Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
The history of Shakespeare on the stage has been largely identical with the history of theatre. Until recently, however, his contemporaries belonged to a fringe populated only by scholars and specialists. Renaissance comedies can be turned into a popular 'romp', with song and dance and audience participation. Tragedy is less easy to assimilate. If one's notion of the genre is derived from Sophocles's Oedipus plays and Shakespeare's King Lear, most Renaissance tragedies will be hard to fit into that category. Most of them are really tragicomedies, or they contain a strongly comic element that undercuts a tragic response. They are often bloody. They abound in declamations and overt moralising. But the greatest problem for the director of these plays is that they are not by Shakespeare. Reviewers inevitably use him as a yardstick by which to measure other playwrights, on the assumption that they were trying, unsuccessfully, to do the same thing that he did. One theme of this essay will be the constant attempt to link their plays to Shakespeare's. Another, however, will be the ways in which the theatre keeps rediscovering them as examples of a distinctive dramaturgy.
The only period at which Shakespeare's contemporaries were not judged by his standards was the early Restoration, when much of the pre-war drama was revived. Pepys saw many works that are now rarities, like William Rowley's All's Lost by Lust, and admired the great actor Thomas Betterton not only in Hamlet but also in The Changeling, The Duchess of Malfi and Massinger's The Bondman. By the end of the century, most of these plays had disappeared from the repertory, though Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus lived on in pantomime adaptations, retaining only a few lines of the original.
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