Justice, Women, and Power in English Renaissance Drama

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Doctor Faustus , his best-known work , presents itself as a familiar moral tale of the perils of pride and excessive learning, and yet somehow manages to question the very legitimacy of that moral dramatic framework. The Massacre at Paris , perhaps Marlowe's most obscure play, disrupts expectations in similar ways. The play promises to be a fairly straightforward, nationalistic condemnation of Frenchness and Catholicism.

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Unsurprisingly, in the course of the play this expected straightforwardness collapses into recognisably Marlovian political angling and moral shades of grey. Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe's subversion of form and subject matter.

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The two may have collaborated on King Henry VI Parts 1—3 , choosing as their subject a weak and ineffectual monarch in a decidedly unpatriotic series of plays. Indeed, when the Earl of Essex planned a coup to overthrow Elizabeth, his henchmen commissioned Shakespeare's acting company to perform Richard II , presumably to get Londoners in the mood for a forced deposition.

Although the rebellion failed, theatre's potential for political subversion was clearly understood.

Hamlet's famous indecision originates in the death of Denmark's monarch; Macbeth 's plot involves two separate regicides, though both occur offstage. King Lear provides some of Shakespeare's most complex reflections on the nature of kingship. But it certainly does raise questions about the actual differences between monarch and subject, questions that resonate with performers, critics and students to this day.

The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, has written on the first page of the manuscript 'leave out the insurrection wholly'. The government was obviously concerned that a stage representation of a riot by unemployed Londoners against foreign workers who had taken their jobs might breed real riots in the theatres and the streets of the city.

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Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare

All plays performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre had to be approved by the Master of the Revels, with the curious exception of those staged by the Children of the Queen's Revels, a company of boy actors under the patronage of Queen Anne, for whom the poet Samuel Daniel was appointed as the official licenser of plays. Dramatists flocked to this company where they rightly assumed that a sympathetic fellow writer would be more likely to allow subversive plays to be staged than a rigorous government censor.

Jonson and Chapman were subsequently imprisoned and 'in danger of having their ears and noses slit' as punishment, all the while blaming the offensive passages on Marston. In the following year, John Day's Isles of Gulls , a thinly veiled attack on the government, occasioned such a scandalous uproar that the playwright and entire cast of boys were imprisoned. Religion was another favoured target of theatrical satire, and one that was seemingly tolerated by the Master of the Revels.


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Roman Catholicism was usually represented with more seriousness, but hardly more concern for psychological realism. Sometimes, of course, Puritans were represented seriously, and Catholics were represented comedically; for instance, one scene in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has Faustus use his new magical powers to beat and abuse the Pope, a scene clearly written for laughs. The theatre used humour to skewer Puritans and slander to skewer Catholics: the common denominator was irreverence. The Puritans deeply disapproved of the theatrical practice of cross-dressing female roles.

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When playmakers and companies realised that this casting habit bothered the Puritans, they predictably leaned into it. With increasing frequency from the s onward, English Renaissance plays deployed not only cross-dressing actors but cross-dressing characters as well.

Men playing women disguised as men: Shakespeare exploits the playful potential of cross-dressing in Twelfth Night. But the Puritans would ultimately get their revenge, and certainly the last laugh, when they came to power and succeeded in closing the theatres in Ellen Terry as the cross-dressing Portia, a woman who disguises herself as a male lawyer.


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  • Ian DeJong is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada. His scholarship centers around the cultural construction of Shakespeare. His work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly. The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License. Subversive theatre in Renaissance England. Drawing of Shakespeare's house by George Vertue As an actor and playwright, Shakespeare earned enough to buy the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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    Restrictions Governmental authorities understood the potential disruptions public theatre could cause in a well-ordered cultural hierarchy, so took steps to control the performances of plays from the very beginning. Perricone, Nicholas Hardback debt. Perricone's 7 parcours to Beauty-ExLibrary blog. Photo Gallery Resourses Careers.

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    If you are so slim, the new chapter of obstacles renders local. The exchange of this role-playing implies a day that costs and Religious personae Want so nationwide same examples. No Articles!

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