Its Influence and its Influencers

One form of literature whose re-emergence in the renaissance perhaps marks the flourishing of creative thought stimulated by Graeco-Roman antiquity is the theatrical drama. The middle ages were stuffed with fabliaux misadventure and short sequence thrills interspersed with lewd wordplay. It was targeted at man’s lower sense of himself, it showed us our weaker passions and our capability for the absurd. What found its voice in the Renaissance was drama that could elevate as well as denigrate. Thoughts and themes began to look up at the divine and audiences were targeted to leave with something more than mild humour and intrigue – they could now leave with the feeling they had seen something profound.

Ancient Actors: The ability to recognise drama as embodying the profound re-emerged in the Renaissance

Profound drama in the Renaissance owed its debt to five traits which were found in the playwrights of ancient Greece and Rome:

  1. The Conception of Drama as a Fine Art

As eluded to above, the plays of the middle ages were performed by strolling amateurs. It was a trade more than it was an art. Under the influence of classical drama, writers began to treat their work with the care and precision of an aristocratic art. This began in the ducal palaces of Italy. It went from royal court to noblemen’s houses to great schools. It was top down culture targeted at audience attune to Latin and Greek references and phrases. The criticism and discussion the aristocrats would have over a work would dictate a playwright’s career. Low level debauchery could be tolerated, but no longer drove the work

  1. The Realisation of Drama as a Type of Literature

Emerging from Dante and Chaucer, who could not distinguish drama from narrative, the Renaissance re-established dramatic form and character. It categorised it by its Greek names: drama, tragedy, comedy. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius satirises the players  who the four types of drama (three of which were classical) and mix them accordingly.

 The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light

Each nation mingled its own identity with classical conception in the subsequent centuries to perfect their own form: in Italy it would be opera; in France the tragedies of Corneille and Racine; in England it was the works of Marlowe, Webster and Shakespeare; in Spain Lope de Vega and Calderón.

  1. Theatre Building and the Principles of Dramatic Production

This was the movement away from the temporary scaffold theatres of the middle ages and into more permanent infrastructure. This was to emulate the Graeco-Roman sense of setting. Builders found inspiration from 1484 first edition print of Roman architect Virtuvius, first realised in 1580 with the Olympic Theatre at Vicenza, by classical architect Andrea Palladio. The beauty of the classical stage is in its sense of permanence, its dignity, its symmetry and its long-receding perspective.


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Theatre Location Year Constructed
Teatro Olimpico Vicenza 1580-5
Teatro Colon Buenos Aires 1889-1908
Teatro alla Scala Milan 1778
Residenz Munich 1753
Palais Garnier Paris 1861-75
Old Metropolitan Opera House New York 1883
Royal Opera House London 1732


  1. The Structure of Modern Drama

The classical elements contained in dramatic structure are as follows:

  • Duration: Plays in the Middle Ages were short snippets or long and divergent without resolution. The Japanese may have raised the tabloid to a high art with their Nō and their serial dramas kabuki, but we do not find such high art in Middle Ages drama. It is only through Greek models that we found our medium
  • Division into acts: these became more formalised in the renaissance, particularly popular being the five-act structure. Breakages in the play were more formalised than in ancient Greek theatre, which were marked by choruses.
  • The chorus itself was, of course, a Greek invention. The most famous of the renaissance chorus being that of Henry V :

O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention;

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene

  • Complex Characters, whose conflicts are between people and collisions of spiritual forces. Stemming from this is the mounting suspense produced by the increasing intellectual complexity and emotional tension of such a plot.
  • It is likely the imitation of the 12-syllalbe iambic line of Greek and Roman tragedy helped produce modern blank verse in both Italian and English.
  • The final influence is simple: it gave high standards to admire and to emulate.

So, who were the ancient playwrights whose works helped this influence? Seven names stand out that are worthy of mention. They fall under four categories:

  1. Athenian Tragedians:
    • Aeschylus (525-456 BC), seven of whose plays remain
    • Sophocles (495-406 BC), seven of whose plays remain
    • Euripides ( 481-4-6 BC), nineteen of whose plays remain
  2. Athenian Comedian:
    • Aristophanes (c. 444-385 BC), eleven of whose plays remain
  3. Roman Comedians, working on the style largely created by the Athenian Menander:
    • Plautus ( 254-184 BC), twenty-one of whose plays remain
    • Terence (c. 195-159 BC), six of whose plays remain
  4. Roman Tragedian:
    • Seneca ( 4-64 AD)
The Blind Oedipus by Gagneraux: Inspired by scenes from Sophocles

As noted in the Polonius quote above, Renaissance tragedy relied more upon the Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Seneca than the rest. Chief critical influences were Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Art of Poetry. After these came Terence, Euripides and Sophocles.

Seneca found prominence, specifically in Italy and England. We see his character of the ambitious tyrant, which the Roman himself modelled from Greece, in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Another of his marks is the revengeful ghost, working on Aeschylean models found in the Oresteia. From it comes the Italian passion for vendetta and the English enthralment in its horror – think Banquo, Caesar, and King Hamlet. Once you have the horror established, it follows that an occupying theme of the drama will be that sense of encroaching madness we see in Elizabethan theatre – Hamlet, The Duchess of Malfi, King Lear to name a few.

Translation and Imitation

Drama re-emerged in Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century onwards. Important translations were of The Brothers Menaechmus of Plautus by Niccolo de Correggio in 1486, done for the Duke of Ferrara. Tragedy would take longer to develop, the Senecan tragedies being performed around 1509 and a translation of Sophocles’ Antigone by Luigi Alamanni appearing in 1533. The fervour had, by 1548, spread to France, when Henri II and Catherine de Medici were entertained in Lyon by Ippolito d’Este, Cardinal of Ferrara. In the same year Joachim du Bellay produced his Defence and Ennoblement of the French Language, in which he called on comedies and tragedies on the classical model to be produced in France. Du Bellay was a member of the Pléiade, an influential cultural group of writers in France at the time, and by 1567 one of his co-members, Jean-Antointe de Baif, modernised Plautus’ The Boastful Soldier into The Hero. Spain, as we have seen from the translation table in part six, had already produced a Spanish rendering of Sophocles’ Electra in 1528. In Portugal Plautus’ Amphitryon was on display in the university of Coimbra in the 1540s.

With regards to imitation, the earliest seen is the Eccerinis of 1315 by Albertino Mussato

Albertino Mussato

(1261-1329). It is still more a poem than a drama, but it is interesting as it centred on the tyrant theme familiar from Seneca, and Mussato was pupil to Lovato de Lovati, the first modern scholar who understood the metres of Seneca’s tragedies. The tyrant in question is the fiendish Ezzelino da Romano, ruler of Padua in 1237. Mussato, as a proto-humanist, wrote in Latin, so we must look later for a dramatic production in a modern language. This is Orpheus, a work on the tragic love and death of its titular character, by Angelo Amrogini, oft called Politian, for the court of Mantua in 1471. We have now reached the time of the court of Ferrara, when translations of Plautus and Seneca were flourishing. It is not surprising to find the same blossoming on the imitation front. A short list shall suffice to give an indication of the sort of works being produced at this time:

Title Author Language Year Comment
Cephalus Niccolo da Correggio ITA 1487 Inspired by Ovid
The Casket Comedy (Cassaria) Lodovico Ariosto ITA 1498 Adapted from The Casket Comedy, among others, and from The Self-punisher of Terence
The Masqueraders (Gli Soppositi) Ludovico Ariosto ITA 1502-3 Based on Plautus’ The Prisoners and Terence’s The Eunuch
Supposes George Gascoigne ENG 1566 English Translation of Ariosto’s Gli Soppositi – providing Shakespeare with inspiration for The Taming of the Shrew
Sophonisba Giovan Giorgio Trissino ITA 1515 A dramatization of the story of the African queen as told by Livy (28-30). It imitates Greek models, Antigone of Sophocles and Alcestis of Euripides in particular
Orbecche Giovanni Battista Giraldi (Cinthio) ITA 1541 The first tragedy to have a wide impression
Captive Cleopatra Jodelle FRA 1552 Seneca as model
Eugene Jodelle FRA 1552 Octo-syllabic metre, it had elements of Plautus and Terence, with fabliau overtones
Gorboduc (Ferrex and Porrex) Sackville & Norton ENG 1562 Contains Greek devices acquired through Seneca and deals with the mythology of Trojan Britain
Ralph-Roister-Doister Nicolas Udall ENG 1553 Characters are modelled on Plautine lines, in particular The Boastful Soldier

It is important to note the above table represents the earliest form of drama. We have detailed translation and imitation, but not necessarily emulation. Emulation with depend on the specific circumstances of each individual country. Italian comedy went sour with the plays of Macchiavelli and Aretino, French comedy was only to be realised much later, in a different age of classicism, by Jean-Baptiste Moliere. In England we were still awaiting Shakespeare. In Spain the chief dramatists were Lope de Vega (1562-1635) and Padro Calderón (1600-81). De Vega, in his New Art of Making Comedies had stressed moving away from Plautus and Terence as models. With this he did precipitate a Golden Age in Spanish literature, but his international effect has been insignificant in comparison to the likes of Shakespeare.

Other Forms of Drama

Other forms of drama were still influential other than the tragedy and comedy dealt with above. We had

  1. Masques – the most famous in English being Milton’s Comus
  2. Pastoral dramas – where the characters were shepherds modelled off Theocritus and Virgil. The plot goes something along the lines of: A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, D is vowed to chastity; E and F love each other but are forbidden to be with one another. The renaissance thrilled in inserting hopeless love into the setting of Arcadia. There are elements to it in Politian’s Orpheus, mentioned above, and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The earliest large-scale pastoral drama was Beccari’s The Sacrifice, produced at Ferrara in 1555 and we see it laterin Torquato Tasso’s Amyntas (1573) and Battisa Guarini’s Faithful Shepherd (1590).
  3. The Popular Farce – The Italian commedia dell’ arte with Mr Punch (Pulcinella) certainly had the spirit of Plautus, though this was a less recovered tradition as it had presided in the puppet show and minstrel culture of the Middle Ages
  4. Opera – This form of drama gradually came to life by scholars who loved drama, and who knew that in Greek tragedies music was an essential part of the production. The first experimental operas were Daphne and Eurydice, by Ottavio Rinuccini with music by Peri and Caccini in 1594. It was a dramatization of Ovidian myth. It has in it the tale of Apollo’s fight against Python, associated with one of the most famous pieces of music in ancient Greece. It is from this well springs Orpheus of Monteverdi, Don Giovanni of Mozart and the Ring of the Nibelungs of Wagner. It is rare the composer who did not use classical inspiration in some form in his operas, a direct reflection of its roots being imbedded in renaissance drama.

As previously discussed, dramatists used as critical models for their

Don Giovanni
Mozart’s Don Giovanni: Opera as a form grew from Renaissance Drama

work the Poetics of Aristotle and the Art of Poetry of Horace. Much of Renaissance drama was created by the lofty standards of Renaissance critics, who, in spite of their frequent pedantry, would not tolerate slovenly work. They expounded rules which focused story to one action and duration to sensible duration stemming from Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Modern drama works in four different media: the stage and the opera, the cinema and television. Added to this can be the (post?)modern multi-media platform of the internet. Cinema and television, so far as they crate drama, are simple extensions of the first two. With the latter it is still difficult to discern its place, lying as it does in its relative infancy in an instable time. So it still remains that the essential pair for dramatic consumption were created in the Renaissance. This was done not by the mechanical reproduction of classical material, but by the creative adaptation of classical forms, with all their potentialities unrealised by medieval dramatists, and the challenge of classical masterpieces, previously misunderstood or unknown.