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LECTURE 1 - The Company and the Theatre

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University of Toronto St. George
John Reibetanz

ENG220: Lecture 1 14 May, 2012 Focus Questions: What aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream support viewing the play as a series of variations on the theme of order and hierarchy? What aspects of the play argue against such an interpretation? In 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, there were no regular theatrical performances in London because there were no theatres in London. There was an astonishing growth in theatres by the turn of the century – there were six theatres in full operation with a combined seating capacity of over 15,000. Playwrights from the Elizabethan era shaped what we perceive of the theatrical world and drama now. It is crucial in Shakespearian drama to see the duality in themes of a play. The more discriminating audiences of Shakespeare’s time helped shaped the way he wrote his plays. His style becomes more concise and concentrated as his writing develops. As Shakespeare wrote, he was able to see both sides of an issue simultaneously. The discriminating audience comes from the slight presence of theatrical activity in London. It was limited to the very wealthy of the very well educated. You could find drama in universities, the Inns of Court and court. University dramas were extraordinarily boring. They were often written in Latin, in imitation of the classical works, and Latin playwrights. Their purpose was to give voice to the rhetorical debates that constituted education in the Renaissance. Students would act out personified roles, such as wit or judgement and act out mock word battles. These were presented to a small scholarly audience, and there were often more actors than members of the audience. The Inns of Court were a mix of law schools, lawyers’ guilds or finishing schools for gentlemen, which they joined after completing university. They were closer to the style of writing encountered in Shakespeare. Plays were often performed around the Inns of Court and presented at annual festivities (i.e., Christmas time). They were often written by people belonging to guilds and associations, specifically lawyers related to the inns of courts, and were acted out by amateurs or bands of actors. They were written in English because they were written by academics. These plays were often based on literature of the time. Court plays were performed at court, or (in the 1590s) where ever Queen Elizabeth was. When James comes to the throne, the theatres start growing within the city. Court plays were written by courtiers and displayed the playwright’s skill for political advances. They tended to be lighter in tone because playwrights wanted to avoid lecturing anyone or offending anyone. The point was to charm the audiences and flatter them. Court plays were all performed by boy actors, who played all roles, including those of women very skilfully, as women were not allowed to perform. Boys would be brought in to churches on the pretext of education, but were trained as tenors and altos in choir school. If these church boys displayed exceptional talent, they were given a rigorous training as actors. Court plays were the most prominent and exclusive dramas. John Lily was the predominant playwright about ten years before Shakespeare came to London, in the 1570s. He was a courtier par excellence and used his plays, as well as connections and influence to make his way into the company on Elizabeth. In his work he used elements like setting in ancient Greece and Rome and used classic names, puns, fantastic speeches, alliteration, logical flow, and contrast in themes. In short, the audience was interested in not what was being said, but how it was being said. The writing was, in a way, tedious. About 25 years later, Shakespeare writes Hamlet, and with a tenth of the lin
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