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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: March 2008

5 - The development of a professional theatre, 1540–1660



The writing of a theatre history reveals almost as much about contemporary tastes and values as it does about the cultural world of the past. Historians tend to organise their material into familiar explanatory or narrative structures, most often, the rise, the fall and the rise and fall. If we consider the dramatic literature produced during the period 1540–1660, historians from the mid eighteenth century onwards have preferred a story of rise and fall. In their narratives dramatic literature charted an upward trajectory from the primitive dramatic texts of mummings, mysteries and moralities, blossomed into theatre proper embodied by the sophisticated genius of Shakespeare, before collapsing, exhausted, into Cavalier and Caroline degeneracy. An outspoken example of this kind of narrative from the eighteenth century is Chetwood's A Short View of the Rise and Progress of the English Stage (1752). Chetwood cannot mourn the paucity of pre-Shakespearian theatrical literature:

A more particular knowledge of these Things, any further than as it serves to show… the progressive Refinement of our Language, was so little worth preserving, that the Loss of it is scarce to be regretted… Though Tragedy and Comedy began to lift up their Heads, yet they could do no more for some time than bluster and quibble…

Chetwood had little time for drama before or after Shakespeare and Jonson. While we might smile at his offhand dismissal of swathes of dramatic endeavour, his assessment of dramatic quality employed a model that remained a powerful truism in the literary study of early modern drama.