Baroque Theatre History

Instructor: Rachel Matz

Rachel teaches acting and voice. She has an MFA in Acting and an MBA in Business Administration.

Explore Baroque theatre history and learn about the age of Shakespeare and Moliere. Find out more about the important playwrights, themes, and characteristics of the time period.

Baroque Theatre, Defined

The Baroque period was an artistic movement dating from approximately 1600 to 1750. The movement began in Italy and expanded throughout Europe, which was supported by the Catholic Church during the time of the Counter-Reformation. Defined as complicated, exaggerated, and ornate, Baroque style often created motion, friction, and intensity by associating aspects of contrast. During the Baroque age, the theatre reflected the growing complexity of ideas, comedic and dramatic elements, plots, and characters. The dramatists of the era explored the predominant themes of art imitating life and the world as a stage. Some of these playwrights, who hailed from England, France, and Spain, included Shakespeare, Behn, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Lopa De Vega, and Calderón.

The English Theatre

England produced one of the greatest writers of all time, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who was born in the Renaissance period and died in the Baroque period. His early works, beginning around 1590, were mainly his history plays and comedies, and as he transitioned into the Baroque period, around 1600, his plays took a more complicated turn as he developed tragedies such as Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. In fact, in Act III, Scene II of Hamlet, as Hamlet instructs the company of actors about performing, he expressed the sentiment of Baroque theatre:

''Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to natureā€¦'' (Hamlet III, ii, lines 17-22)

Additionally, in Shakespeare's ''All the world's a stage'' speech in Act II, scene VII (line 139) of As You Like It, Shakespeare depicted a man's life journey in the context of the Baroque philosophy. Shakespeare's later plays carried the Baroque sensibility as he immersed his characters in complex situations and numerous plot twists. He often combined dramatic and comedic moments, even in the most tragic of scenarios, and held that mirror up to nature. Shakespeare's plays, characters, and themes left a distinct imprint not only on the Baroque period, but also on the entire theatrical world.

Shakespeare and his First Folio
Shakespeares First Folio

Between 1642-1660, the Puritans closed the theaters in England, and when Charles II took back the English throne, the theatre was restored. As a result, in 1660, the English Restoration period began, and playwrights including John Dryden, William Wycherly, and George Etherege gained popularity. Characterized by comedies of manners, Restoration plays showed a polished, stylistic world, which borrowed ideas from European comedies. Although witty, the Restoration plays marked a clear departure from Shakespeare. The Restoration theatre also introduced women onto the stage playing female roles, who, in the past, were portrayed by men dressed up as women. Further, Aphra Behn, the first English woman to sustain a professional writing career, was a female playwright of the Restoration, known for her comedy, The Rover.

The French Theatre

In France, neoclassicism was the style of drama in this period. Playwrights followed the dramatic concepts of the Greek theatre and Aristotle, including the three unities (time, place, and action), verisimilitude (reality with no supernatural actions), and decorum (appropriate behavior). In addition, dramatists abided by a five act structure where comedy and tragedy did not intertwine, and good triumphed over evil in the end. Further, although the dramas were didactic in nature, theatrical productions were opulent with extravagant staging.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) competed as French neoclassical playwrights. Corneille broke theatrical ground with his popular play The Cid in 1636, derived from a Spanish story. Although The Cid was admired greatly by audiences, the play was criticized for not completely adhering to neoclassicism. However, Corneille's portrayal of ideal characters and use of language cleared the path for writers such as Racine and Molière. Utilizing historical settings, Racine explored themes of passion, love, fate, and human nature in his dramas. He was known for his realistic portrayal of humans, notably women in turmoil. His most significant drama, Phèdre, was considered his masterpiece.

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