In 1977, I published a short piece on “Teaching Texts for Renaissance Drama” in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 20 (1977), 7–21, a journal that has since that time been incorporated into Renaissance Drama, the periodical whose fifty years of accomplishment we are celebrating with this current issue. Then in 1987 I contributed a chapter on “Drama Editing and Its Relation to Recent Trends in Literary Criticism” to Editing Early English Drama: Special Problems and New Directions, edited by Alexandra Johnston. The first of these publications featured a tabulation of Renaissance plays, indicating for each the anthologies or other texts in which they had appeared. The second explored the development of canon and critical interpretation in these texts up to the 1980s.
The argument of these studies, essentially, was that the anthologizing of medieval and Renaissance drama in England began by approaching the subject in Darwinian evolutionary terms. Karl Young’s influential The Drama of the Medieval Church (1933) did much to establish the pattern, with its hypothesis that the simplest and shortest of the Easter liturgical Quem quaeritis tropes from the eleventh and twelfth centuries must have been first. This early religious dramatic ritual then supposedly evolved into more complex quasi-dramatic forms, as new characters and situations were added to the scene. The drama become more “secular” as it moved from the interior of [End Page 91] the church to the church porch and eventually to the town and to the craft guilds. This narrative ignored the fact, pointed out by O. B. Hardison Jr. in his importantly revisionary Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (1955), that the likely dating of many early liturgical tropes and dramatic ceremonials did not point to a tidy evolutionary picture. That thesis was driven instead by the Protestant Whig-Liberal historical biases of many editors and scholars, in their general agreement that progress in Western Europe began essentially in the Renaissance and that earlier medieval dramatic activity was best seen as a series of hesitant steps pointing forward toward the glories of the High Renaissance.
The titles and contents of medieval and Renaissance drama anthologies designed for classroom use made the point. John Matthews Manly’s Specimens of the Pre-Shaksperean Drama (1897) suggested by its title that medieval dramas could be examined under the scholarly microscope by cultural Darwinians as evolving specimens adapting themselves to a succession of new environments. Joseph Quincy Adams’s Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (1934) agreed with Manly’s collection in selecting from this drama the features that could be regarded as significantly “pre-Shakespearean.” The Wakefield Master became a champion of comic irony, worthy of comparison, even if distantly, with the creator of Falstaff. Mankind (c. 1465–70), once it had been decorously bowdlerized, could indicate how popular morality drama brought lively comic entertainment and moral instruction to provincial audiences of mixed social standing. These evolving forms were all the more interesting in that they were natively English, innocent of any classical ideas about dramatic form. The scholarly interest lay in this historical circumstance rather than in any imagined inherent qualities of dramatic excellence.
In the selection of plays to be anthologized, both these collections moved as rapidly as possible through liturgical forms of drama to get on to the early sixteenth century, beginning with the humanist drama of John Heywood (e.g., The Four P’s, c. 1520–22), and then proceeding on to experimental blending of classical forms with English setting and character types in Nicholas Udall’s Roister Doister (1545–52) and W. Stevenson’s Gammer Gurton’s Needle (c. 1552–63). Soon to follow were Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville (1562), England’s first nearly “regular” tragedy (were it not for the fifth act, [End Page 92] deplored by Philip Sidney for having strayed from its earlier commitment to the classical unities), and other attempts at tragedy. Both Manly and Adams brought their collections to an end at the time of Shakespeare’s entering the scene around 1590, at which point we are given the plays he must surely have encountered and learned from...