Shakespeare’s plays are some of the most widely-taught materials in drama classes around the world. Each year, young actors delve into their first Shakespeare play such as Romeo and Juliet; meanwhile, Love’s Labour’s Lost provides even the most experienced Shakespearean actors with linguistic challenges.
However, for actors interested in exploring classical English plays, Shakespeare’s works are not the only options out there. His contemporaries during the Elizabethan and Jacobeans period as well as playwrights of the later Restoration era all provide a wealth of dramatic material to delve into.
One of the first female English playwrights who made writing her vocation, Behn was writer of plays including The Rover, The Feigned Courtesans and The Dutch Lover. She did not hide her gender by publishing anonymously and despite writing commercially successful plays, was attacked for her private life and the moral content of her plays. Behn often responded directly to these gendered attacks in the prefaces of her plays. In her most performed play, The Rover, she writes herself into the character Angelica Bianca (who shares the same initials as her); Angelica—a courtesan—offers a scathing commentary on the double standards women are subject to.
The transition from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean era was marked by the rising popularity of indoor, candle-lit theatres. Performances moved from outdoor amphitheater-like spaces to smaller indoor theatres, and the content of Jacobean plays reflects this change. Middleton’s plays are distinctively darker than Shakespeare’s, and while members of the nobility still remain the focus of his plays, Middleton’s work have grittier and more domestic overtones. Notable plays include: The Changeling, Women Beware Women and The Revenger’s Tragedy.
A writer of the Elizabethan age, Marlowe counts Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta among his more performed plays. An alleged spy, Marlowe was also a purported atheist, which would have made him an enemy of the church and state. He died in mysterious circumstances, and all his plays were published posthumously. His Doctor Faustus, which is based on a German legend of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil, departs from the traditional tale in that it does not offer the protagonist a path to redemption.
Classical English plays are not just restricted to Shakespeare—texts by other classical playwrights offer the opportunity to explore different themes and linguistic styles, providing actors with the chance to broaden their experiences and skill sets.