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EN985 The Development of English Drama 1558-1642

Updated for 2023-24

This module will trace the development of the drama of the early modern stage, from the accession of Elizabeth I to the end of the English republic. We will investigate the playing conditions of the time which were affected both by the physical resources of the stage and the political contexts into which these works intervened. We will also take note of early modern literary criticism to discover how playwrights interacted with these ideas in their work. The course seeks to strike a balance between some of the most famous plays of the period, and lesser-known examples which feed into these dramatic traditions. We will develop an understanding of major dramatic trends, and the plays' significance in relation to Shakespeare and to their classical precursors, as well as the ways in which they reflect the political, religious and social concerns of their time.

There are two set plays each week, but these have generally been chosen to compare and contrast to the works in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. Bevington et al (New York and London, 2002). Students who do not already have familiarity with these more famous extra-curricular plays (see 'Preparatory Reading' link to the right) are urged to read them over the summer so as to be able to take a full part in discussions. A good knowledge of Shakespeare's plays will also be a help, so if you haven't studied Shakespeare at undergraduate level, you should do your best to read as many plays as you can (the Norton Shakespeare is the Warwick English set text).

The seminar will be weekly in the Spring Term for two hours, probably on Tuesday between 4 and 6 pm.

Outline Syllabus

Week 1, Early Comedy: Anon., Gammer Gurton’s Needle (c. 1562) and George Peele, The Old Wives Tale (c. 1593).

Week 2, Comedy of Humours: George Chapman, A Humorous Day’s Mirth (1597) and Ben Jonson, Every Man Out of His Humour (1599).

Week 3, History: Christopher Marlowe, Edward II (1594) and Thomas Dekker, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1607)

Week 4, Revenge Tragedy: Jasper Heywood (tr.), Thyestes (1560) and James Shirley, The Cardinal (1641)

Week 5, City Comedy: Jonson, Chapman and Marston, Eastward Ho! (1604) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl (c. 1607)

Week 6, Domestic Tragedy: Thomas Heywood, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) and John Ford, Tis Pity She’s A Whore (c. 1629)

Week 7, The Infernal: Thomas Middleton, The Witch (ca. 1613-6) and Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass (1623)

Week 8, Tragicomedy: Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Philaster (1609) and James Shirley, The Gentleman of Venice (1639)

Week 9, Caroline Comedy: James Shirley, The Lady of Pleasure (1635/6) and Richard Brome, The Sparagus Garden (1635)

Week 10, Drama of the English Republic: Anon., The Tragedy of the Famous Roman Orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (1651), James Shirley, Cupid and Death (1653) and William Davenant, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) in Janet Clare (ed.) The Drama of the English Republic 1649-60 (Manchester UP, 2002).


Suggested Reading List

Consult the TalisAspire Reading List (to the right) for updates of what is available online.

Primary Texts

You will probably want to buy most of these, many of which will be available secondhand at knockdown prices. You will make your life much easier if you ensure you have a good text of the play, with good notes, so do not be tempted into buying cheaper editions with poor notes, or none at all. In practice, this means that you should buy New Mermaid, Revels Plays or Arden Early Modern Drama wherever possible, but where texts are very expensive (such as Humorous Day's Mirth) it may be more realistic to read it from EEBO.

English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, eds Bevington, Engle, Maus and Rasmussen (New York and London, 2002), contains Edward II, The Roaring Girl and Tis Pity She's A Whore. It would also be good to have read The Shoemaker's Holiday, Arden of Faversham, The Duchess of Malfi, Dr Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts over the summer to gain a basic grounding in some of the most important early modern plays. A link on the right will produce a further list of extension reading which you could usefully do over the summer.

The Drama of the English Republic 1649-60, ed. Janet Clare (Manchester UP, 2002), contains all the plays for week 10.

Edward II, Gammer Gurton's Needle, Old Wives Tale, A Woman Killed With Kindness and The Witch are available new in New Mermaid Editions, sometimes as cheap as £5.50 including postage.

Gammer Gurton's Needle and Old Wives Tale are also available secondhand in a New Mermaid collection called Three Sixteenth-Century Comedies, ed. Charles Walters Whitworth.

Joost Daadler’s (ed.) New Mermaid Thyestes may be available secondhand if you are very lucky. Otherwise buy the new MHRA Elizabethan Seneca: Three Tragedies, eds James Ker and Jessica Winston (2012), which is available as a Google ebook at £4.99:

There are new (some available secondhand) Revels Plays editions of A Humorous Day's Mirth (hardback from £35), Every Man Out of His Humour (paperback, c. £11), Philaster (paperback, c. £11); Devil is an Ass (pbk, c. £13); there are out of print Revels Plays editions of The Lady of Pleasure and The Cardinal which may be available secondhand.

Newly edited The Sparagus Garden is at

Sir Thomas Wyatt is available on EEBO or in Fredson Bowers’ Dekker edition.

Any play you cannot find in a good modern edition should be downloaded from EEBO. There are no notes, but it is good practice to read the texts as they looked when they were first printed.

Secondary Texts

E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols.; Oxford, 1923, repr. 2009)

G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (7 vols.; Oxford, 1941)

English Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 2003)

A Companion to Renaissance Drama, ed. Kinney (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002)

A Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. Hattaway (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)

The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama eds Braunmuller and Hattaway (2nd ed. Cambridge, 2003)

The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith (Cambridge, 2010)

Martin Butler, Theatre and Crisis (Cambridge UP, 1984)

Dale Randall, Winter Fruit: English Drama 1642-1660 (University of Kentucky Press, 1995)

Susan Wiseman, Drama and Politics in the English Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Harvester, 2nd ed., 1989)

John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy (Oxford, 1996)

Brian Gibbons, Jacobean City Comedy (2nd ed., Methuen, 1980)

Learning Outcomes

The learning outcomes for this module (as stated in the module proposal) are:

by the end of the module students will be able to

demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the set plays in their political, religious and social contexts

demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the major dramatic trends and themes of the period 1558-1659

demonstrate knowledge and understanding of early modern literary and dramatic criticism in theory and practice

All good essays will demonstrate all of these to some extent, and talking to the tutor about your title will ensure that you embark upon an essay which makes these things easy to do.