This course introduced students to the larger landscape of English drama by playwrights other than Shakespeare, examining sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plays in the various social and political contexts in which they were produced. We also studied the lives and reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I of England, particularly with respect to their relationships to the English Theatres as institutions and to specific playing companies and dramatic works. Reading the drama written and produced during their reigns––a body of work that is equally rich but often quite different from what Shakespeare wrote––students were immersed in a distinctly bold brand of English stagecraft. Our primary texts for the semester included Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Christopher Marlowe’s daring over-reacher, Tamburlaine The Great (1587), Ben Jonson’s pointed smack-down of the wealthy and corrupt, Volpone (1606); John Webster’s creepy Duchess of Malfi (1612); Francis Beaumont’s odd and wonderful Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), Thomas Dekker’s citizen/artisan tribute, The Shoemakers’ Holiday (1595), and his collaboration with Thomas Middleton, the tobacco-smoking, pants-wearing Roaring Girl (ca. 1608). We also watched the film version of The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) from 2002 (and in a previous semester, portions of a 1972 BBC production of The Duchess of Malfi).
In addition to these works, each student in the class had the opportunity to read literary criticism on these plays and another play by these authors or an additional playwright, including John Fletcher, Thomas Heywood, Lady Mary Wroth, Elizabeth Cary, or Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley. Our textbook, Peter Womack’s English Renaissance Drama, helped guide us through a wide landscape of playwrights, specific plays, acting companies and patrons, dramatic sub-genres, and motifs common to the period. As we studied Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, we considered the troublesome and ever-expanding list known as the “literary canon”; the importance of editing practices in the publication and circulation of early modern plays; and the extent to which all drama from the period exhibits the literary forms and aesthetics we associate with its best-known playwright, William Shakespeare.
Students wrote regular posts on our course Blog about the plays we read and also posted “virtual handouts” that culled salient information from essays in John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan’s A New History of English Drama (1997) to learn more about the early modern playhouses and their daily operations. The final project for the course allowed them to write a critical analysis of an additional play, or a critical history of a play from the assigned reading in addition to several other options; they also collaborated in groups to create movie trailers for each of the plays we read in the semester. You have their consent to watch them here.