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'The practice of Elizabethan drama cannot be easily brought into focus for us by the statements of Renaissance literary criticism.' So writes George K. Hunter in a recent essay on 'Elizabethan Theatrical Genres and Literary Theory'. However, if we use the word theory rather loosely to mean a 'set of ideas', then perhaps we can discern a fairly clear line of development in the ideas of tragedy from the Middle Ages to the annus mirabilis of English Renaissance tragedy: 1587. This was the year which saw the appearance not only of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, but also, most probably, of Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy - the play which opens the sequence presented for analysis in the present volume. In this short essay, I shall try to give an account of at least some of the main features of this 'theory', from the late medieval period, to the new neo-classical theory which emerged in a 'strong' form in the mid-Tudor period, and developed into a more moderate (though not exactly 'weak') form in the early and mid-Elizabethan period. Then, I shall return to the two great plays already mentioned, in order to argue that we are in danger of missing a 'lost tradition' of early Renaissance tragedy which extends up to and beyond the watershed years of the late 1580s. As it happens, there are literally hundreds of works which might be described as the 'antecedents' of English Renaissance tragedy, so we shall only be able to look at a few of those which seem to me most important or interesting; but they should suffice to give us a decent picture of the spacious and energetic tradition of tragic composition and performance up to Kyd and Marlowe.
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