Jacobean drama is named after Jacobus, the Latin translation of "James." Scholars use this term to refer collectively to the theatrical works created during the reign of James I (1603-1625) in England. The Jacobean plays evolved out of Elizabethan dramas but around 1610, began to show a marked shift from the previous era's theatrical tradition. The plays from the Jacobean period are decadent, spectacular, and bizarre; scholars and critics have often deemed them to lack the same substance and fine wit of their predecessors. The Jacobean label often encompasses the dramatic works written during the reign of Charles I as well, which ended in 1642 and signified the completion of the English Renaissance.
The later examples of Jacobean drama, as scholar Charles Boyce explains, "often rely on false starts, sudden changes of motivation, and gratuitous accidents. The artificiality of these devices reflects a different emotional tone: These works largely ignore the implications of human disaster for society or for humanity as a whole, and focus instead on the pathos of the individual." These plays tend to be cheaply sensational, featuring sexual depravity and superfluous violence. Quite often, the violence is an end unto itself. These plays were often intended to evince pessimism and cynicism from their audiences; many are satires and/or feature a great deal of irony. Masks, disguises, and concealed identities are ubiquitous themes.
William Shakespeare features prominently in the early part of the Jacobean period. He wrote some of his most renowned plays during this era, including Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. Meanwhile, the comedies Shakespeare wrote during the Jacobean era are known for harnessing the "emerging taste for spectacle, romantic characters, and improbable plots" but are "singular for their interest in the virtues of innocence and providence in human affairs," according to Boyce.
Another great playwright of the Jacobean period is John Webster, whose play The White Devil (1612) is still performed frequently. Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy is one of the most notable Jacobean plays, although its authorship was in dispute for a long time. Some scholars claimed that it was the work of Cyril Tourneur, famous for The Atheist's Tragedy (1611), but more recently there has been wide consensus that Thomas Middleton is the true author of The Revenger's Tragedy. Nevertheless, as the title of the play blatantly states, The Revenger's Tragedy is part of a sub-genre called "the revenge tragedy" that became quite popular with Jacobean audiences. While Shakespeare's Hamlet is no doubt the most famous revenge tragedy, vengeance is a common theme throughout many plays from the era.
Ben Jonson, John Ford, and John Marston also wrote notable theatrical works during the Jacobean era; Jonson's satires of 17th century London are well regarded and "represent the positive aspect of Jacobean comedy, which otherwise tended toward coarser works chiefly concerned with the pursuit of money through bald sexual intrigue." Finally, many scholars uphold the collaborations of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher as some of the best and most indicative of the period. For example, Philaster (1610), a classic tragicomedy featuring a series of ridiculous coincidences, has inspired a great deal of imitation over the years.