At the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth the conflict between medimvalism and humanism was rife in the drama as in other forms of literature. For the preceding half cen tury there had been a confusion of types; miracle, morality, interlude, and farce existing side by side and exhibiting various differentia tions and there had been a confusion of theatri cal conditions, play-acting still remaining largely in amateur hands. Neo-latin imitations of the classics were being succeeded by academic at tempts in the vernacular. 'Ralph Roister Doister,' written by Nicholas Udall for the school performance, had already in 1552 marked the appearance of comedy as a distinct form after the Plautian model, and by Sackville and Norton, performed in 1562 before the Queen, was the first vernacular tragedy. Two other extant plays written within the next few years and performed by amateurs, and 'Tancred and Gismunda,) were, like tGor boduc,' attempts by Englishmen of culture to imitate the tragedies of Seneca in accord with the practice of Italian humanists. Meantime and Virginia) and (Damon and Pithias,' mixtures of tragedy and comedy, exhibited the persistence of popular methods combined with classical borrowings, while (Cambyses' and (Horestes) were formless chronicles of atroci ties without any perceptible classical decorum. The building of the first London theatre in 1576 was the sign of a speedy triumph of the profes sional companies as the chief purveyors of the drama. A dozen years later the advent of a group of gifted poets prepared the way for Shakespeare by determining the course of a popular drama that was to be literary though disregardful of classical restrictions.
Comedy, where the departure from mediaeval forms required by the humanists was far less than in tragedy, was the first to attract literary talent to the public stage. The plays of Wilson revealed a satirical comedy of manners emerg ing from the morality, and the entertainments devised by Lyly for the children companies, combined lyrical and spectacular attractions with a refined wit and a certain graceful court liness. Later Green introduced sentimental com edy with its averted tragedy and its idealization of women. Such hasty summarizing, however,
does scant justice to the variety and ingenuity of the experiments that preceded Shakespeare, drawing their material from every field from classical myth to native folk lore, and essaying and amalgamating every department of comedy from the Plautian to the pastoral. Most char acteristic, perhaps, of all was romantic comedy, usually based on Italian novelle and offering a medley of fun, sentiment and adventure.
In tragedy Kyd adapted Seneca to the condi tions of the popular theatres, discarding most of his structural scheme but retaining the story of revenge, the accompanying ghost, the horrors and the moralizing; and thus in the 'Spanish Tragedy' (eI-. 1587). creating a special type des tined to a v''•;•orous existence. Marlowe (1564 93) turned his hack on Senecan methods and brought to the rambling and discordant struc ture of the current popular history plays his splendid blank verse and his soaring imagina tion. (Tamburlaine,' 'Faustus,' the (Jew of Malta,' and 'Edward II,' the chief plays of his half dozen years of dramatic activity, delighted the vulgar by their violence and spectacle, and at the same time made the public stage the abode of noble poetry and genuine passion. His genius, though never fully developed, remade tragedy and history, giving to the chronicle structure the unity of a protagonist, possessed by extraordinary ambition and engaged in tragic conflict with overpowering opposition.
In Marlowe, as in the other early Elizabeth ans, there is much that is fantastic, crude and absurd. The primary aim of each dramatist was to present a story so as to delight a motley audience; hence the tendency was naturally toward stories of sensational crimes for tragedy and of romantic adventures for comedy, without much care for the isolation of either species. Like Marlowe, however, the other dramatists were poets as well as playwrights, stimulated by that imaginative idealism so nobly character istic of the national temper in the years of Elizabeth's greatness, and in their exuberant and .somewhat over-fantastic verse reflecting the audacity, adventurousness, emotional ex travagance and undaunted aspiration of the age.