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The Renaissance came to England late, thanks to a Hundred Years War that ran long and lasted 116 years, and then a civil war to decide who would be the royal family. BUT after all that, with the Tudors (relatively) securely installed on the throne, there was a flowering of humanism, science, and culture. Theater was a big part of it. Today, we're talking about the London theater scene and the playwrights that set the stage...ahem...for the main man of English Theater, William Shakespeare.

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Hey there, I'm Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course Theater, and today we're taking on the theater of Renaissance England. Which means Shakespeare, right? Wrong, unfortunately. It'll be a little bit before we know of poor Yorick. Get thee to the ceiling, pal.

Believe it or not, there are Renaissance English plays and playwrights and theatres and troupes that existed totally independent of Shakespeare. Well, mostly independent of Shakespeare. 

Today we'll discuss historical context, introduce the English playhouse, and meet some early plays and playwrights. And we're not going to talk about Shakespeare! Not at all. It's gonna be much ado about something... else.

[Crash Course Theater intro]

The Renaissance arrives in England... late. Really late. Like 150 years later than Italy late. Why? Well, there are a bunch of reasons, but mostly England spent a lot of the late Middle Ages embroiled in the Hundred Years' War with France, which obviously lasted one hundred and sixteen years. And then thirty two more years fighting the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of England, which involved far fewer actual roses than you may expect. Once the Tudors took the throne, things got more stable. Humanism and the scientific method and madrigals really took off. 

The Tudors liked theater. They liked it a lot. Henry VII, the first Tudor king, paid for court entertainments. His son, Henry VIII, the one with all of the wives, established an independent Office of the Revels, managed by a Master of Revels whose job it was to arrange plays and masques for the nobility. 

There were definitely some plays that the Tudors didn't like. England had been Catholic and then Protestant and then Catholic and then Protestant again, and sometimes plays could be used to fan the flames of religious discord. So in 1558, Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, cracked down on religious and political plays.

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This pretty much ended the cycle plays.  She also passed a law classifying actors as vagrants who could be fined for going from town to town.  The solution?  Troupes of actors hooked up with nobility and licensed themselves as servants under names like "The Lord Chamberlain's Men" and "The Lord Admiral's Men".  Jeez, man.  Actors just, throughout history, cannot catch a break.  And if these laws seem restrictive, it's because they are, but the crackdown on the cycle plays pushed the theater in new and more innovative directions, while that whole vagrancy thing encouraged actors to professionalize. 

The earliest plays of the English Renaissance predate all of this licensing and vagrancy.  Two of the first English Renaissance plays were comedies written in vernacular English.  They were modeled on the work of, surprise surprise (?~2:51).  But morality plays were an obvious influence too, and maybe also medieval farces.  Neoclassicism didn't catch on in England the way that it did in Italy and France, so these English plays tended to be looser and more episodic. 

The earliest one is Ralph Roister Doister, which was written in the 1540s by a schoolmaster named Nicholas Eudall.  The title character is a braggy dolt, kind of like the captain from the (?~3:15).  He falls in love with a virtuous widow, Christian Custance and tries to win her over while egged on by Matthew Merrygreek, a clever trickster type who owes a lot to the vice character from the morality plays.  Ralph gets tricked, beaten, and a rape almost happens, but then the widow marries her rich, honorable suiter, (?~3:35) Goodluck, and it all ends happily.

Another early play is Gammer Gurton's Needle, by an unknown author.  It was first performed in the early 1560s and it also derives most of its humor from bodily harm.  Gammer Gurton has lost her sewing needle.  Dicken of Bedlum, a wandering fool and another vice type, tries to stir up trouble by claiming that her next door neighbor, Dame Chat took it.  Everyone gets beaten up, including a (?~3:59), which is sort of like a priest's assistant, and the needle is discovered when a servant is stabbed in the butt.  

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