A Comprehensive Guide to English Renaissance Drama: Key Plays and Playwrights

William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)


  • Duke and Duchess of Athens: Theseus and Hippolyta
  • Four young lovers: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius (interchangeable characters)
  • King and Queen of fairies: Oberon and Titania, Puck (Oberon’s assistant)
  • Mechanicals: Nick Bottom, Peter Quince, Francis Flute, Tom Snout, Snug, Robin


  • Blank verse (iambic pentameter, unrhymed) for Oberon and Titania; Theseus and Hippolyta
  • Couplets for the lovers
  • Rhymed verses for the fairies
  • Trochaic trimeter for fairy songs
  • Prose for the mechanicals


  • Illusion and magic
  • Love and marriage
  • Friendship and rivalry
  • Emotion and rationality
  • Confusion


  • Delightful laughter (telling the truth with a smile)
  • Scornful laughter (Ben Jonson’s view: it’s difficult not to write satire)

William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (1602)

– Happy comedy with dark aspects – Derision, almost violating, and incongruity – Full title: Twelfth Night, or What You Will (two interpretations: not important; a comment on the non-realistic quality of the play) – Twelfth Night (former Catholic holiday): – People dress up as different genders or social positions – Inversion of the social order (*carnavalesque*) – A girl disguised as a boy, forced to protect her identity to serve the man she loves – Written in prose instead of verse for the lower social group

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1607)

Ben Jonson: Volpone (1606)

– Animal fable. Jonson chiefly uses the story of the fox and the birds: the fox pretends to be dying, attacks the birds that eat dead flesh, and grabs them when they come close. – In Italian,”Volpon” means”big fo” – Voltore = vulture – Corbaccio = crow – Corvino = raven – These three are birds. – Mosca = fly – Prologue: Jonson wants the audience to understand what is happening on stage

The Play:

– Volpone is recognized as one of the greatest comedies in the English language. Of all of Jonson’s plays, it is the most frequently played today. – It is fast-moving. – Jonson’s most moralistic play. – Jonson’s satire is directed at vices, never at individuals or social groups. – His aim is to reform the stage, to set a good example by restoring the virtues of classical drama. – Thus, the end of the comedy teaches men how to live well.

Ben Jonson: Epicoene (1609)

– Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, is a play about a man named Dauphine who creates a scheme to get his inheritance from his uncle Morose. – The plan involves setting Morose up to marry Epicene. – It was originally performed in 1609. – Excluding its two prologues, the play is written entirely in prose.


– The play takes place in London, primarily in the home of Morose. Morose is a wealthy old man with an obsessive hatred of noise, going as far as to live in a street too narrow for cars to pass and make noise. – Jonson stresses its decadence: greedy treasure-citizens, corruptible lawyers, godless materialism.


1. Restoration Theatre

Restoration Period:

– Monarchy is restored – 18 years of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell – Charles the 2nd is king of restoration (back from exile in France) – Theatres reopened (were closed during Interregnum Puritanism) – First women allowed on stage – Before: James I, Charles I – After: Charles II, James II – Restoration comedy (1660 – 1700s) – Before: Puritan rule – Religious fundamentalists (very strict; banned entertainment) – Much influence by the French theatre due to king’s exile – Satirical – Making fun of specific social groups and issues – Satirizing the aristocracy – Rude and sexual – Use of disguise as a key feature – Women were sexually objectified (women as possessions)

William Wycherley (1641 – 1716): The Country Wife (1675)

– Upper-class town rake Horner – Wants to seduce as many ladies as possible – Claims to be impotent – Opportunity to be alone with married wives – Sexual intercourse is assumed to take place – Repeatedly off stage – Play is driven by a succession of near discoveries of the truth about Horner’s sexual activities – Saves himself by quick thinking and good luck – Never becomes a reformed character – Keeps his secret till the end – His competition seems to go on beyond the play – Rake characters: – Cool, charming characters – Manipulative, notorious liars, disguise their true intentions – Admired characters, those pushing the act forward – Morally dissolute – Only care about their own pleasures

The Comedy of Manners (Immoral Characters)

1. The plot focuses on amorous intrigues among the upper class. 2. The dialogue focuses on witty language. Clever speech, insults, and”put-down” are traded between characters. 3. Society is often made up of clichés. – Satirical comedy – Making fun of specific social groups and issues – Satirizing the aristocracy – Rude and sexual – Use of disguise as a key feature – Women were objectified – Rake characters: 1. Only worry about their own pleasure 2. Admired characters 3. Manipulative, notorious liars 4. Cool, charming characters – Incongruity