, who is going to be executed. Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, having just escaped arrest, also arrive. The Abbess of the priory brings out Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and the confusion is cleared when the Abbess herself is revealed to be Emilia, Egeon’s long lost wife and the mother of the Antipholuses. Egeon is reprieved, and Antipholus of Syracuse proposes to his brother’s sister-in-law.

Coriolanus (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623; we have no recording of a first performance contemporary with Shakespeare. As a result, dating the play has proven to be a difficult task, with most modern critics placing the writing of the play in the second half of the 1610s.

Affording Coriolanus a genre is similarly tricky: it is ‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ in the First Folio, but it is deeply indebted to the sub-genre of ‘Roman plays’ that form a significant part of the Shakespearean oeuvre. As with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for both historical detail and literary tropes.

The exploration of the public voice and the body politic in Coriolanus is immediately displayed in the play’s opening, where Roman citizens are rising up against the mounting price of grain. (It has been argued that this is a contemporary reference to the Midland Revolt of 1607, where peasants in the Midlands of Britain rioted against the enclosure of common land.) Menenius, a wise old Roman generally respected by the people, recites a parable narrating the breakdown of the body when its individual parts are not in accord. For the body politic to function, the head (here, the General; in Shakespeare’s England, King James I) and the belly (the people) must support each other.

One of the play’s central explorations, that of the battle between public and private identity, and political and personal duty, is encapsulated in the figure of Coriolanus, much as it is in other Roman figures (e.g. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra). His identity is unfixed, and manipulated by the patricians and his ambitious mother, Volumnia.

Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Coriolanus only has one lengthy soliloquy, in which he laments the ‘dissension’ and ‘bitterest enmity’ to which ‘friends now fast sworn’ have turned. As his affinity shifts from Romans to Volscians, his own identity gets lost, until he cries at the end of Act IV that ‘only that name remains’ – the irony being that ‘Coriolanus’ is not the name he started off with at the beginning of the play (he was ‘Caius Martius’ until he was granted the toponym Coriolanus, after his defeat of the town of Corioles). He is murdered at the end of the play in a bloody attack perpetrated by conspirators, mirroring Caesar’s death in his eponymous Roman tragedy. The opacity of the play’s central figure has rendered theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Coriolanus manifold in the past century especially: Laurence Olivier (twice), Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan and Ralph Fiennes have all portrayed the general.

The Coronation of Poppea

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Coronation of Poppea, freely adapted from the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello for L'incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi, depicts the triumphant adultery between Poppea and the Roman emperor Nero. Ravenhill updates Tacitus’s scathing portrayal of imperial degeneracy with language which is contemporary, spare and brutally powerful.

This version of the The Coronation of Poppea opened at the King’s Head theatre, Islington, in April 2011, in a production directed by the author.

Cymbeline

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The intricate plot of Cymbeline folds comic, romantic, tragic and historical modes into a bittersweet and experimental play. Though listed under the ‘Tragedies’ in its first appearance in the 1623 First Folio, the play’s diverse elements of murderous jealousy, Roman invasion, dark schemes of sexual assault, female transvestism, passionate love, court, country and fairy-tale are all harmoniously and peacefully reconciled in marriage. Thought to have been written around 1608-10, the playgoing doctor Simon Forman noted seeing the play at the Globe in April 1611. Some critics have wondered if Cymbeline, as other late Shakespeare plays, could be a collaboration; the play’s similarity to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (c.1608-10) has led to debate as to which may have borrowed from which. Sources for Cymbeline include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136), Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577-87), and the anonymous romantic drama The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582).

Cymbeline, King of Britain is furious with his daughter Imogen for marrying Posthumus, because he wanted to marry her step-brother Cloten (son of Cymbeline’s second wife, the Queen). Posthumus is banished. In Rome, he meets Iachimo, who wagers that he will be able to sleep with Imogen.

Iachimo, failing to seduce Imogen, hides in a chest and is carried into her bedchamber. Once she is asleep he steals a bracelet given to her by Posthumus. Back in Rome, this convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s infidelity.

Cymbeline refuses to pay the tribute due to Augustus Caesar, and the Roman ambassador Lucius promises war. Posthumus writes to his servant Pisanio instructing him to kill Imogen; instead Pisanio advises Imogen to dress as a man and accompany Lucius to Rome. She goes as ‘Fidele’ to Milford-Haven to meet the departing Lucius. Cloten, believing that Posthumus will also be at Milford-Haven, wears Posthumus’ clothes and follows Imogen there. He intends to kill her husband and rape her.

On her way ‘Fidele’ meets Belarius and his two sons Guiderius and Arviragus – who are actually Cymbeline’s sons, stolen away in their infancy. Cloten arrives and Guiderius kills him.

‘Fidele’ is ill, and drinks a potion given to her by Pisanio, thinking it is a remedy. The Queen thought it was poison and intended it for Posthumus, but the potion creates the only the appearance of death. Her brothers, believing ‘Fidele’ to be dead, place her next to Cloten’s body - still in Posthumus’ clothes. Imogen wakes to what appears to be her husband’s headless corpse. She is found by Lucius and taken into his service.

The returned Posthumus, disguised as a peasant, fights against the Roman invaders. Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus also fight, saving Cymbeline. Posthumus re-disguises as a Roman, hoping for death; in prison he has an apparition of ghosts and Jupiter. The characters gather in front of Cymbeline. The Queen has died and her trick with the poison is exposed, as is Iachimo’s deception. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited, the identity of Belarius and Cymbeline’s sons is revealed, and Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.

video Cymbeline (RSC)

The Royal Shakespeare Company
Type: Video

Britain is in crisis. Alienated, insular and on the brink of disaster. Can it be saved? An ineffectual Queen Cymbeline rules over a divided dystopian Britain. Consumed with grief at the death of two of her children, Cymbeline’s judgement is clouded. When Innogen, the only living heir, marries her sweetheart Posthumus in secret, an enraged Cymbeline banishes him. Behind the throne, a power-hungry figure plots to seize power by murdering them both. In exile, Innogen’s husband is tricked into believing she has been unfaithful to him and, in an act of impulsive jealousy, begins a scheme to have her murdered. Warned of the danger, Innogen runs away from court in disguise and begins a journey fraught with danger that will eventually reunite Cymbeline with a longlost heir and reconcile the young lovers.

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Renaissance drama refers to European drama from about the 15th to the early 17th centuries. During this period the rediscovery and imitation of classical works established the Renaissance drama foundations of the modern theatre. England’s major contribution was the lively Elizabethan stage that produced Shakespeare.

Renaissance drama began in Italy, with scholars initially attempting to recreate the original stagings of Greek and Roman plays, then adapting them to contemporary dress and speech. The new interest in classical drama was fired by the rediscovery of texts by Euripides, Seneca, Plautus, and Terence. Aristotle’s Poetics, which defined the classical genres of tragedy and comedy, came to light in the 15th century. The disreputable profession of acting began to assume a new dignity and the first professional companies were formed.

In the field of tragedy, the main influence on Renaissance writers was the work of Seneca. As early as 1315, Albertino Mussato (1261–1329) wrote a Latin tragedy, Ecerinis. The first important Renaissance tragedy was Giangiorgio Trissino’s Sophonisba, which was written in 1515. Other authors of tragedy included Italy’s Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), Giovanni Giraldi (1504–73) and Torquato Tasso (1544–95); France’s Étienne Jodelle (1532–73); Spain’s Juan de la Cueva (c. 1543–1610), and Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616); as well as England’s Shakespeare, Kyd, and Marlowe.

In the Renaissance theatre the solemn scenes of tragedy were often interspersed with intermezzi, song and dance interludes that borrowed from the Greco-Roman Satyr-Play. These interludes ultimately developed into the court masque in England, the opera in Italy, and ballet in France.

The discovery of Roman comedy, with its stock characters and intricate plots, inspired Renaissance dramatists to write similar works, such as Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1534). The first significant comedy written in Italian was Calandria (1506) by Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena (1470–1520). In sixteenth-century Italy authors of the commedia erudite began to combine aspects of Roman comedy and tragedy with elements of the liturgical drama. A leading writer of the commedia erudite was Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533). This new genre, however, provoked an important reaction in the form of the improvised commedia dell’arte. Major comic playwrights of the era included England’s Shakespeare and Ben Jonson; France’s Jacques Grévin (1538–70) and Pierre de Larivey (c. 1540–1619); and Spain’s Bartolomé de Torres Naharro (c. 1485–c. 1524).

Renaissance stage design also harked back to classical models, especially to Vitruvius (1st century BC), whose ideas influenced the construction of the first permanent playhouses in Italy and France (although theatres in Britain and Spain adapted features from the inn courtyards in which drama had previously been performed). Greco-Roman ideas influenced such Italian theatre architects as Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554), Andrea Palladio (1508–80), Giovanni Aleotti (1546–1636), and Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552–1616). Their designs incorporated classical devices like the Periaktoi, although new features such as the proscenium arch were also introduced.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).