Pre Shakespearean Comedy Classification

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      When Shakespeare started essaying Comedy; he had the indigenous comedy, and the comedies of Lyle and Greene before him; and he had the Latin plays of Plautus and Terence, which had been revived in Rome and Ferrara, and even in London. And he had also his own innate romantic leanings, being a creature of the Renaissance, and a darling of the imagination. His problem now was how to use the spirit and form of comedy-evolved by Plautus and Terence-with his own soul's need, the radiant spirit of Romance.

      (i) Influence of Plautus and Seneca. The models on which the new drama was based were Plautus and Seneca. Plautus gave us our earliest comedy; and Seneca our earliest tragedy. Neither, however, was to serve for long as more than a source of general inspiration: classical plays were too academic, and the great popular, romantic Elizabethan drama only arose when the dramatists broke free from these trammels. But, nevertheless, the influence of Plautus and Seneca was a vital factor in the birth of English drama; from the study of their works there arose a heightened conception of the dignity and possibilities of drama as an art, and a greater sense, indeed a new sense, of dramatic structure, of the division into scenes and acts.

      (ii) Important Comedies before Shakespeare. Before Shakespeare, there were two comedies, Gammer Gurton's Needle, and Ralph Roister Doister. Firstly the earliest regular English comedy is Gamme Gurton's Needle, which, though formerly ascribed to John Still, later a Bishop, he is now to be considered anonymous. It was written about 1550, and acted not long after that date at Christ's College Cambridge. It is a realistic farce, often coarse and in long rhyming lines, centering around an incident, the loss and finding of the Gammer's needle, which leads to many misunderstandings and confusion on Plautian lines; the characterization is lively.

      Second Ralph Roister Doister, the second regular comedy; was written about 1550 by Nicholas Udall who had been headmaster of Eton. In his prologue, Udall appeals to the authority of Plautus and Terence, whose "merry comedies among the learned at this day beat the bell." His play is divided into acts and scenes, and is written in rhyming couplets, the normal line containing, as a rule, twelve syllables; the action is cleverly developed, the dialogue is on the whole sprightly; and the plot, though simple, is more complicated than that of an Interlude.

      (iii) Lyly and Greene as Shakespeare's Forerunners. Lyly's charming romantic plays are all comedies. His Woman in the Moon is presented like so many medieval poems in the form of a dream. Like these too, it introduces such characters as personifications of Nature of Concord and Disord, etc. His other plays are Endymion, Sappho and Phao, Alexander and Campaspe, Midas, Mother Bombe, Galatea, and Love's Metamorphosis-The Woman in the Moon being the only one not in prose. Endymion, the Man in the Moon has attracted considerable attention, from the attempts that have been made to identify the characters in it with Lyly's contemporaries—"Cynthia," we are told is the Queen, "Endymion" is Leicester, "Tellus" is the Countess of Sheffield, and so forth and to interpret the alleged personal allegory of the plot.

      It is of more importance to notice that, in this play; the author exhibits more signs of dramatic power in characterization and the portrayal of emotions than hitherto, and of more interest to learn that evidences of Shakespeare's familiarity with it have been established. Shakespeare though possibly laughing good-humouredly at Lyly now and again, undoubtedly appreciated him. Love's Labour's Lost echoes Lyly and begins where Lyly's plays leave off. A Midsummer Night's Dream may owe something to The Woman in the Moon, and the brisk smartness, the puns and quips of the fanciful earlier comedies show touches of Lyly's teachings.

      Lyly's greatest service to the drama consists in his writing plays in prose. Lyly's sparking dialogue gave Shakespeare an excellent model to follow, and the greater dramatist is probably indebted to him for his first teaching in court style and for hints as to the light touch so proper for the handing of classic legend and fairy lore.

      In the lively page Moth, with his nimble wit, in Love's Labours Lost, we have a character suggested by Lyly, and the fairy attendants in A Midsummer Night's Dream also owe something to him. Shakespeare's use of interspersed lyrics, too, is found in Lyly's plays, and so is the device of heroine disguised as a boy; but this disguise is common in many novels and is often found in Shakespeare's sources.

      Of the 'University Wits', it was Greene-rather than Lyly or Peele- that made the boldest explorations in the filed of romantic comedy before Shakespeare himself came upon the scene. Churton Collins was one of the scholars of an earlier generation that saw clear traces of Greene's influence in the early Shakespeare:

"If, historically speaking, it is only a step from Edward II to Henry V, it is, historically speaking, only a step from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay to The Two Gentlemen of Verona and to As you Like It. We have only to glance at the condition of Comedy before it came into Greene's hands to see how great was the revolution accomplished by him. We open Greene's Comedies and we are in the world of Shakespeare; we are with the sisters of Livia and Imogen with the Brethren of Touchstone and Florizel, in the homes of Phebe and Perdita. We breathe the same atmosphere, we listen to the same language."

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