Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/384

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.


By Professor W. A. Neilson

WHEN the great European movement known as the Renaissance reached England, it found its fullest and most lasting expression in the drama. By a fortunate group of coincidences this intellectual and artistic impulse affected the people of England at a moment when the country was undergoing a rapid and, on the whole, a peaceful expansion—when the national spirit soared high, and when the development of the language and the forms of versification had reached a point which made possible the most triumphant literary achievement which that country has seen.


Throughout the Middle Ages the English drama, like that of other European countries, was mainly religious and didactic, its chief forms being the Miracle Plays, which presented in crude dialogue stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints, and the Moralities, which taught lessons for the guidance of life through the means of allegorical action and the personification of abstract qualities. Both forms were severely limited in their opportunities for picturing human nature and human life with breadth and variety. With the revival of learning came naturally the study and imitation of the ancient classical drama, and in some countries this proved the chief influence in determining the prevalent type of drama for generations to come. But in England, though we can trace important results of the models given by Seneca in tragedy and Plautus in comedy, the main characteristics of the drama of the Elizabethan age were of native origin, and reflected the spirit and the interests of the Englishmen of that day.


Of the various forms which this drama took, the first to reach a culmination was the so-called Chronicle History. This is represented