Medieval and Renaissance Drama


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Briefly describe an overall description of what takes place in Everyman and describe your favorite part of the play or the part that you found to be most interesting.

What type of play is it (liturgical, cycle or morality) and how is it an example of this type of play?

Before Medieval Theater

What happened in the 6th Century regarding the church and theater? : In the 6th Century the theaters were shut down by the Church for being too full of vice/sin.



And in the 10th Century? In the 10th Century theater was restored by the Church but was HIGHLY non-secular (religious) and was deeply attached to the Church.

Medieval Dramas

What are the four major types of Medieval dramas? The four major types of Medieval drama are: Cycle plays, Liturgical plays, Morality plays and Interludes.


Liturgical drama

Describe liturgical dramas. . .Liturgical dramas bring the LITURGY (think literature) of the bible to life!! Remember most of the population is illiterate. Think about how we tell stories to children.


What are tropes? Tropes are dramatic interpretations of the Bible meant to “amplify” the content of the bible and make it more interesting.



What are antiphonal performances? These are a back and forth dialogue between monks and choir boys – also meant to dramatize the liturgy of the Bible.


Cycle Plays

What are cycle plays? Cycle plays take place outside of the Church and are also meant to tell dramatized stories from the life of Jesus or lives of Saints performed during important Christian Holidays (think Christmas and Easter). Cycle plays are still performed today!!

What is a mystery? A mystery is a craft guild (ship builders for example) who sponsored their own performance usually tied to their specific skill. (Ship builders guild would perform Noah’s Ark for example).


Who was the audience of the cycle plays? Every day people! The masses! People that they are trying to convert to Christianity and recruit to come to the Church.

What is an anachronism and why did they utilize this? An anachronism is the blending of the historical past with current events? Why do you think they did this?



“The English cycle plays are among the highest achievements of Middle English literature, and we are fortunate that these immense popular spectacles remain in written form. . .texts show is that the complex of dramatic conventions, staging practices, and audience attitudes is a legacy of the medieval theater passed on to later theater” (257).


Morality Dramas

Describe morality dramas. . .whereas cycle dramas focused on staging “the epic sweep of secular England history” what did morality plays focus on? Morality plays focused on a particular and random Christian’s moral journey – Everyman is a morality drama. These stories were told through allegory – an allegory is a story that can be meant to have a deeper meaning – a moral/lesson.


What is an interlude? Some secular plays were written in the Universities at this time but they still focused on religious topics/themes (they just weren’t performed at church nor were they meant to recruit people to the Church). Interludes were similar performances performed at court in-between feasting.

Staging Medieval drama

What did it look like in general? Cycle dramas were performed outside on pageant wagons (wagons large enough to have a drama take place on them). These wagons would be paraded through the town in what was called a tableaux vivant – and then they would stop and the scenes/performances would take place.

Scenery and Special Effects

Depictions of hell were made to look quite frightening. (Why might that be?).

Many special effects involved flying with pulley systems, the use of trap doors for sudden appearances and disappearances and the substitution of effigies for live actors during scenes of violence

Live animals were used as well as actors and effigies representing animals


Plays varied from having five to three hundred characters

The majority of actors were chosen from the merchant or working classes

Mostly men and boys acted but some women participated as well – many actors had multiple roles and sometimes multiple actors played one role

Actors were fined if they missed rehearsals – they had to commit


In the guilds of Northern England the wardens of each company/guild were responsible for the proper staging of the plays.

In some instances a “pageant master” was put under contract and paid to oversee all elements of the productions.

The term director in this case may be more of what we would call a producer AND a director today.

Other types of “Drama”

Theatrical productions also were incorporated into street pageants given by municipalities in honor of coronations, royal weddings, military victories or visiting rulers – these plays emerged in the 13th Century

These plays were pantomimed and were often called tableux vivants or living pictures sometimes with narration

Major playwrights including Ben Johnson were commissioned to write them

Medieval vs. Renaissance Drama

How did Medieval drama influence Renaissance drama? : Religious themes still dominated drama in the Renaissance.

What are the similarities between the two?

What are the differences between the two?

Renaissance Drama

Why are the dates 1567 and 1642 significant? The first permanent English theater, The Red Lion, opened in 1567 in London. In 1642 all Theaters in England were closed during the end of the Monarchy. The period between 1567 and 1642 is considered the British Renaissance (note that the Renaissance did not happen in all European nations at the same time).

What was going on in England during the 17th Century and why was theater suppressed? In 1642, Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament assassinated King Charles the I and ended the Monarchy. This is part of a very complicated history that you are welcome to look up but that is the version of it that you need to know for class.


What is the “Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds”? A law under Queen Elizabeth that forbid people to “wander around England” as vagrants. So traveling performers were forbidden.

Who is Edmund Tylney? Master of Revels for Queen Elizabeth and King James who was in charge of CENSORSHIP. It is important to note that playwrights were not allowed to “write whatever they wanted” all dramas had to be approved by Tilney.


Professional Companies

Describe the professional companies. . .With the opening of the Red Lion – the first space dedicated to professional theater in London came the birth of professional theater companies in England. These consisted usually of a playwright who was the primary writer for the group and would also direct and a group of actors who always worked together. This group of people were able to make their primary living making theater together – doesn’t that sound GREAT?

The sharers were like producers – they were financially responsible for the company but they also sometimes were part of the actors as well.


The Theater Spaces

What are the differences between the public and private theaters in England? What did they look like, who went, how much did they cost, etc. . .

I’m going to let you do this one on your own!! It’s in the reading – you can google it – you can do this!!

Where were the public theaters mostly located and why? The public theaters were located OUTSIDE the city because they frequently burned down.

The plays

What are some of the topics of the plays at the time? Plays were categorized into comedy, tragedy, satyre and even political drama. Topics included a wide variety of topics including love, royalty, death, religious themes – pretty much anything you can imagine.

How did classical drama make their way into Renaissance drama? Playwrights often were “inspired”, aka STOLE the plotlines of Ancient Greek and Roman dramas. A lot of Shakespeare’s most well known comedies were not his original plotlines.

The Staging

What were the staging (scenery etc) and costumes like? Scenery and costumes were limited. The costumes were all Elizabethan and so two Ancient Greek characters would not be wearing Ancient Greek clothes but rather clothes that were contemporary. Scenery was not very elaborate – they had a few scenery pieces and painted backgrounds (that were permanent) so that meant that playwrights created the world of their drama through their words.


Who are the boy actors? Boy actors were young men who often played female roles.

How were women portrayed on stage? Women had a wider variety of personalities on stage – but were still written by and represented by men.

What was women’s relationship to theater at the time? Please read/listen to the article I sent you about this.


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