Dramatic Tragedy in the Jacobean Era

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      Shakespeare wrote in the hey day of Elizabethan age. But the great tragedies of Shakespeare - Macbeth, King Lear, Othello were written in the Jacobean era.

Shakespeare wrote in the hey day of Elizabethan age. But the great tragedies of Shakespeare - Macbeth, King Lear, Othello were written in the Jacobean era.
Jacobean Tragedy

      James I ascended the throne in 1603. The early decades of the seventeenth century may be called the age of transition. By this time the Renaissance impulse exhausted itself-the Elizabethan zest for life, the Elizabethan exuberance and optimism are succeeded by a mood of disillusion, defeat and bitterness. Various causes account for this mood of disillusion. First, there were series of plots to assassinate Elizabeth. There was no heir to the throne. Apprehension of civil war and intervention of foreign powers gripped the mind of the people. The situation reached its crisis in the rebellion of Essex on February 1, 1601 and his execution. A feeling of uncertainty sharpened with the accession of James I. Court standards were lowered. Uncertainty and fears increased with the constant threats to the power of James. The Jesuits plotted against James constantly.

      Elizabeth was popular and tactful. She compromised in matters of religion. James was unpopular - he was ignorant of English language - he could not communicate with the people. His court was extravagant and immoral. Criticism of the court and the church became vocal and widespread. The critical temper is reflected in the literature of the age. The times were out of joint and pessimism and satire are the natural results of the dissatisfaction with the existing order. This is seen in the pre-occupation of the writers with the themes of decay, death and disease.

      The bewilderment and confusion of the age is made worse confounded by certain new and materialistic interpretations of the world order. Machiavelli's The Prince was widely read. He provided a materialistic and Satanic interpretation of the world order. Under the impact of this theory, the hero turned villain on the Jacobean stage, and diabolism-ruthless self-seeking to the utter disregard of all moral and humanitarian considerations-became the dominant theme of even such writers as Webster and Tourner.

      The new philosophy supplanted the old one. The new astronomers exploded the cosmology of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The earth no longer remained the centre of the universe. Man's faith in his own importance and that of this planet was shaken. The invasion of the old cosmology by the new philosophy brought a sense of disorder, dissolution and decay of the cosmos. This sense of decay and disorder permeates dramas of the writers of the post-Shakespearean age.

      Thus the early seventeenth century was a period of tension and stress. The older traditions, values and ideals, the older social and moral order were subjected to increasing criticism. The literature of the age reflected this mood in its critical and satirical temper. This mood of cynicism and criticism is reflected in the poetry of John Donne. He represents a break with the Elizabethan tradition.

      There was complete change of the state of the audience and the conditions of the theatre with the coming of James I. Shakespeare was a genius who combined the demands of the popular taste with the permanent requirements of great literature. Shakespeare's successors cultivated the taste of the people. The new generation of playwrights lacked a man of genius. Webster was a genius, but ho was also united by the requirements of the time. The audience of the time called for the impossibilities of romance, for the blood and thunder of the melodrama for crude sensationalism, for immorality and obscenity, for rant and noise, instead of poetry and music.

      There was one theatre during the reign of Elizabeth. The interests of the queen and those of the people were one. With the reign of James I, the court gallant with his conventions and fopperies begins to separate himself from the city men or apprentices. He makes a distinction between himself and his vulgar herd. The court of James I asked for glare, glitter, cleverness and sensationalism. Plays became confined to a very limited circle. Shakespeare's plays pleased all-the court and the public.

      Beaumont and Fletcher wrote for the courtiers with their wit and gallantry, tales of intrigue and their insidious indecency. Incest and sexual infidelity became the themes of the drama. Shakespeare handled these themes but transformed them into splendid works of art by his genius. Post-Shakespearean dramatists had a morbid taste for horror. Kyd introduced horrors with a youthful realism for melodrama. Shakespeare raised melodrama to tragedy. But these dramatists indulged in crude horror, bloodshed and violence. There were the elements of the morbid and the macabre. There was no redeeming feature in the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and disintegration. Even the images smack of the graveyard.

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