Nature of English Comedy before Shakespeare: Analyzing the Key Points

As in Greece, drama in England was in its beginning a religious thing. Its oldest continuous tradition was from the mediaeval Church. Early in the Middle Ages the clergy and their parishioners began the habit, at Christmas, Easter and other holy days, of Playing some part of the story of Christ's life suitable to the festival of the day. Read More about Drama  These plays were liturgical, and originally, no doubt, overshadowed by a choral element. But gradually the inherent human capacity for mimicry and drama took the upper hand; from ceremonies they developed into performances; they passed from the stage in the church porch to the stage in the street.  

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Miracle plays and Mysteries afforded one of the favourite entertainments of the common people. Miracle plays, in the strict sense of the term, were dramatic representations of miracles performed by saints; mysteries, of incidents from the New Testament and elsewhere, bearing upon the fundamental principles of Roman Catholicism. The distinction, however, was not strictly observed. Monks were the authors of these plays, and they were acted in the churches, or on stages erected in the churchyard or in the fields, or, as at Coventry, on movable stages wheeled from street to street. The actors were sometimes the brethren of a monastery, sometimes the members of a trade guild. Though Miracle plays were no doubt written with a moral purpose, we often find that in their desire to be amusing and instructive at the same time, the writers of them permitted the amusing element to overbalance the instructive one. They included comic interludes. Read More about Drama  These humorous episodes inserted into serious biblical narratives or dramatic histories of saints captivated the illiterate masses. Joseph's confusion over Mary's virgin conception of Jesus Christ, a Jewish spice seller haggling with Jesus's disciples, and Noah's frustrations with his implacably skeptical spouse were among the situations most often enacted. The liberty often taken with Scriptural personages for the sake of comic effect, and the frequent buffoonery and ribaldry found in the plays, strange though they seem to modern readers, were no doubt eminently attractive to the rude crowd that witnessed the performances; but they can scarcely have tended to its edification or improvement.

Comedies rose from village merry-makings during the vintage, the word comedy meaning village song. Comedy at the time when Shakespeare began writing may be said to fall into four classes: From the Miracle play it was an easy transition to the Morality, in which the characters were personified virtues and vices, such as Folly, Repentance, Avarice or the like. By degrees the vices and virtues came to be represented by persons who stood for a type of these, Brutus representing Patriotism, Aristides, Justice, and so on. Plays of this description and Moralities were largely taken advantage of by both Catholic sand Protestants to enforce their several views. Read More about Drama   It is obvious that it is only a single step from Moralities in heir latter form to the regular drama; though whether the true modern drama arose out of them or from the Latin classical drama maybe doubted. At any rate, the first English comedy was written by a classical scholar, who found his model in Terence, and owed nothing to the writers of Moralities. Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton, was its author. It is called "Ralph Roister Doister," and was first printed in 1566, but is known to have been written several years previously. Divided into acts and scenes, and furnished with a regular plot, it marks a great advance upon the plays which had hitherto gratified the thirst of the people for dramatic representation. It is written in rough verse, and is pervaded by a sort of schoolboy fun, which would seem to suggest that it was originally written for representation by the author's pupils.

There is first the hard, unlovely type, represented at its best by Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, descended from Latin comedy, with perhaps some slight admixture of the fabliau element. The play exemplifies the common Elizabethan practice of adapting classical comedy to the contemporary stage: The plot is loosely based on the play Menaechmi of Roman dramatist Plautus, and it also borrows from his Amphitrus. The story revolves around the twins Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, their parents, and the family’s two servants, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, who are also twins. Read More about Drama  A shipwreck separates the family into two groups, leaving the mother with one son and one servant and the father with the other pair. The 'errors' of the play’s title are caused by repeated instances of mistaken identity. These are finally dispelled when the two pairs of twins meet, are properly recognized, and rejoin the other members of their families. After the Comedy of Errors Shakespeare never wrote a whole play in this style, though traces of it appear in comic sub-plots—as, for example, the scenes with Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice.
Much more important is the comedy of Lyly. Examples of direct borrowing have often been cited, but so thin and pale do Lyly's figures look beside the greater master's creations that we are apt to sweep aside the evidence of this debt as fundamentally unimportant. Shakespeare had, however, clearly made a careful study of Lyly's work, and we must allow for the probability that he saw at least as much in it as we do. Now, Lyly's plays are essentially masques; that is to say, they are representations of actual incidents of the time at which they were performed, translated by the language of allegory and symbolism into a more radiant plane of existence. Read More about Drama The characters, for example, in Endymion are not fully worked out—merely designated—because the audience knew that Endymion was Leicester, and Cynthia Elizabeth, and so on. It was not the business of the poet to create, but to flood the given facts with a golden light of poetry which should show the entire fairer connections. The masque is, in fact, the direct antithesis of satire. Now, the great comedy of all other literatures belongs to the satirical family—it exaggerates whatever is ugly in human nature in order to make it ridiculous—and Ben Jonson's comedy shows that without Lyly and Shakespeare English comedy would probably have followed the same lines. The scene of Shakespeare's comedy is laid in a golden world, and the suggestion of that ethereal atmosphere comes from Lyly. Lyly failed because he does not at the bottom of his heart believe in his golden world; Shakespeare's task was to give it truth. For example, we may feel that the creation of Viola's twin to satisfy Olivia is a little improbable/ but it is at least better than Lyly's device of actually transforming a girl into a man to remedy a similar mistake of “Fancy." Still, it is from Lyly that we must start to understand Shakespeare’s comedy at its heart, and The Tempest, designed as it seems to be, in its present form, as a more or less personal statement, shows everywhere memories of Lyly's work.
Again there is a group of plays whose homogeneity has been somewhat overlooked those constructed with an Induction. The most interesting is Peele's Old Wives' Tale, but the plays of Munday, The Taming of a Shrew, and the practice of Jonson; show how widespread was its use. It is worth while to examine briefly what seems to have been the artistic theory involved in its use, because Shakespeare apparently repudiated it. Read More about Drama  The character of the Drunkard in A Shrew was of a kind sure to appeal to Shakespeare, and apparently he could not find it in his heart to cut him out altogether; but he destroys the effect of an Induction by leaving out the later dialogues with Sly, and, by clearing him off the stage.
Timeline of Comedy:
425 BC: Aristophanes Produces The Acharnians-254? BC - 184 BC: Plautus 1550? Kyogen Plays-1550? Commedia Dell'arte Emerges-1564 – 1616: William Shakespeare-1666: Molière Produces The Misanthrope-1842 – 1848: Balzac Writes The Human Comedy   -February 1895: Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest  -1923: George Bernard Shaw Publishes Saint Joan-1948 – 1956: Mr. Television
Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert       2. The Cambridge History of English Literature