Related Web sites
Chris Cleary is in the midst of placing the complete plays of Thomas Middleton on a Web site:
Good information may also be found at Anniina Jokinen's Luminarium Web site.
Select Jacobean and Caroline plays with recommended (*) readings for Spring, 2001
* John Middleton. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. staged 1613. Not a tragedy, but a city comedy..
John Webster. The Duchess of Malfi. 1614.
* John Middleton. Women Beware Women. staged 1621, but possibly earlier.
* John Middleton & Thomas Rowley. The Changeling. staged 1622.
John Middleton. A Game at Chess. staged 1624.
John Ford. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. 1632.
JACOBEAN TRAGEDY AND BEYOND:
PERIODS OF ENGLISH TRAGEDY
The Globe Theater opened in 1576. The Puritan government closed the theaters in 1642. The
glory of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline theater lasts but sixty-six years, culminating in a
period of enormous social upheaval. When the theaters open again in 1660, we are at the
beginning of the Restoration Period. English drama will have moved through three phases:
Elizabethan (and in particular Shakespearean), Jacobean (and then Caroline), and Restoration
There are three structural phases in the history of late Renaissance and seventeenth-century tragedy on the British stage:
I. Elizabethan Tragedy (1576-1603)
The five-act structure is symmetrically balanced.
Tragedy retains its Aristotelian emphasis on the interpretation of suffering, with the noble
hero, and the unification of main plot and subplots.
The language and imagery are ornate, but heavily-ornamented style does not overshadow
II. Jacobean(1) and Caroline Tragedy (1603-1642)
The five-act structure is less symmetrical, with characters sometimes disappearing
suddenly. Vastly differing emphases from act to act threaten traditional dramatic unity.
The structure moves away from renaissance balance towards baroque showiness (but not
superficiality); power of presentation become the norm, and ghost and horror scenes
The noble hero concept wanes as tragedy becomes more realistic, more satirical. Sometimes, the
tragic tone is indistinguishable from the comic and satirical. Most characters seem less
worthy. Tragedy moves away from being an interpretation of suffering towards an
emphasis on social critiques - perhaps due to the extreme Puritan emphasis on the
individual. So-called city comedies emphasize a realistic critique of London society. Their plots, often complex, are far removed from the more gently toned romantic comedies of Shakespeare. Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is an excellent example of city comedy.
The language becomes more argumentative (see Women Beware Women, IV:3), the
imagery largely metaphysical, especially in Webster, and the figurative meanings often
point to thoughts and feelings far beyond the plays' themes. Reading Webster is
somewhat like reading a Donne poem: we face very dense language, whose power enacts
a world that is pressured, troubled, self conscious.
III. Restoration and 18th-century Tragedy (1660-1790)
The structure is neo-classical -- that is, regular and imitative of French (17th Century) and
classical Roman (1st Century A.D.) norms. Compare Dryden's All for Love (1677) with
its model, Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra (1607).
The hero is noble once again, but stiff and rhetorical. He or she is like a "rhymed and
The language is regularized in meter and line length, with rhyme and imagery
subordinated to the theme.
IV. English Romantic Tragedy (1790-1840)
The structure is amorphous and flexible, in part because of the rise of organic art theory --
the idea that art imitates organic life. Closet drama predominates, designed more to be
read than performed: Byron's Manfred (1817) and Goethe's Faust II (1832).
The hero is typically an artist, sometimes an indirect version of the author. He or she is
noble, often feels encumbered by mortality, and frequently is self destructive.
The language is regular or irregular, depending on the particular dramatist, but the verse
and prose dramas are highly philosophical and frequently abstruse.
1 A good deal of Shakespeare's writing falls into the Jacobean period. back to text
Back to EN 348
Last modified: 2/3/2003
Maintained by Stephen Gottlieb. E-mail ... Prof. Emeritus Stephen A. Gottlieb