Why Aren’t You Reading English Renaissance Drama?

Why Are You Not Reading Renaissance Drama

The Reasons You Should Read English renaissance drama

Renaissance drama encompasses more than Shakespeare.

From the quick overviews of the Renaissance given in literature courses, it’s easy to assume that the Bard dominated the English stage.  However, Shakespeare was not writing alone.  The era was filled with talented writers from Christopher Marlowe to Beaumont and Fletcher, and their stories are often just as engaging and complex as Shakespeare’s.

Renaissance drama is totally weird.

A noble out for revenge disguises himself in court and somehow ends up engaged to act as a pander to his own sister.  A man fakes his own death and then must find a way to produce the murderer.  A revenger tells his story then cuts out his own tongue.  The pages of Renaissance drama are convoluted, gory, and oftentimes just plain weird–and you might just love it.

Renaissance drama address complex issues still relevant today.

How can a woman assert her agency in a society that views her as a commodity?  How can one obtain justice for one’s wrongs when the legal system fails?  Can one ever justify taking arms up against one’s ruler?  These are the types of questions that engaged the writers and audiences of Renaissance drama.  Though it is easy to assume that royal censorship silenced political and religious freedom and criticism, playwrights still found ways to ask tough questions and offer pointed commentary.  The issues that troubled them are ones that we still grapple with.

Some Recommendations to Get You Started

The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

Perhaps one of the most famous Renaissance dramas, this revenge tragedy served as a model for many plays after. It involves a complicated plot full of murder.

The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

A closet drama written by a woman, this drama tells the story of Mariam, the second wife of Herod.  Uncertain about her feelings for her husband as he has killed many of her family members, Mariam remains cold towards him, allowing her cunning sister-in-law to convince Herod Mariam has been unfaithful.  It explores issues like marriage, divorce, and female sexuality.

The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley

Beatrice-Joanna is in love with Alsemero but betrothed to Alonzo.  She consequently orders her servant De Flores to murder Alonzo.  Unexpectedly, however, after De Flores does the deed, he argues that Beatrice has lost her value and now must sleep with him lest he reveal all.  But Alsemero’s friend suspects something and Beatrice must find a way to feign virginity on her wedding night.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

Webster’s drama follows the titular character, recently widowed, as she secretly marries one of her servants in defiance of her brothers’ wishes that she remain single so they can attempt to control her and her property.  The drama is unusual in granting its female protagonist extraordinary agency–she is the one who proposes, not the man (though of course class issues also come into play here).

Krysta 64

6 thoughts on “Why Aren’t You Reading English Renaissance Drama?

  1. mez_blume says:

    Agreed! If I could add a title to your “getting started” list, it would be Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. There are some brilliant, powerful moment’s of dialogue difficult to beat even in Shakespeare!


    • Krysta says:

      I admit I’m not a huge fan of Dr. Faustus, but it certainly is something you should probably read if you’re getting into Renaissance drama.


      • mez_blume says:

        To be fair, my introduction to “Faustus” was on stage at the magical Globe Theatre with Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams from Dr. Who) playing Mephistopheles … hard not to be moved by any production in that space, but that was a particularly powerful one! I haven’t actually tried reading the play, so it is possible that it doesn’t scan with the same oomph on page.


        • Krysta says:

          I always love plays more once I’ve seen them performed! But for some reason I like Dr. Faustus more the first time I read it. This time around it just seemed almost too straight-forward, which perhaps isn’t really fair to Marlowe.


  2. Lianne @ eclectictales.com says:

    Great post! I’ve only slowly started branching into Renaissance Drama after reading Shakespeare and Marlowe and they’re quite interesting (haha, definitely agree with you on the weird bit–weird, but amusing at times too)! I re-read The Duchess of Malfi some time ago and definitely appreciated it more the second time around. The only title you listed that I haven’t read is The Tragedy of Mariam–will have to look that one up!


    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes people ask me to explain what I’m reading and it just gets…awkward. And very complicated very fast. ;D

      I actually find The Tragedy of Mariam a bit stiff, but I thought I’d put some female authorship on this list. It’s a close drama, so there are plenty of long speeches no one would be likely to write for a staged play.


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