My recent research and study has been of the Medieval “Mystery” Plays, sometimes called morality plays, but basically they were very very short plays, some at only a few pages each, but still elaborate stories with the simplest still making use of a characters from The Bible from Creation, The Old Testament, and the Life of Jesus. handful of characters to bring to life stories of the Bible. This cycle of plays are a group of 50 short plays, but of length enough to take an entire day to perform from first to last, which dramatize the story of the Bible. It is something more familiar to other cultures that have dramas of their dieties during holy days, but it was common practice in England from the Middle Ages to the mid 1500s. The most complete is the York Cycle.
Each of the 50 plays were each performed by a different, particular Guild within any given city. The plays themselves follow the chronological order of the stories of the Bible, from Creation, the Fall of Satan, the Fall of Man, Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the Flood, to the story of Moses and the Israelites. It then continues with the story of Jesus, from Virgin Birth to his Ascension to Heaven. At the end is the Final Judgement.
The plays were performed on specially built wagons, sort of like parade floats big enough to accomodate a play featuring 5 or more actors, each owned by a guild, and the plays were performed as the procession went from viewing place to viewing place within a city. It was by no means simple theater either in subject matter, treatment, or in staging. "Stage sets" were sometimes elaborate even for the large wagons upon which the players performed, the stories were as riveting dramatized as they were in their original prose form, and the sheer scope and scale of the Cycle, 50 plays spanning the entire Biible, had to be very impressive. And it lasted for the entire day.
Musing, its even something to see something of Othello's concern over Desdemona's possible infidelity in Joseph repeatedly asking Mary how she came to be pregnant and who the father is in the play Joseph's Trouble About Mary.
This is in addition to Caroling, a common practice in Shakespeare’s day, a tradition that lives to this day. The dramatizations of the biblical stories were seen yearly and were the only type of play performed in England before the advent of the professional theaters in the 1590s. These plays, along with plays performed in Grammar school, were outlets for any aspiring actors or those with some love of acting within them.
In Shakespeare’s Youth and early years, travelling troupes of players would also visit cities to give performances. Scholars believe Shakespeare himself joined a travelling troupe and the years of the 1580s were partly spent in such a troupe. Before that, there were the yearly Christmas plays and pageants.
Shakespeare himself I am beginning to see as a sort of father figure from Pride and Prejudice. Not even because Shakespeare himself had two daughters, Susanna and Judith, whom would both marry and whom he would leave inheritances to in his will. He seems to be level-headed, of course a genius, and successful from the early 1590s into the 1600s with a consistent yearly output of quality plays. And yet the times themselves were full of dances, and wooing and talk of love. Different dance-steps, but still not unlike the kind represented in Jane Austin novels. The main subject of poetry and secular songs of the time was romantic love. But just like the stories of Jane Austin, there were dances aplenty. At court and everywhere else.
Shakespeare was a prodigious playwright who was busy writing plays, perofrming as an actor, managing an acting company, and being a family man. He worked for Queen Elizabeth, and then for King James. He was part owner of the Globe. His life was free from scandal and controversy, unlike many famous people of his day, either for religious reasons or otherwise. There were many people with very interesting lives, but Shakespeare was a simple playwright and poet who died of old age, happily married, and with both daughters married.
Of course Shakespeare had a sense of humor that is seen in his many comedies as well as even in his more serious tragedies. I haven’t even read Pride and Prejudice except for watching a movie version. This isn’t a character study of Shakespeare, for the moment. It’s too rich a subject. More so I’ve been focused on the character of Elizabethan society.
The music itself, and the transformation in musical style from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance could fill a book.
Just like with “The New Learning” of the Renaissance, in the study of the Greeks and Romans along with the new philosophy of Humanism, the music travelled from country to country, each being influenced in their turn. Inventions and styles being synthesized, new styles emerging, and this cycle repeating. Ancient Greek and Roman drama gave solid forms, characters, stories, and style to England’s playwrights, but what they did with them, along with other influences, were uniquely their own. The same creative process and development are seen particularly in music and famous composers of the time. It can even be seen in writing, both prose and poetry. The culturally rich world of the Renaissance. The Title of this blog could just as easily be “The Renaissance: More than Painting and Architecture.”