The English Renaissance and NOT Shakespeare: Crash Course Theater #13

The English Renaissance and NOT Shakespeare: Crash Course Theater #13


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash
Course Theater, and today we’re taking on the theater of Renaissance England. Which means Shakespeare, right? Wrong, unfortunately. It’ll be a bit before we know of poor Yorick. Get thee to the ceiling, pal. Believe it or not, there are Renaissance English
plays and playwrights and theaters and troupes that existed totally independent of Shakespeare. Well, mostly independent of Shakespeare. Today we’ll discuss historical context,
introduce the English playhouse, and meet some early plays and playwrights. And we’re not going to talk about Shakespeare! Not at all. It’s gonna be much ado about something…
else. INTRO
The Renaissance arrives in England… late. Really late. Like 150 years later than Italy-late. Why? Well, there are a bunch of reasons, but mostly
England spent a lot of the late Middle Ages embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War with
France, which obviously lasted one hundred and sixteen years, and then thirty two more
years fighting the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of England, which
involved far fewer actual roses than you may expect. Once the Tudors took the throne, things got
more stable. Humanism and the scientific method and madrigals
really took off. The Tudors liked theater. Like, really liked it a lot. Henry VII, the first Tudor king, paid for
court entertainments. His son Henry VIII, the one with all the wives,
established an independent Office of the Revels, managed by a Master of Revels whose job it
was to arrange plays and masques for the nobility. There were definitely some plays the Tudors
didn’t like. England had been Catholic and then Protestant
and then Catholic and then Protestant again, and sometimes plays could be used to fan the
flames of religious discord. So in 1558, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I
cracked down on religious and political plays. This pretty much ended the cycle plays. She also passed a law classifying actors as
vagrants who could be fined for going from town to town. The solution? Troupes of actors hooked up with nobility
and licensed themselves as servants under names like The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and
The Lord Admiral’s Men. Jeez, actors just throughout history, just
CANNOT catch a break, huh? If these laws seem restrictive, they are! But the crackdown on the cycle plays pushed
the theater in new and more innovative directions, while that whole vagrancy thing encouraged
actors to professionalize. The earliest plays of the English Renaissance
predate all this licensing and vagrancy. Two of the first English Renaissance plays
were comedies written in vernacular English. They were modeled on the work of, surprise
surprise, Plautus and Terence! But morality plays were an obvious influence,
too, and maybe also medieval farces. Neoclassicism didn’t catch on in England
the way it did in Italy and in France, so these English plays tend to be looser and
more episodic. The earliest one is “Ralph Roister Doister,”
which was written in the 1540s by a schoolmaster named Nicholas Udall. The title character is a braggy dolt, kind
of like the Captain from the commedia dell-arte. He falls in love with a virtuous widow, Christian
Custance, and tries to win her over, while egged on by Matthew Merrygreeke, a clever
trickster type who owes a lot to the Vice character from the morality plays. Ralph gets tricked, beaten, and a rape almost
happens. But then the widow marries her rich, honorable
suitor, Gawyn Goodluck, and it all ends happily. Another early play is “Gammer Gurton’s
Needle” by an unknown author. It was first performed in the early 1560s,
and it also derives most of its humor from bodily harm. Gammer Gurton has lost her sewing needle. Diccon of Bedlam, a wandering fool and another
Vice type, tries to stir up trouble by claiming that her next door neighbor, Dame Chat, took
it. Everyone gets beaten up, including a curate–which
is sorta like a priests assistant–and the needle is discovered when a servant is stabbed
in the butt. Hilarious! It was a simpler time, ok? Wiseguy eh?! I’m sorry, Another early play tried to be all genres
to all spectators. It was called “Cambises” for short. Why “for short” you may ask? Well the full title goes: “A lamentable
tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of CAMBISES King of PERCIA, from
the beginning of his kingdome unto his death, his one good deed of execution, after that
many wicked deeds and tirannous murders, committed by and through him, and last of all, his odious
death by Gods Justice appointed, Doon in such order as foloweth.” I’d love to see the poster for that one. It was written by the schoolmaster Thomas
Preston and mostly likely performed sometime in the 1560s. The episodic structure and the focus on good
versus evil link it closely with morality plays, but also history plays. The first tragedy on an English subject is
“The Tragedie of Gorboduc,” a play by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, first
performed in 1561. Because it’s a tragedy, Seneca is the big
influence, but there’s some morality play elements, too. It’s written in blank verse, the meter that
he-who-shall-not-be-named-until-the-next-episode uses, and also goes by the catchy title “Ferrex
and Porrex.” The story goes like this: Gorboduc is an ancient king of Britain who
decides to divide the realm between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex. They fight, Porrex kills Ferrex, and so the
Queen stabs Porrex while he’s sleeping. Then the people rebel, killing both Gorboduc
and the Queen. Nobles rise up and kill most of the people. Everything’s a huge mess, and the succession
is still unclear. Now that’s what I call a tragedy. Right, Yorick? And yes, this obviously sounds a lot like
“King Lear,” but of course we aren’t discussing “King Lear.” Unless what I’m saying now counts. DANGIT. Early English Renaissance plays weren’t
staged in theaters, because freestanding permanent theaters didn’t exist yet. Not in England, anyway. These plays were staged in gardens, banquet
halls, inn yards and schools. But as acting became increasingly professionalized
and plays became increasingly popular, troupes started to raise funds to build permanent
structures. They couldn’t build them in the City of
London itself, because there was a belief that play-going spread plague. Plays and players were basically outlawed
in the city proper by the 1570s. The first theater was probably the Red Lion,
which was built in Whitechapel, just outside of the center of London, in 1567. We don’t know much about it, except that
it had a pretty big stage, some kind of turret—and that it was very badly constructed. One of the only surviving documents about
the Red Lion is from a complaint by the owner, John Brayne, against the carpenter who built
it. The lawsuit over its poor construction dragged
on until 1578—which may have been longer than the Red Lion itself survived. A longer-lasting theater was called… drum
roll please… The Theatre. It was built in 1576 by the actor and businessman
James Burbage in a neighborhood full of gambling dens and brothels, because, as we’ll discuss
in our episode on the closing of theaters, they were considered pretty immoral as far
as structures go. For a look at the theater The Theatre, the
first important Elizabethan playhouse, let’s look at the Thoughtbubble:
The Theatre borrowed its design from inn yards or maybe bear-baiting pits, which is exactly
what it sounds like. In Elizabethan England, deciding what you
wanted to do for the evening was like, “HMMM do I feel like watching a bunch of dogs try
to kill a bear, or do I feel like seeing a play? ” The Theatre had a three-level gallery
structure on most sides, surrounding a thrust stage and a bare-as-in-empty space in the
middle where penny-paying ticket holders could stand. If you paid another penny, you could move
to the galleries. And if you had three pennies, you got a stool. FAAAANNNNN-CY
The Theater was associated with the Lord Admiral’s Men, and a bunch of the early plays by Ole
What Lights Through Yonder Window Shakes. Eventually a dispute with the landlord led
Burbage to dismantle the theater and move it across the river, where it became, dramatic
pause, the Globe. These early theaters were open air, public
arenas. They could seat as many as 2500 people—everyone
from slumming nobles to workingmen to the poor. Women came, too, although it wasn’t considered
respectable, so some wore disguises! But there were no women on stage. Boys played the female roles. And Scenery wasn’t as advanced as it was
in Italy. Scenes were set with some hanging cloths in
the back and maybe a few props. Plays were held in the afternoon, to take
advantage of the natural light. A lot of snacks were sold, and beer, too. And if the audience didn’t like the play,
those snacks would be thrown! Thanks, Thoughtbubble! You wouldn’t throw snacks at me if you didn’t
like a thoughtbubble, would you Yorick? HEY, NO. BAD SKELLY. I suppose I deserve this after the eyepoking
incident. In 1576, the first indoor, private theater
appeared, Blackfriars Theatre. It was located on the grounds of a former
Dominican Monastery. It fell into disuse, and in 1596, a second,
fancier theater was built nearby, also by James Burbage. These indoor theaters seated about 750 people,
and since seats were more expensive they drew a ritzier crowd. Whether or not that meant ritzier crackers
were tossed at the talent, I’m not sure. The plays they put on were thought to be wittier
and more sophisticated than those in the public theaters, though, and they were initially
performed by companies of boys, because the Renaissance and … child labor. Who wrote these sophisticated plays for those
child laborers? Well, they were written by a group of playwrights
who were later called the University Wits, because unlike Billy Wiggleharpoon, they all
went to Oxford or Cambridge. These snobs wrote sophisticated plays for
grown-up actors, too, including many that are still performed today. Basically these guys started with, and improved,
the early dramas we looked at, making them better—truer, livelier, with more awesome
poetry. They prepared the way for–ok,fine–Shakespeare,
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE … though they didn’t always like him. One of them called him an “upstart crow.” Yeesh! Get thee some milk of the poppy to relieve
the scorch from that Rennaissance Burn! Among the University Wits were Thomas Kyd,
John Lyly, Robert Green, and Christopher Marlowe. Thomas Kyd is best known for “The Spanish
Tragedy.” It borrows from Seneca, helps kick off the
craze for revenge tragedy, and has a strong influence on “Hamlet,”. John Lyly wrote charming pastorals, which
probably inspired “As You Like It.” Robert Green, wrote comedies and pastorals
and is best known for “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,” which is a history play and a love
story and also a morality play with magicians and a talking head. YES, YOU ALSO ARE THAT, except you’re pretty
quiet… And then there’s Christopher “Kit” Marlowe,
who led a very busy life before dying in a tavern brawl before he was 30. He went to Cambridge, where he earned a master’s
degree. He also worked for the Elizabethan government
in some secret capacity, maybe as a spy. His plays are long and intense and full of
gorgeous, vivid blank verse which heavily influenced Shakespeare. Marlowe’s characters are ambitious. Really ambitious. They want to conquer the world or change it. Or—as in the case of “Doctor Faustus,”
his most famous play—make a deal with the devil that guarantees you a couple of decades
as the smartest and most powerful person on earth. His tragedies are tragedies of overreaching…
of characters who want too much and usually get it, with disastrous consequences. Since he’s a big ole deal, we’re gonna
be devoting our next three episodes to Shakespeare. Also, Yorick insists. Try to remember that Shakespeare doesn’t
come from nowhere. Okay, yes, Stratford-upon-Avon, kind of is
nowhere. But he doesn’t arise ahistorically, or come
from nowhere artistically. He arrives in a theatrical culture that’s
already professionalized and thriving, in a London of established troupes, competing
theaters, and eager beer-swilling, snack-throwing audiences. Who We’ll see plenty of next time. Until then… compost those tomatoes… and
curtain!

96 thoughts on “The English Renaissance and NOT Shakespeare: Crash Course Theater #13

  1. I checked your channel like literally 5 minutes ago, because I need something covering Shakespeare. THANK YOU

  2. Now I understand what the British show Upstart Crow is based on. Good to know it's not something someone made up. 😃

  3. Hey, i love the series that you guys are doing. Also, I have a request; when you do talk about Shakespeare, can you please explain why he's so famous for theater? I've always wondered why he was that one playwright that stood above all others. I had one professor praise him as genius. Yet, another professor said he's only popular because of high school English.

  4. Boy, you serious? You literally stated​ in the title that it's not Shakespeare, and then you try to trick us by saying "we're doing Shakespeare."

  5. Last episode I was CERTAIN that Yorick's skull was added in post-production. Now I am impressed by how neat and tidy his arrival is.

  6. Here I thought this was a video about Shakespeare being an actor and a guy named Francis Bacon being mistaken

  7. Christopher Marlowe didn’t “earn a Master’s Degree”. He took his BA after his undergraduate studies and then, a few years later, became eligible to (loosely speaking) convert that degree to an MA. This is still how MA degrees are awarded at Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin. In Marlowe’s case he was very nearly not allowed to proceed to his MA as the University believed he’d tried to become a Roman priest, but an intervention by the Privy Council (probably to indicate that he had in fact been spying for the Queen) allowed him to proceed to MA – a degree of status rather than achievement.

  8. Much to do about nothing, so to learn or not to learn about Shakespearean plays and what muses plagued this man. Loved your lesson, Mike.

  9. Oh thank god, you mentioned John Lyly. I was about to get real mad if you didn't. I just wrote an entire thesis on his influence on Shakespeare.

  10. The Alchemist by Ben Johnson is one of my favourite plays. Was nice to get some historical context. Ta muchly Mike and Boney.

  11. If anyone is interested, for clarity's sake, Christopher Marlowe receiving a "Master's degree" in this case means that he received a Master of Arts degree, which, while it is a degree with "Master" in the title, making the statement technically correct, a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge was and is an undergraduate degree. It is attained by essentially remaining an undergraduate for about three years after attaining the Bachelor of Arts, and is not considered a graduate degree in the way the majority of MAs are. This is the case not only with Cambridge, but with Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin.

  12. Come on man that's just a little over the top. Did you really mean to the child I can park in a play is a form child labor?

  13. You can still go to a reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe which perform plays in the way as we're played back then

  14. here's hoping there's an episode on the French writers Corneille, Moliere, and Racine <3
    although to be honest, I find it a little absurd to dedicate three whole episodes to Shakespeare, much as I love him.

  15. can you do a history about yugoslavia wars. can you add niko bellic from grand theft auto 4 because in the game he fought in the war

  16. A video illuminating the theater tradition that gave us Shakespeare, three whole episodes on the Bard himself?
    Oh what glorious wondrous news is this!

  17. I just clicked on an random video from crashcourse and who doo I see? The guy from Idea Channel, great made my, well night

  18. This is packed with jargon and offhand references to concepts that aren't explained and I expect won't be understood by the uninitiated, like me.

  19. PLLLLEAAASSSEEE put all of your CRASH COURSE VIDEOS ON A DVD FOR THOSE THAT WANT TO BUY IT. It is beautiful that you give away thins information for free, and we are so grateful but God forbid your channel or videos ever got deleted, or youtube ever were to shut down it would be awesome if we could have it in a dvd to have this informative lessons forever. And maybe you should also even your own website if you do not have one yet to also have another platform to put this on.

  20. If we're going to do three episodes on Shakespeare, I think it's reasonable to do at least one full episode on Sondheim (although they probably have already filmed all episodes at this point)

  21. Seeing as I am specialising in Theatre design, early English theatres were definitely inspired by what the French call "The English Garden" . Or as we know them in the UK, Greens. These are usually square and form the courtyards of many buildings of the period. Britain itself had a lot of planned medieval settlements due to ferocious castle building and all those wars and the fact they carried on the building style from the Roman Villas. There was often a lot of participants in the English theatre and that was actually the most expensive seat you can get and the actors and plays were usually designed to be viewed from all sides. Something that is retained to this day in a lot of modern concert halls but rarely in theatre. As modern theatres are usually inspired by Greek and Roman designs with regards to the positioning of the stage and auditorium in relation to one another.

  22. I would have really liked an episode on Ben Jonson and one on Marlowe (just to reinforce the idea that Shakespeare didn't came from nowhere)

  23. I've actually seen Gammer Gurton's Needle , done by Poculi Ludique Societas in Toronto. It's pretty funny.

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