Top five Elizabethan / Jacobean plays not by Shakespeare

This era of verse was what got me to university to do an English degree. I still love and read my 1911 copy of thirty of these plays, which was given to me by Bob Brush, an English teacher of mine.

  1. The Alchemist – Ben Jonson

    "The Alchemist" is a great comedy – a cross between a heist movie and a farce (lots of people hiding, dressing up, almost getting caught). It opens with two of the gang fighting, and one taunting the other to do “thy worst! I fart at thee”. One character berates another character, "Thou look’st like the Anti-christ in that lewd hat" – something I’m always dying to say when I see people in headgear.

  2. Dr Fautus – Christopher Marlowe

    A great tragedy of the over-reacher, Faustus is a man who wants more knowledge than his station as mere mortal allows. The play is patchy (the comic scenes are almost certainly a hack job), but when Marlowe is on form, the poetry is fantastic. Here’s Faustus on kissing Helen of Troy:

    “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss! / Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! / Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. /
    Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,/
    And all is dross that is not Helena.

    The irony is that it’s not really Helen, but a demon dressed up: its kiss really does suck his soul away and damn him. His speech while waiting for the devils to take him finally into hell is a masterpiece.

  3. Volpone – Ben Jonson

    Another vicious comedy from Jonson, with Volpone (The Fox), Mosca (the Fly), Voltore (the Vulture) and other, almost medieval-style allegorical characters, with the same comedy of misfits that was found in The Alchemist.

  4. The Changeling – Middleton

    Beatrice-Joanna teams with sinister servant De Flores to murder the man her father has chosen for her husband. As a reward, de Flores deflowers her (geddit?), and implies she is a changeling – no longer belonging to her father or good family name:

    .. fly not to your birth, but settle you/ In what the act has made you; you are no more now./ You must forget your parentage to me;/ You are the deed’s creature.

    There’s a cool bit at the end when her father doesn’t know whether to call her Beatrice or Joanna, and alternates the names – as if to imply that the two names indicate two different people in one.

  5. The Duchess of Malfi – John Webster

    Death, murder, despair and unremitting gloom: the quintessential Jacobean tragedy. A sort of video nasty of the early 17th century.

Bubbling under were Ford’s "Tis Pity She’s A Whore", Tourneur(?)’s "Revenger’s Tragedy" (blood and black comedy – like a 400 year old "Evil Dead"), Dekker’s social comedy "The Shoemaker’s Holiday" , Peele’s pantomime-like "The Old Wives’ Tale" and Beaumont and Fletchers’ play-within-a-play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle."

Everlasting thanks to Robert Brush for firing and nurturing my enthusiasm for this era.

2 Responses to “ Top five Elizabethan / Jacobean plays not by Shakespeare ”

Comment by Bob Brush

Hi Bruce, Thanks for the mention on your web site. I know it was put there in 2004 but I only noticed it today while googling myself. Its an interesting site and your family look lovely. Glad to know you are still reading; I am still teaching at Haybridge High School in Hagley although I am leaving in the summer to work for the G T C. I figure 25 years in the classroom was long enough. If you would like to say hello my email address appears somewhere here although it will change after July. Best wishes. Bob Brush