In his book Theater and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century, Kent Cartwright corrects what he sees as an omission in the prevailing scholarship about the Tudor dramatists. Early 20th century scholarship read these plays as highly classical in influence and academic in nature, full of "neo-Aristotelian poetics, humanist rhetoric, and literary formalism" (3). Later scholars such as David Bevington, Robert Weimann, and Alan Dessen, argue that early Tudor plays to those of the University Wits are permeated by references to popular English morality and folk drama. While their studies have been helpful, even crucial, to an understanding of the drama of this time, Cartwright takes issue with an unhelpful dichotomy they seem to draw, which places the values of "popularity," "life and vitality," "humor and freedom" squarely with the morality, mystery, and folk plays, and the values of literariness, elitism, rigidity, and dullness with humanist drama.
Cartwright studies plays from the More-circle playwrights (Medwall, Rastell, Heywood, Redford), to the school plays written and performed by students, to the University Wits like Greene, Lyly, and Marlowe. He establishes that humanist plays are full of lively dramaturgy, audience engagement, and moving emotion. "Like popular theatre, humanist plays redound with an exploratory interest in acting, human physicality, material existence, and spectacle" (18). He takes issue with an idea of a humanist "essentialism" and "idealism," claiming that the humanist plays use the tension between knowledge and experience to introduce dynamism and doubt, not rigidity, into drama. "Drama tests the scripted and the felt, the conceived and the experienced, against each other . . . early plays, moreover, repeat sententia that their characters' fortunes may or may not confirm" (17).
His first chapter points to an interesting "actor's choice" moment that makes the Heywood play The Foure PP very enigmatic to a reader. The second chapter discusses the emotional capacity in Redford's Wit and Science, arguing that in it, "a student's progress in humanist education is like that of the morality hero toward salvation" (21). The third chapter posits an empathetic reaction from the audience towards Hodge, the protagonist of Gammer Gurton's Needle. This engagement of the emotions is not found in the play's obvious classical influences of Terence and Plautus. Other chapters draw connections between popular and humanist plays in the ways they use suspense; explore plays with female characters, arguing that these plays portray a range of female values promoted by Tudor humanists; and end with chapters on Lyly's Gallathea, Marlowe's Tamburlaine, and Greene's intertextual Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.