The English Renaissance Theatre (sometimes called Elizabethan drama) refers to the stage plays written and acted in the later 16th century and the first half of the 17th century, during the Renaissance period in England. During this time period in the English history, drama had gained popularity as an art form and public entertainment, and it saw the introduction of permanent theatres. William Shakespeare is the most famous writer of many playwrights, poets and writers who worked during this era. The Renaissance period is used to describe the era when Europeans moved away from the restrictive ideas of the Middle Ages. The ideology that dominated the Middle Ages was heavily focused on the absolute power of God and was enforced by the formidable Roman Catholic Church. Although Renaissance cultural creators did not reject the idea of God, they questioned humankind’s relationship to God. Playwrights worked in both the classic types of drama, tragedy and comedy. They also began writing history plays, mainly depicting earlier English kings and the events of their reigns.
The era preceding the English Renaissance Theatre were the Dark Ages (also known as middle or medieval ages). During this time there was a heavy emphasis on the ultimatum of God, and this was enforced by the powerful Roman Catholic Church. This era was a millennium of backwards thinking, wars amongst nations and streamlined philosophy. However, by the end of the 14th century, people began to break away from the ideas of the Dark Ages and thus the Renaissance began. This era allowed for a new-found freedom for artists like William Shakespeare, who started to explore new themes that included fate, humanism and love (etc.), as well as create content that may include political statements or social commentary.
Shakespeare was born towards the end of the broader Europe-wide Renaissance period, just as it was peaking in England. He was one of the first playwrights to bring the Renaissance’s core values to the theatre. Shakespeare embraced the Renaissance by updating the simplistic two-dimensional writing style and characters of pre-Renaissance drama. He developed his characters to have psychological complexity. Shakespeare explored the complexity and humanity of his characters, regardless of social position. He even depicted monarchs with human emotions and tendencies to make terrible mistakes, such as Macbeth and King Lear. Elizabethan England was religiously oppressed after Queen Elizabeth I forced conversions and drove practicing Catholics underground. Shakespeare, however, did not appear to be afraid to write about Catholicism nor to present Catholic characters in a favorable light.