Ancient Theatre 
Medieval Theatre
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century

Email Us


THERE were two groups of plays in the sixteenth century which belonged neither to the democratic, popular class, nor to the pseudo-classical species fostered by the academic circles. One of these was the court comedy, designed especially as a compliment to the queen; the other was the masque, in which the aristocracy and royalty itself took part as actors. The court comedy was in a sense a variation, or a specialization, of the pastoral, brought into England from Italy chiefly by John Lyly, the author of Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues, His England. Lyly produced a series of court comedies in which allegorical and classical stories were made to veil complimentary allusions to the queen and her court. There are eight plays which most scholars accept as authentic, six of which were first played by the Children of the Chapel Royal. Four of them are based on classic subjects, with the allegory so contrived as to constitute one colossal hymn of adulation to the queen. Elizabeth had already become the "Virgin Queen" to her subjects, and she had been styled Cynthia by Spenser. Lyly used the fable of Endymion as the vehicle for one of his early panegyrics. The sleeping Endymion was Leicester, the queen's favorite. Out of pity, charity, and queenly goodness she rouses him from his entranced slumber with a kiss. Never before have her lips been touched, nor would they ever again be soiled by such condescension. Throughout the play the queen is gracious, charming, and always queenly. Other characters in the allegory could easily be identified by the coterie of spectators, and not all of the dramatis personae were pictured with as kind a pen as that which had drawn the lovely Cynthia. The adulation is unmistakable, though never vulgar. The play has little plot, but is imbued with high spirits, delicacy of taste, and graceful poetry. Hazlitt and Keats both praised Endimion extravagantly.

The successful Endimion was followed by similar plays, and the figure of Lyly seemed for a time to dominate English drama. All but one of his comedies are in prose. They show no suspicion of struggle or passion, but they are imbued with an atmosphere of sunshine and classical purity. It was Lyly who popularized a peculiar type of gay but innocent dialogue, used the device of putting his play into a dream setting, made the disguise of girls as boys an amusing and harmless feature, and still proved that such spiceless diversions could stand the test of public performance. All these devices are familiar to us in the work of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. Lyly's importance lies in the fact that he practically created the English court comedy -- a type which has no exact parallel in any other language.


One of the most spectacular entertainments of the nobility was the masque, introduced into England from Italy by Henry VIII as early as 1512. The first requisite for the masque was a pleasant and entertaining story in verse, preferably with mythological or allegorical characters. There was of course some dialogue and declamation, but these matters were relatively unimportant. Far more significant were the tableaux, music, the ballet, the elaborate settings, the gorgeous costumes and scenery, stage appliances, and surprises in mechanical effects. The actors were members of the aristocracy, sometimes of the royal family. They wore masks, spent huge sums upon their costumes, and lent their halls and treasures of art to enrich the scenes. Little else was required of them, as actors, but to look beautiful and stately. The success of the masque depended upon the architect, the scene painter, decorator, and ballet master. In the course of time considerable importance was given also to singing and instrumental music.

The cost of these accessories was too great to permit masque production in the public theaters, even supposing they had been acceptable to the taste of the populace; and during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, royal ideas of economy forbade the lavish display which had characterized the masque in Italy. With the accession of the Stuarts, however, this form of theatrical display took on a new importance. James I and his son Charles were willing to spend a good deal of the country's money upon them. Among the poets engaged to write masque librettos were Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and most of the other talented writers of the day. Ben Jonson was first of all, not only in point of time but in genius. He became poet laureate, and devoted his amazing learning, his theatrical sense, and his gift for charming lyrics to the work of perfecting the masque. With him, as manager and stage director, worked the artist, Inigo Jones; also a director of chorus, a dance master, and a composer for instruments. The court musicians numbered as many as fifty-eight persons, and neither time nor expense was spared in their training. Not only the court, but noblemen wishing to compliment royalty, arranged for these entertainments. The courts of the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn, and such societies, vied with each other in the lavishness of their productions. The king and queen, each, provided a masque at Christmas. There remain more than thirty examples of this sort of play written during the reign of James I and Charles I. In 1634 there was given at Whitehall, in the royal banquet room, by the members of the various Inns of Court, a masque called The Triumph of Peace, designed by Inigo Jones and written by Shirley, for which the cost amounted to more than one hundred thousand dollars. This was but fourteen years before the tragic end of Charles and the abolition of such extravagant gaieties.

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 202-4.


© 2002 TheatreDatabase.com