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ANCIENT ROME AND ENGLISH RENAISSANCE THEATRE

INTRODUCTION

 

[Roman Theatres as a model for London Playhouses] [Early modern plays with a Roman Theme]

 

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The posthumous influence of ancient Rome has no parallel in history. When the last emperor was forcibly retired in AD 476, the empire continued in the East in what became known as the Byzantine Empire; in the West, any advance in civilisation was equated with a restoration of Roman values. When the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by the pope in AD 800, he instigated a new Holy Roman Empire which was to survive, in some form, for a thousand years. Men like Charlemagne continued to imitate antiquity in order to recreate civilisation. The literature and learning of the ancient world was largely preserved through the efforts of monks, despite being obliged to overcome their suspicion of pagan culture. The first great European style of Architecture reveals its affinities by its name: Romanesque. And when new intellectual and artistic preoccupations appeared in the fourteenth century, they were associated with a renewed cult of antiquity and given the name Renaissance, meaning 'rebirth'. 

The Renaissance is perhaps most commonly associated with Italian culture of 1350-1500; this perception owes much to a book by Jacob Burckhardt published in 1860 entitled The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. In this pioneering text of cultural history, Burckhardt set out what he saw as the defining features of the Renaissance; the development of the city-state founded on principles of reflection and reason, the emergence of Renaissance Man (l'homme universal) who was an individual rather than the product of a corporate identity and, as discussed above,  the revival of antiquity through the growth of humanism and a re-engagement with studies of the cultures of classical societies.

These ideas remain the subject of much debate, but there is no doubt they have had a wide influence which can readily be discerned in orthodox cultural histories. See, for example the web based  The Western Tradition. Burckhardt did not deal in any detail with England, suggesting that the native genius of Italians was a crucial feature in Renaissance culture, but subsequent scholarship has taken a broader view, finding in the literary output of English writers in the period 1500-1650 strong evidence of a 'Renaissance of Letters', a rebirth of learning stimulated by classical forms and ideas and  mediated by the application of the ideas of Italian humanists. This period, often referred to as 'The English Renaissance', is largely covered by the Tudor and Stuart reigns and is neatly book-ended by the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War.

Many historians see the defining feature of this period as the growth of a modern consciousness, hence the alternative name 'Early Modern', and nowhere is this more apparent than in the popular theatre of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Led by talented and innovative writers such as Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, this medium, itself a feature of ancient societies, was at the forefront of cultural life in the metropolitan centre of its time. The relationship between this period and Ancient Rome is wonderfully illustrated by the famous  drawing, made by Henry Peacham around 1595, of a production of Titus Andronicus and reproduced below. 

Notice the anachronistic mixture of Elizabethan and Roman costumes. The two soldiers on the left are wearing sixteenth century military costumes and carry Tudor halberds and the two kneeling figures on the right look like Elizabethan courtiers. The central actor however, Titus himself, is dressed in classical garb, in a manner that may well be based on Roman statuary.  The impression created is that of a society borrowing from a older tradition, rather than attempting comprehensive reproduction.

This site examines the issue the engagement of Early Modern England with Ancient Rome more closely, by considering two important points of contact between the theatre of this time and the classical world. These are as follows:


REFERENCES

The following texts proved of value:

  • Drabble, M. (Editor), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, OUP, 1985.
  • Braunmuller, A. R. and Hattaway, M. (Editors), The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, CUP, 1990.
  • Gurr, A., The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, CUP, 1992.
  • Mateer, D. (Editor), Courts Patrons and Poets, Yale, 2000.
  • Kekewich, L., (Editor), The Impact of Humanism, Yale, 2000.

The web site was prepared by John Price as part of a post-graduate degree in English Renaissance Studies taken at University College Worcester, who bear no responsibility for the contents.