The evolution of dramatic literary art over the next five hundred years creatively reflects and helps define the phenomenal transition of western culture from the Great Schism in in the Catholic Church through the Holy Wars, Italian Humanism, and the Protestant Reformation, into the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightenment, the Modern Age, and since.

Holy Wars

In 1054 CE, less than a century after Hrosvitha and the Quem Quaeritis, the Roman Catholic Church split in two—the Orthodox East and the Roman West—which led to the the Crusades (1096-1271), the Great Famine (1315-17), the Hundred, Years’ War (1337-1453), and the Black Death (1347-51), all of which resulted in a catastrophic reduction in the population and the consequent restructuring of European society.

During this time, liturgical plays (in Latin) filled the pews and spilled out into the streets (in native tongues) to spread the Gospel all over Europe, produced and performed by layman guilds as cycle plays (the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, played on pageant wagons) and Passion plays (for Easter), miracles and mysteries (lives of the saints), and allegorical Morality plays on Godly themes.

The effect of these plays on history is utterly astounding.

For starters, they were a welcome escape from the workaday world, far more engaging than the ritual mass; fannies filled the seats. More to the point, with death and dying all around, (hunger, pestilence, and war), the underlying promise of an afterlife revitalized the faithful and converted (or conquered) pagan kings all over Europe. By 1300 the whole continent was Christian.

Meanwhile, secular theatrics began to appear—court interludes, the Feast of Fools, Corpus Christi, folk plays, pastorals and farces—some very few preserved in print but rarely played (and only read by scholars). The only playwright history remembers prior to the Renaissance is Adam de la Halle (1240-88).

All of these forms flourished throughout the Middle Ages, entertaining and enlightening (and preaching to) the multitudes—until the Reformation, which ushered in the Renaissance, Shakespeare and Moliere.

Rebirth in Italy

Early in the The Fourteenth Century, famine and the Black Death wiped out twenty-five million Europeans—a third of the population—while the Hundred Years’ war took even more. Faith in God gave way to Humanism (“Man is the measure of all things”), influenced by the decline of feudalism, the growth of cities, the increased power of princes, and challenges to church dominance over life and learning, the last leading to renewed interest in ancient principles and practices.

Hardest hit was Italy, the hub of Medieval trade, losing more than half its population and, as the seat of the Roman Pope, it was not only the center of the Catholic world; it was the source of European scholasticism. Add to these the impact on the minds of Fourteenth Century Romans amidst the ruins of the Rome that was, and it makes sense the Renaissance begins in the Continental “boot.”


“There was a time,” wrote Petrarch,

” . . . there was an age, that was happier for poets, an age when they were held in the highest honor, first in Greece and then in Italy, and especially when Caesar Augustus held imperial sway, under whom there flourished excellent poets: Virgil, Varius, Ovid, Horace, and many others.”

If, as most scholars say, the Renaissance in Europe marks the beginning of the Modern Age, its founder was the Tuscan poet Petrarch (1304-74), a popular cleric who scoured the ancient world for manuscripts, translated them into Tuscan dialect (which became the Italian language), and emulated them with his own (Petrarchian) sonnets. Equally important, he translated the political works of Cicero which, together with the writings of Dante and Boccaccio and the paintings of Giotto—among the many others who followed—would shape the culture that became the modern world.

From Cicero, Petrarch derived notion that humankind should look to to human needs, interests, and abilities rather than the supernatural. Specifically, he abandoned church scholasticism and advised the study of in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history, along with a general recognition and appreciation of ones fellow human beings. Thus began the shift from God to man that over the next two centuries produced the flood of secular achievements in art and architecture, poetry and prose, music, philosophy, science and technology, and exploration that blossomed in Italy and spread over the next two centuries all over Europe.

Politically, the continent divided into city-state nations based on language, colloquial culture, and Machiavelli’s masterpiece, The Prince, published in 1513. All remained unhappily under the thumb of the Pope, but the Church was confused and weakened by the Schism and internally corrupt, so the monarchists began to question, doubt, defy, transgress, and call for reformation.

On Stage

Theatre remained religiously Medieval (and anonymous) until the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, for reasons ranging from the papal ban of 393 to poverty and Protestant ethics. Classical plays were studied for rhetorical, moral, and stylistic values, and imitated, but not performed until late in the next century, and only then the works of Plautus (in Latin), played for princes and their courts. The imitations were solely for scholars, and had no significant impact on the masses.

The first play since the Fall of Rome was Lodovico Ariosto’s comedy, The Casket, written in Italian and performed for a courtly audience in 1508, followed by the works of numerous other writers. By the 1540’s plays were included (among other entertainments) in all the many festivals and celebrations in Italy and elsewhere.

Very few of these plays match up to their Greek and (mostly) Roman models, and had no impact on the course of history, although developments in dramatic and theatrical art—specifically the rediscovery (and misinterpreted translations) of Vitruvius (De Architectura, printed in 1486 ) and Aristotle (Poetics, 1498)—became the misguided rules that governed theatre for centuries, and remain today the standard against which playhouses and plays are measured.

Interior of Theatro Olimpico
Interior of Farnese Theatre

The first theater built since ancient times (and still standing) was the Teatro Olimpico, in Vincenza, in 1580—essentially as miniature indoor copy of a Roman amphitheater—but this model soon evolved into the prototype of the modern stage, with a proscenium arch, wing and drop scenery, and an open thrust, typified by the Teatro Farnese (1618).

Meanwhile, in 1597, Jacobo Peri, born in Rome but schooled in Florence, mixed text with music in his conception of Greek drama to produce Dafne, the world’s first opera, and from that point on—with one exception—Italians virtually ignored the spoken word in favor of the new form.

The exception was commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theatre composed of strolling players performing largely improvised (and scandalous) sketch comedy in court and in the streets. Its origins are debated; some scholars find its roots in Rome, some in Hellenistic Greece, while others recognize elements of Medieval moralities. The first recorded commedia dell’arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. It’s theatrical landmarks are its introduction of the art of pantomime and the first female performers to the stage, and the influence of its characters and scenarios on comic writers to this day.

It also offended the righteous with its bawdy, lewd depictions, branding theatre itself as sinful and profane.


The world began to change quickly in the late Fifteenth Century, with the invention of the printing press, the rise of nations, the discovery of the New World, the Telescope, Renaissance art—and the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther (1517), which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Politically, the West, throughout the century and half of the next, was all about the ideological war between the Pope and a number of European princes, who rejected the weak and corrupt—but imperious—Catholic hegemony in favor of the pious Protestants, who claimed no divine authority over their humanistic tendencies.

One of the primary weapons in the war was drama, used by both as propaganda, first with Medieval church plays, at their peak of popularity; later mixed with didactic imitations of the Romans, both with socio-religious plots and themes that accused the opposing dogma and often led to riots. To address this problem, both sides took drastic steps.

In England, Henry VIII led the way in 1548 by breaking ties with the Catholic Church, and Elizabeth, in the first year of her reign (1558), banned all plays with religious plots and themes. Soon other nations followed suit.

The Church responded with the Counter Reformation, beginning with the Council of Trent, (1545-63), which (among other things) abandoned and disparaged plays in general and enforced the papal Inquisition.

The Rise of Nations

The Reformation officially ended in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg, which guaranteed each European prince the right to determine the religion of his own state and effectively ended the Papacy’s pan-European political power. Given this right, some rulers remained Roman Catholic, while others embraced one of the several new Protestant religions, thereby creating a checkerboard of nationalities with unique and diverse cultures, all competing for advantage, no longer bound by common (canon) law—and the world turned upside down.

For a thousand years, the Church had governed thought, restricting it to ecclesiastic topics, excluding science and secular philosophy, permitting only (Byzantine) Christian art, and excommunicating (or burning) heretics. Unchained, the princes, scholars, and the masses were free to study and explore, invent, create.

In Italy, still staunchly Catholic (as well as the birthplace of humanism), the super-rich and powerful banker, Cosino (“the Great”) Medici, Duke of Florence, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, from 1537 to 1574, promoted the paintings of Florentine artists (Giotto and Da Vinci, among others), whose works reflected the humanistic trends first put forth by Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante, two centuries before, all inspired by the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ancient texts had been available throughout the Middle Ages, but known only by priests and scholars; indeed, there was little else to read. They studied Cicero and Virgil, Cato, Ovid, Horace, and (significantly) the playwright, Plautus. As more people learned to read, these works were printed and published (plays performed), first in Latin, then translated and imitated, their thoughts assimilated into popular belief. More to the point, the rise of nation-states found their rulers faced faced with the task of governing, and the turned to the classics for guidance—as did artists and architects, poets, historians, and philosophers—and one by one, the countries of Europe entered the Modern Age.

Meanwhile, society itself had changed dramatically. The feudal system had collapsed during the years of famine, pestilence and war, as serfs abandoned the fields and flocked to the cities, where a merchant class arose, with banks (the dawn of capitalism!) to finance ships that brought in riches from far-off lands. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) war strengthened national identities, with governmental systems and trade guilds. Gutenberg’s press made printed words in native tongues available. and the well-to-do began to read (their children went to school).

The sudden disappearance of religious drama left a great hole in the fabric of European society, which slowly began to be filled by plays on secular themes, written by educated (humanistic) dramatists and performed by professional actors in the courts of kings and queens.

First Spain and Portugal, then England, France, and the Netherlands grew in wealth and power, with colonial empires abroad, while the Holy Roman Empire remained divided into literally hundreds of German and Italian principalities. All over Europe, whether rich or poor, large or small, Catholic or Lutheran (Calvinist, Anglican, et. al.), newly independent nations, with their many languages and customs, feudal histories, cultural traditions, and ethnic roots, evolved into bordered states, in conflict with each other and within themselves over land, religion, politics, and trade.

At this point, although Italy remained for some time the major source of humanistic art and science, producing Michelangelo and Galileo (among many others), its political and economic powers slipped away, first to Spain and Portugal, then the Netherlands, England, France, all enriched by foreign trade For the first time since the Ludi Romani (240 BCE), Rome was no longer the dominant force in the Western world, and never since has it had much influence on it.

Meanwhile, along with wealth and power came the humanistic ideals and examples set by Italian writers as, one by one, the nations of Europe entered the Age of Reason.

Three Golden Ages

The Renaissance first spread first to Catholic Spain, the richest and most powerful nation in Europe by then, where (oddly) both religious and secular plays continued to be played despite the papal ban throughout Spain’s Golden Age (1580-1680). Tens of thousands were written and performed in both court and public theaters, and although most lack depth and purpose, the works of Lope de Lueda (1510-1565) , Lope de Vega (1562-1635), and Calderon (1600-1681) rank among the finest in dramatic literature.

Meanwhile, in Protestant England, two factors shaped an essentially English form of drama that reached its peak with Shakespeare. The first was Queen Elizabeth’s prohibition of religious plays in 1558, which opened the door for Medieval players to fill the gap with secular pastorals, farces, and interludes; the second, in the early 1580’s, was the humanist influence of the University Wits, a handful of young Oxford and Cambridge scholars favored by the Queen, whose neoclassic (humanist) style adopted non-religious elements of Medieval forms. Their plays were performed at court and in public theaters, and very early on instructed and inspired the work of their unschooled peer, the actor, William Shakespeare.

Theatre in France developed much more slowly, with court and school performances of church, indigenous, and neoclassic plays until Corneille produced Melite in 1629, which changed the course of comedy), and El Cid in 1637, which challenged the Neoclassic Ideal (and lost) and paved the way for Racine and Moliere, all during the 72-year reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715).

The Golden Age of Spain ended before 1700, its power and wealth diminished, never to recover, but England and France established roots that would continue to evolve throughout the coming ages, shaping the course of history, reflected by dramatic art.

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