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Jacobean Drama

Jacobean Drama

You may think you know little about Jacobean drama, but you may know more than you think! The most famous of playwrights, William Shakespeare(1564-1616), wrote many of his most well-known plays during the period. This article will look at the themes, characteristics and definition of Jacobean drama.

Jacobean drama definition

Jacobean drama is a term given to theatre written during the reign of King James I (1603-1625). Although the term is used for many different types of play, the period has similar thematic characteristics. It was a period of uncertainty and social unrest following the relatively successful Elizabethan era (1558-1603). The country was divided in both religion and politics, perhaps emphasised by the attempted attack on the Houses of Parliament on November 5th.

On November 5th 1605 was the famous gunpowder plot. A group of Catholics led by Robert Catesby and featuring Guy Fawkes tried to blow up both King James I and the parliament. Their plot was discovered and was subsequently thwarted. The event is commemorated as 'Bonfire night' every year in Britain.

The political uncertainty felt in society was reflected in the theatre. During the Elizabethan era, comic dramas were the popular form of drama. The drama of the Jacobean age was far darker in its tone. Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous tragedies during the period, and Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was writing plays of biting satire. Jacobean drama explored the different sides of human nature with themes of corruption, sex and violence.

JacobeanDrama,Shakespeare,StudySmarterFig.2. Shakespeare wrote many of his tragedies in the Jacobean age.

It was not always so dark in tone. The Jacobean age also oversaw the development of a new subgenre of theatre known as the masque. These shows featured elaborate dance sequences with performers wearing masks. Masques were known for their highly technical production providing a high visual spectacle. The subgenre was famous for being expensive to produce and derided by puritans for its excess.

Puritans were English protestants who wished to purify the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jacobean literature

The Jacobean age was an important time for literature with developments in prose, poetry and drama. There were also progressions in the forms of prose and poetry. Perhaps the most influential work of literature was the King James Bible (1611). It was the most successful English translation of the Bible and is widely considered to have changed English literature.

JacobeanDrama,Bible,StudySmarterFig.1. The King James Bible is widely considered to have changed English literature.

Another notable translation in prose was George Chapman's The Illiad (1617) and The Odyssey (1617), originally written by Homer (8th-9th Century BCE). It was the first time that the epic poems were translated into the English language. The philosopher Francis Bacon was influential in the fields of science and religion in his prose.

In poetry, the Jacobean age saw the prominence of the metaphysical poets and, most notably, the work of John Donne (1572-1631). The metaphysical poets explored philosophical and religious ideas using irony and colloquial language. Shakespeare's sonnets were published in 1609. Ben Jonson's poetry was hugely influential to the later literary movement of the cavalier poets.

The metaphysical poets were a group of poets who wrote philosophical poems exploring the nature of human existence.

The cavalier poets were a group of poets who supported King Charles I in the English Civil War (1642-1651). Their poetry was noted for its celebratory tone and for promoting the king's court.

Themes of Jacobean drama

This section will take a look at some of the predominant themes explored in Jacobean drama.

Revenge

The revenge play came to prominence during the Jacobean age. The revenge play is a theatrical genre where the protagonist is seeking revenge for a perceived injustice. One of the most successful writers of the revenge play was William Shakespeare. The form was inspired by the works of Spanish tragedy, which would explore themes of retribution.

Famous examples of the revenge play include John Webster's White Devil (1612) and William Shakespeare's Othello (1603).

Satire

Satire is the use of irony or humour to take a critical look at either human failings, political situations or topical issues of the time.

Jacobean drama was also known for the popularity of satirical plays. One of the most prominent writers of satire was the renowned poet and playwright Ben Jonson. King James I's reign was far from secure, and the nation was divided between the puritanical and the cavalier. As a result, Jacobean drama often questioned the social order at the time and its idea of morality. Plays would tackle issues such as moral corruption and human greed.

One example of a satirical play was Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1610).

Human evil

Many Jacobean plays explored themes of morality and particularly questioned humanity's capacity for evil. Jacobean drama would often have protagonists who commit acts of crime or violence. It was not always guaranteed that a character considered 'good' would prosper in Jacobean drama. One writer who often questioned morality in their plays was John Webster (1578-1634), most prominently in the play The Duchess of Malfi (1614).

In Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606), the titular character becomes corrupted by ambition and murders those to whom he was previously loyal.

Characteristics of Jacobean drama

This section will look at the common characteristics found in Jacobean drama.

Tragedy

By far, the most popular genre in theatre was tragedy. Many of William Shakespeare's plays written at the time were tragedies, and many other writers such as John Webster, William Rowley (1585-1626) and Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) also explored the genre. The social unrest of the time influenced the tone of the Jacobean age. The period saw the rise of the revenge play, and playwrights drew on audiences' fears in their work. Tragedy dominated the stage in the Jacobean age.

Technicality

At the beginning of the Elizabethan era, the theatre was banned from being performed in London. As a result, the most famous Jacobean theatres, like the Rose and the Globe, were still in their infancy. With new theatres being specifically built for drama, there were significant developments in special effects. The advent of theatres with stage doors and pulley systems afforded Jacobean playwrights the ability to produce more technical plays. Jacobean dramas such as Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611) were laden with special effects.

JacobeanDrama,GlobeTheatre,StudySmarterFig.3. Purpose-built theatres allowed plays to become more technical.

Development of Jacobean drama timeline

This section will present a chronological list of events that developed Jacobean drama, beginning with the Elizabethan era.

Elizabethan era

1564- England's most famous playwright William Shakespeare is born.

1572- Jacobean poet and playwright Ben Jonson is born.

1576- Britain's first purpose-built theatre, The Red Lion, opens to little success.

1587- The opening of the Rose theatre in London.

1589- William Shakespeare writes Henry VI: Part 1 (1589), his first-ever play.

1599- The famous Globe theatre, home of Shakespeare's Company, opens.

1602- William Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet (1601), is first performed at the Globe theatre in London.

1603- Queen Elizabeth I dies, ending the Elizabethan era.

Jacobean age

1603- The first performance of Macbeth (1603), a tragedy by William Shakespeare.

1610- Ben Jonson's satirical play, The Alchemist (1610), is first performed.

1612- The first performance of John Webster's revenge tragedy White Devil (1612).

1614- London's Globe theatre has to be rebuilt after being damaged by fire. The first performance of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1614).

1616- Death of William Shakespeare.

1623- The first folio of William Shakespeare's complete plays is published.

1625- King James I dies, and the Jacobean age ends.

Jacobean Drama - Key takeaways

  • Jacobean drama is a term for any theatre written during the reign of King James I.
  • Jacobean drama reflected the uncertainty of the period and was often dark in tone.
  • Some of the major themes of Jacobean drama are; revenge, satire and human evil.
  • The main characteristics of the Jacobean drama were their technicality and tragedy.
  • Jacobean drama saw the rise of the masque subgenre, which was known for its elaborate and expensive productions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jacobean Drama

Jacobean drama is any theatre written during the reign of King James I. 

The main characteristics of Jacobean drama are its tragedy and technicality. 

Jacobean drama became decadent with the subgenre of the masque. These shows featured elaborate set pieces that were expensive to produce.

The major themes of Jacobean drama were revenge, satire and human evil.

The Jacobean age was known for being a time of political unrest and it is reflected in the theatre of the time.

Final Jacobean Drama Quiz

Question

What is Jacobean drama?

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Answer

Jacobean drama is any theatre written during the reign of King James I. 

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Question

What are the main characteristics of Jacobean drama?

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Answer

The main characteristics of Jacobean drama are its tragedy and technicality. 

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Question

What led to the decadence of Jacobean drama?

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Answer

Jacobean drama became decadent with the subgenre of the masque. These shows featured elaborate set pieces that were expensive to produce.

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Question

What are the major themes of the Jacobean period?

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Answer

The major themes of Jacobean drama were revenge, satire and human evil.

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Question

What is the Jacobean age known for?

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Answer

The Jacobean age was known for being a time of political unrest and it is reflected in the theatre of the time.

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Question

How long did the Jacobean age last?

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Answer

The Jacobean age lasted from 1603 till 1625.

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Question

Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at which famous theatre?

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Answer

Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at the Globe theatre in London.

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Question

Who wrote the revenge play White Devil (1612)?

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Answer

John Webster wrote the revenge play White Devil (1612).

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Question

Which poet and playwright was known for writing biting satires?

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Answer

The poet and playwright Ben Jonson was known for writing biting satires.

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Question

Which translation is widely considered to have changed English literature?

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Answer

The translation of the Bible is widely considered to have changed English literature.

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Question

What development allowed plays to become more technical?

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Answer

The development of purpose-built theatres allowed plays to become more technical.

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Question

William Shakespeare wrote which famous revenge play?

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Answer

William Shakespeare wrote the famous revenge play Othello (1603).

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