What Is a Renaissance Drama?

When people refer to Renaissance drama, they most likely mean the early-modern stage performances and playwriting of Elizabethan England. While other nations and regions developed dramas during the same time period, the English works are likely the most famous.

English Renaissance drama was largely based in London and hit its peak in the period between the Protestant Reformation and the close of the great theaters in 1642. Among the most notable playwrights of the era were Christopher Marlow, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare. Renaissance drama was inspired by earlier theatrical traditions, including the medieval mystery plays, which usually interpreted Biblical legend, and the tragedies produced in classical culture, particularly by the Greeks.

Theaters during this period were open to all classes, with each respective class frequently having a specific section of seating allotted to them. Costuming was bright and visually appealing, and all roles, regardless of gender, were customarily played by males. Another characteristic innovation of English Renaissance drama was the use of language. For example, because he was writing before the formal dictionary standardization of English, Shakespeare was able to invent new words, relying on the assumption that they could be understood once heard in context.

Staged drama also flourished outside England during this era. In France, the most celebrated playwrights of the period were Moliere and Racine. Moliere was known for his scathing satire; Racine for his tragedy. Additionally, the Renaissance offered the origins of the operatic form, especially in Italy, where composers such as Monteverdi and Peri wrote "Orfeo" and "Dafne," respectively. However, it was in the ensuing Baroque era that opera really came into its own.