Other Elizabethan Playwrights: Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

When we think of the Elizabethan era, our minds often dart straight to William Shakespeare, the iconic playwright whose works have transcended time. However, this period, often hailed as the golden age of English drama, was teeming with other remarkable playwrights whose contributions have significantly shaped literature as we know it. Let’s dive into the world of these Elizabethan playwrights, exploring their lives, works, and the vibrant era they illuminated with their literary genius.

The Elizabethan Era and Its Significance in Literature

A Flourishing Period

The Elizabethan Era, named after Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, was a time of immense cultural growth. This period saw a remarkable outburst in literature, especially in the realm of drama and poetry. Theaters became the hotspots of London, where playwrights showcased their masterpieces.

The Role of Theater

Theaters weren’t just entertainment venues; they were melting pots of social and political commentary. Plays often mirrored societal issues, making theater a powerful tool for both education and entertainment.

William Shakespeare: A Brief Overview

The Bard of Avon

William Shakespeare, often referred to as the Bard, is the most celebrated figure of this era. His works, including tragedies like “Hamlet” and comedies like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” are still revered and studied worldwide.

Shakespeare’s Influence

Shakespeare’s influence on Elizabethan theater was profound. His mastery in blending tragedy, comedy, and history set a high standard for playwrights of his time.

Key Elizabethan Playwrights Beyond Shakespeare

Christopher Marlowe

  • Major Works: “Doctor Faustus,” “Tamburlaine”
  • Contribution: Pioneered the use of blank verse in drama.

Ben Jonson

  • Major Works: “Volpone,” “The Alchemist”
  • Contribution: Known for his satirical plays and lyrical poetry.

Thomas Kyd

  • Major Works: “The Spanish Tragedy”
  • Contribution: Influenced the development of the revenge tragedy genre.

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher

  • Major Works: “The Knight of the Burning Pestle”
  • Contribution: Collaborated on comedies and dramas, blending wit and intrigue.

Themes and Styles of Elizabethan Drama

Common Themes

  • Power and Ambition: Often explored through tragedies.
  • Love and Romance: A staple in comedies and tragedies alike.
  • Social Commentary: Reflecting societal norms and issues.

Stylistic Elements

  • Blank Verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter, widely used for its natural rhythm.
  • Soliloquies: Used to reveal characters’ inner thoughts and motivations.
  • Dramatic Irony: Employing a contrast between what characters know and what the audience understands.

Exploring the Works and Legacy of Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

Rivalries and Collaborations Among Playwrights

The Elizabethan era was marked by intense rivalries and collaborations among playwrights. This competitive spirit fueled creativity and led to a diverse range of plays. For instance, the rivalry between Marlowe and Shakespeare is well-documented, with each pushing the other to greater heights.

The Golden Age of English Drama

This era is often termed the ‘golden age’ due to the extraordinary output of high-quality plays. Playwrights like Marlowe, Jonson, and Kyd contributed significantly to this golden age, each bringing their unique style and perspective to the English stage.

The Forgotten and Underrated Playwrights

While Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson are well-remembered, many playwrights of the era remain underappreciated. Their works, though less known, played a crucial role in shaping Elizabethan drama.

Shakespeare’s Contemporaries in Modern Times

The works of these playwrights continue to influence modern theater and literature. Their themes, characters, and stylistic innovations resonate with contemporary audiences, highlighting the timeless nature of their creations.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who were some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries?
    • Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher were among the notable contemporaries of Shakespeare.
  • What themes were common in Elizabethan drama?
    • Themes of power, ambition, love, romance, and social commentary were prevalent in Elizabethan drama.
  • How did Shakespeare influence his contemporaries?
    • Shakespeare’s use of language, character development, and blending of genres influenced his contemporaries, setting a high standard in playwriting.
  • What is the significance of the Elizabethan era in literature?
    • The Elizabethan era is significant for its remarkable outburst in drama and poetry, marking a golden age in English literature.
  • How are Elizabethan plays relevant today?
    • Elizabethan plays, with their universal themes and rich characterizations, continue to resonate with modern audiences, reflecting timeless human experiences.

The Unsung Heroes of Elizabethan Drama: Shakespeare’s Literary Peers

In the shadow of Shakespeare’s towering legacy, the Elizabethan era was also home to a vibrant community of playwrights whose works, though less celebrated, were instrumental in shaping the landscape of English drama. This second part of our exploration delves deeper into the lives and contributions of these playwrights, revealing the rich tapestry of creativity that defined the golden age of English theater.

The University Wits: Pioneers of English Drama

The Birth of Sophisticated Tragedy

The late 1580s in London witnessed the rise of a group of highly educated writers known as the “university wits.” This group included luminaries like Robert Greene, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe, all of whom were educated at prestigious universities like Cambridge or Oxford. They shared a strong interest in tragic heroism, and their plays featured some of the most famous tragic heroes of the English stage.

Playwright University Notable Works
Robert Greene Cambridge “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay”
John Lyly Oxford “Euphues”
Christopher Marlowe Cambridge “Doctor Faustus”, “Tamburlaine”
Thomas Nashe Cambridge “Summer’s Last Will and Testament”

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

Thomas Kyd, though not formally educated like his peers, was a significant figure among the university wits. His play “The Spanish Tragedy” was a landmark in the development of the revenge tragedy genre, influencing countless playwrights, including Shakespeare.

Ben Jonson: Shakespeare’s Friend and Rival

A Self-Taught Genius

Ben Jonson, a bricklayer’s son who educated himself, was another of Shakespeare’s important contemporaries. His plays, particularly the comedies “The Alchemist” and “Bartholomew Fair,” were as popular as Shakespeare’s, featuring English settings that resonated more familiarly with audiences.

Rivalry and Respect

Shakespeare and Jonson were known to be both friends and rivals. They frequented the same circles, and Shakespeare even acted in two of Jonson’s plays. Despite their rivalry, Jonson expressed deep admiration for Shakespeare, contributing an elegy to the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays after his death.

The Influence of Elizabethan Playwrights on Modern Drama

Legacy Beyond Shakespeare

The influence of these Elizabethan playwrights extends far beyond their time. Their themes, characters, and innovations continue to inspire modern theater and literature, proving the timeless nature of their work.

Relevance in Contemporary Culture

Their works, with universal themes and rich characterizations, remain relevant, reflecting the human experience in ways that resonate with today’s audiences.


In this exploration of Elizabethan drama, we’ve uncovered the stories and contributions of playwrights who, alongside Shakespeare, crafted a legacy that continues to echo through the corridors of time. Their works, full of depth, wit, and innovation, remind us of the rich literary heritage we’ve inherited and the enduring power of storytelling.