Any playgoer over the age of 25 who went to watch the plays of Marlowe or the early Shakespeare had been born into a world where the cycles were still the dominant form of drama - the most traditional, the most ambitious and the most sophisticated. More to the point, Marlowe and Shakespeare grew up in such a world, too.
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Coventry is not so very far from Stratford, and the plays like those of Athens constituted a civic festival designed to draw in audiences from miles around. It must be probable that the young Shakespeare saw them at least once, maybe several times; and there is every reason to imagine that they made a deeper impression on him than on the old man in Westmorland.
They would have provided not just a handful of unforgettable images, but a revelation as to what was possible on stage.
Ben Quash, Theology and the Drama of History
Anyone who believes that the classics were a more significant or beneficial influence on Renaissance drama than the cycle plays should reconsider what kind of dramaturgy the two models offered. Classical drama, outside the universities, meant Latin drama - Seneca and Terence and Plautus it is hard to find a single mention of Sophocles' Oedipus in 16th-century England; Seneca's received the accolade of translation into English. It also meant the recently discovered Poetics of Aristotle, which already by the late 16th century was a much commented text.
Our own understanding of Aristotle is filtered not through those early commentators, but through Matthew Arnold, who first suggested that the tragic hero required a fatal flaw.
Aristotle states simply that he or they - he isn't really concerned with the tragic hero makes a mistake: such as marrying his mother, or killing Polonius instead of the King. Nobody in the Renaissance thought Aristotle's half-sentence on the subject worth much notice. The commentators were much more interested in turning his brief account of dramatic coherence into a set of rules, the unities. Stage time must approximate to real time give or take 22 hours ; the stage must present a single place.
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There should be no subplots, no mingling of genres, no porter in Macbeth nor gravediggers in Hamlet nor a king in Love's Labour's Lost, and no Winter's Tale at all. Those Roman dramatists conformed very nicely to the model. Seneca's armchair violence was familiar to every schoolboy. But that was not what the schoolboys saw, if, like Shakespeare, they were within reach of Coventry, or any of the other towns where the Corpus Christi plays were performed; and it was not how they envisaged the stage, if they went on to become dramatists for the new London theatres.
What they saw was the dramatised assumption that the stage was as infinite as the audience's imagination, and could encompass Heaven and Hell in the same theatrical space; where Noah's closing of a window of the Ark and the singing of a psalm could stand in for the forty days of rain. The Elizabethan stage, like that of the cycle plays, took infinite possibility for granted.
Playing with fire: theology and theatre
The problem now is that we still take it for granted. What is 'still there' is the hardest of all things to see. If asked what the 21st century had inherited from the middle ages, most people would probably come up with the visible remains first, the castles and churches. The great institutions - universities, the common law and the law courts, Parliament - would require more thought and knowledge. But the most commonplace and the most useful things of all, such as the alphabetical index still by far the best information-retrieval system even in an electronic age and buttons which made fitted clothing possible, and therefore created the possibility of fashion would probably not figure at all.
They aren't medieval, they just are. And drama is rather the same. Its freedoms, now inherited by film imagine imposing the Aristotelian unities on the cinema , are so much part of our own familiar culture that we forget that they ever had to be invented at all. If we do think about it, we assume that it was the Elizabethans who did it.
This inability to see what is normal makes it particularly hard to describe what the renaissance dramatists inherited from the theatre they grew up with. Their classical debts are blazed across the texts, in a whole series of verbal allusions ripe for explication, and duly explicated by commentators ever since. The influence of religious drama, on the other hand, is largely silent, in the sense that it cannot be read off from the page.
It is there, not in the text, but in staging and situations, like the mocking of York before his murder in Henry VI Part 3, or in the readiness to have at the centre of a scene an actor who doesn't speak and is therefore non-existent on the page. It is there, as Emrys Jones suggested, in the sheer scale of Shakespeare's tetralogies of history plays, and in their structure of fall, bitter consequences and ultimate redemption - the pattern that goes from the domestic strife that loses France and divides England to the triumph of the Tudors, and from the deposition of Richard II to the glories of Henry V.
It is there, too, in the assumption that when the actors talk of horses, the spectators do see them printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth. If you have been brought up on a theatre that encompasses Heaven and Hell, the vast fields of France are no problem at all, and a staged battle of Agincourt is easy on the imagination after the drowning of Pharaoh's hosts. Once you have seen God on stage, it doesn't strike you as odd that you can see the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream who are invisible to most of the human characters.
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Theology and the Drama of History
Returning user. Request Username Can't sign in? Forgot your username? Enter your email address below and we will send you your username. New Releases. Theology and the Drama of History. Description How can theology think and talk about history?
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Building on the work of the major twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar as well as entering into sharp critical debate with him, this book sets out to examine the value and the potential of a 'theodramatic' conception of history. By engaging in dialogue not only with theologians and philosophers like von Balthasar, Hegel and Barth, but with poets and dramatists such as the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the book makes its theological principles open and indebted to literary forms, and seeks to show how such a theology might be applied to a world intrinsically and thoroughly historical.
By contrast with theologies that stand back from the contingencies of history and so fight shy of the uncertainties and openness of Christian existence, this book's theology is committed to taking seriously the God who works in time. Other books in this series. Remythologizing Theology Kevin J. Add to basket.
Theology, Music and Time Jeremy S. Prophecy and Discernment R. Christian Wisdom David F. Self and Salvation David F. Theology and the Drama of History Ben Quash. The Bible, Theology, and Faith R. Bound to Sin Alistair McFadyen.
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