Renaissance and Reformation French Renaissance Drama
Michael Meere
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0394


The Renaissance was one of the most exciting periods for French drama written and performed in the Kingdom of France and the surrounding Francophone areas such as Flanders and Geneva. Although often overlooked or even denigrated in conventional scholarship, the drama that emerged between the reign of Charles VIII (r. 1483–1498) and Henri IV’s assassination in 1610 has attracted much more considerable and significant critical attention in the past several decades. Medieval dramatic practices, aesthetics, and traditions, including religious drama (the mystères, the moralités, the Passion plays), farces, and sotties, coexisted alongside and against the rediscovery of ancient drama and the writing, in French and Neo-Latin, of humanist comedies and tragedies, not to mention the appearance of new “genres” such as tragicomedy and pastoral. Despite the importance and influence of Neo-Latin drama in the Renaissance, this entry will only focus on primary texts originally written in the French language. The “French” Renaissance also produced many theoretical writings about drama, particularly on tragedy and, to a lesser extent, comedy, which led to its eventual codification in the 17th century. Other occasions during which dramatic productions took place, such as the royal entrance, festivals, and diplomatic proceedings, also contributed to the political, cultural, and artistic landscapes of the period. Still, the virulent, violent, and divisive religious wars hindered the development of French theater, especially when compared to the contemporaneous drama that existed in Elizabethan England, while Calvinists ceased writing and performing drama in French except for educational purposes after the Synod of Nîmes (1572). These challenges and constraints notwithstanding, the French Renaissance was a time of daring innovations and reinventions of drama that must be dealt with on their own terms.

General Overviews

Many general overviews of French Renaissance drama are written in French and are introductory surveys of the literature, while also offering a political, social, and religious context. Two examples of this kind of work are Lazard 1980 and Mazouer 2002, the latter of which is in many respects an expanded version of the former. Jondorf 2011 (in English), on the other hand, offers a much more concise summary of 16th-century theater, while Viala 2009 (in French) functions as a manual geared toward students that includes several chapters on 15th- and 16th-century drama by leading medieval and Renaissance scholars. For scholars who work on French-language theater beyond the borders of the French kingdom, particularly in the north, Lavéant 2011 is a synthesis of large amounts of information and may be of great interest. Street 1983 provides an overview in English of French religious drama written and performed by both Catholics and Protestants. Finally, in terms of the theater as a physical space, Deierkauf-Holsboer 1968 provides an overview and history of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the only official French theater house until 1634.

  • Deierkauf-Holsboer, Wilma S. Le théâtre de l’Hôtel de Bourgogne, 1548–1635. Vol. 1. Paris: Nizet, 1968.

    Foundational study on the Hôtel de Bourgogne, which was managed by the first authorized theater troupe in Paris, the Confrérie de la Passion, until the founding of the Théâtre du Marais in 1634. Includes many essential archival documents.

  • Jondorf, Gillian. “Sixteenth-Century Theatre.” In The Cambridge History of French Literature. Edited by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond, and Emma Wilson, 204–210. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521897860.025

    A very brief yet informative summary of French theater in the 16th century by one of the leading English specialists on the topic. A good starting point for students and neophytes. For a more extensive work on 16th-century tragedy by the same author, see Jondorf 1990, cited under Tragedy.

  • Lavéant, Katell. Un théâtre des frontières: La culture dramatique dans les provinces du Nord aux XVe et XVIe siècles. Orleans, France: Paradigme, 2011.

    This monograph concentrates on dramatic practices, actors, troupes, writers, spectators, and the like located in northern France and the Low Countries. Excellent syntheses and analyses of archival, manuscript, and printed materials. Geared toward specialists.

  • Lazard, Madeleine. Le théâtre en France au XVIe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980.

    A concise introduction to theater in France in the 16th century. Divided into three parts: (1) “Survivances” (Legacies), which deals with the medieval traditions and Neo-Latin drama; (2) “Renaissances,” which focuses on tragedy and comedy; and (3) “Nouveautés” (Innovations), which explores the Italian influence on French theater, “irregular” tragedy, and new genres (tragicomedy and pastoral).

  • Mazouer, Charles. Le théâtre français de la Renaissance. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2002.

    A synthetic and useful study for the amount of material covered and its extensive bibliography. Divided into nine chapters ranging from the popularity of medieval theater to the appearance of tragicomedy and pastoral.

  • Street, John Spencer. French Sacred Drama from Bèze to Corneille: Dramatic Forms and Their Purposes in the Early Modern Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    A comprehensive study on religious drama from 1550 to 1650. The chronology of French sacred theater and the catalogue of editions of French sacred plays are particularly useful.

  • Viala, Alain, ed. Le Théâtre en France. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009.

    A general overview of French theater with six chapters on the late 15th and 16th centuries. See, in particular, chapter 6, “Le théâtre des ‘bonnes villes’ (XVe–XVIe siècles)” by Jean-Pierre Bordier; and Part 3 (chapters 7–11), “La Renaissance ou l’apparition du ‘théâtre à texte’” by Marie-Madeleine Fragonard. A useful manual for both students and specialists.

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