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Seventeenth Century Drama - Angry Young Men

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During the last part of Elizabeth's reign, by the middle of the 1590, there emerged, as successors to the 'University Wits,' a new group of writers aptly called the Elizabethan 'Angry Young Men' who brought about a radical change in the world of theatre. They were ingenious and uncompromising literary men who saw life in a new way. Like the 'University Wits' they were intellectuals, but unlike Marlowe and his friends they were not bokhemians. While their predecessors had been essentially romantic and idealistic, the 'Angry Young Men' were down-to-earth. They were fundamentally serious-minded scholars with a satiric bent of mind. Their interest was pre-eminently in the unvarnished, the odd and even the unpleasant sides of life. Hence their determined effort to use the anti-romantic method with the ostensible purpose of presenting social criticism is generally satiric in spirit.

The 'Angry Young Men,' however, became dominating men of letters of the day, and their coming to prominence was greatly encouraged by the very spirit of the times. However, the economic problems, in this time, became unavoidably obtrusive placing in relief the individual struggle to retain some control over one's worldly conditions.


The economic instability of the 1590s resulted in the revival of the satire. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few with its corresponding spread of luxury, the steady drift of gentlemen from the simplicity of country life to the disorder of the town, the domination of the metropolis by a sophisticated and pleasure-loving court all seemed to cry aloud for the lash of the satirist. And "frustrated in his hopes of patronage, disgusted by the flourishing of social pretenders in city and court alike, and more concious then ever before both the dignity and insecurity of his calling, the man of letters turned to satire as a corrective of public morals through which he could also give vent to his personal discontent.

The sharpest, funniest comedy about money and morals in the seventeenth century is still the sharpest and funniest about those things in the twenty-first. The satire is devastating: Jonson's Volpone depicts unprincipled selfishness thinly covered by sanctimonious speeches, lust and progressiveness poorly disguised as love and marriage, cynical legalism passing itself off as oure justice, boastful name-dropping that pretends to be cultural sophistication, snobbery congratulating itself that it is decorum, and greed deluding itself that it is really prudence, responsibility, even religion. Volpone likes to be flattered that he is not like the misers despised in medieval literature, but this evasion cast him as a more modern version of the figure - the mega-billionaire unaccountably determined to acquire further billions, whatever the ethical and social costs, if only to assert his superiority to his fellow-billionaires. This modern self is defined by its performances and its acquisitions, with no stable or satisfactory person at the centre of it. It sits sorrounded by a sterile caricature of family, and protected by the illusion that wealth can claim priority even over death. It is a game for the man who has everything except a life or a heart, and Volpone plays it well.


Towards the end of the century, however, professional drama was beginning to show a cleavage along class lines. The citizens seemed to take less interest in attending the theatres. Consequently the audiences were made up of courtiers and cavaliers. The theatres were rapidly becoming the exclusive property of the elite. The dramatic companies, therefore, began to concentrate on the private theatres which evidently attracted more playgoers, since performances in them became more frequent then. The Elizabethan 'Angry Young Men' soon found that the private theatres suited them best as they offered them more opportunities than public theatres. They applealed mainly to intellectuals and to their practical experience. Conceivably they aimed at realistic drama dealing with social vices, follies and foibles thereby deliberately limiting their knowledge to a non-spiritial world of man. The type of drama they attempted was, therefore, to reflect rather the mundane lives of the audience than moments of their heightened experience or their desires and demands. In other words, the stage, which had interpreted life in terms of universal significance, became the mirror of local prejudice and scourge of social folly.

Thus with the turn of the century a strong reaction against the pure imagination and robust spirit of the Elizabethan drama began to make itself felt in England. The various conductive factors described above gave an impetus to this movement towards satirical and realistic portrayal of life in drama. This movement found a perfect expositor in Ben Jonson who was at once a rebel against the stage-technique of the public theatre of his day and an exponent of it. This is evident in Volpone, with his preference of Venice over England as a symbol, to give off a superior likeness or reality in his time, signifying the evergreen theme of greed, reciding within the whole play-

As the seat of greed, corruption, and decadence, at least according to the prevailing prejudices, Venice was the beneficiary of years of stereotype in English drama. Italians in general were seen as sensuous, decadent beings, thanks to their extremely sophisticated culture, history of Machiavellian politicians (Lorenzo de Medici, Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli himself) and beautiful (and often erotic) love poetry. Though not things considered particularly awful today, this type of decadence made English people wary of being infected with immorality, and Venetians were seen as the worst of the bunch. The direct influence of the "power of Venice" to corrupt can best be seen in the Sir Politic Would-be subplot, where the English knight Sir Politic "goes Venetian" and becomes a lying would-be thief. But the Venetian setting probably made the story more believable for most English audiences, signifying the fascination of the play with disguise and deceit, though also, perhaps against Jonson's intentions, distancing them from the play's moral message, by placing the greed in a historic far away place traditionally associated with greed, instead of right in the heart of London.

Jonson readily absorbed the tone of the age the opportune times helped him find himself. He entered the theatre at a time when the 'University Wits,' on the one hand, and Shakespeare, on the other,



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