While the earlier German drama, even down to Frischlin's time, had always inclined to comedy, we now find tragedy more and more in favor. The comic element was not, however, entirely banished; for farcical episodes were countenanced in tragedies, especially through the introduction of peasants speaking their own uncouth dialect. Comic interludes were now made into regular underplots; thus, side by side with the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca the dramatist would introduce a story of rustic married life, drawn with great fidelity to nature. A change also took place in the choice of subjects; secular topics came more into favor, and ancient myths and Roman, medieval and modern stories were dramatized. A number of types of character were also more fully developed, such as parasites, braggarts, soldiers, peasants and witches. The interest then taken in medicine and psychology led to the representation of various temperaments, for instance, that of the melancholy man. Love, madness and overweening pride were repeatedly depicted; and though in the conception of love finer sentiment was still wanting, this was in some degree compensated by the introduction of touching scenes of child-life. Maxims of somewhat trivial wisdom still continued to adorn the dialogue. In the construction of the plot the excitement was enhanced by retarding the climax, and more unity was introduced, even where the strictly classical form was rejected. Though all this applies more immediately to Latin dramas, yet the changes in these exercised its influence on German plays also.
All the elements for the highest form of drama existed at this time in Germany; it was only necessary for them to be united and brought to bear on each other. And, in fact, this process was actually going on. In Strassburg there existed, beside the academy-theatre, a play-house of mastersingers, Wolfhart Spangenberg furnishing the latter with pieces of a strongly moralizing tendency, and at the same time writing many of the German text-books which were supplied as aids to the unlearned among the audience of the academy. In the neighborhood of Brunswick we find a writer of school plays, Johann Bertesius by name, who shows great skill in the construction of German rhymed couplets, composing them in the form employed by Paul Rebhun, and quite coming up to his level. At Cassel circumstances were most favorable for the development of the drama. The landgrave Maurice built a theatre of his own, the first court theatre in Germany. He selected his actors at first from the pupils of the court school, which he himself had founded; later he employed English comedians. The schoolboys had acted classical plays, among others the Antigone. With the advent of the English artists, translations and imitations of English plays were added to the repertoire, and thus it came to pass that even the external form which Shakespeare made use of, namely, the alternation of prose and blank verse, was transplanted to German soil. However German the English comedians may have become, they did not entirely give up their connection with their native land. They brought Marlowe's Faustus to Germany, and several of Shakespeare's plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Lear and Julius Caesar. They also appropriated many features of German dramatic art. The collection of English comedies in German, published in 1620, offers numerous examples of lively and truly dramatic prose dialogue, sounding like an anticipation of Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen.
The English strollers largely owe their success to the buffonery, the tricks and feats with which their performances were diversified. They had learned much on their way from their brethren in the Netherlands, where at this period the art of grotesque acting greatly flourished. Nor was the aid of other arts neglected, performers in what is termed the equestrian drama being known, even to this day, as "English riders." From these descendants of the Saxon and Norman mimes German actors learned a variety of tricks and traditions; so that in due time the favorite figures of the popular stage became conventional, and were stereotyped by the use of masks. Even the familiar boorish clown, Hans Wurst, is said to have been imported by the English comedians, having been taken by them from the Dutch of the Netherlands, where he was known as Pickelhäring. Henceforth he became an indispensable character in every play designed to gratify the low demands of the vulgar. No wonder that, with the prevailing grossness and ribaldry, the tastes and sympathies of the educated classes held them aloof from the theatre. Thus matters continued until the awful visitation of the Thirty Years' war cast a blight upon the nation, and the stage was left to the guardianship of marionettes.
The English comedians cound not found a German school of drama; nor did they attempt to do so. They merely provided for their repertoire whatever they thought would best amuse their audiences on their professional journeys. No creative poet arose, who, while learning from the English players, as did duke Heinrich Julius, should at the same time unite and develop in himself all the resources of the native drama and become a rival of Shakespeare. The development which had begun in so many different quarters was interrupted at its most promising stage. All the hopes cherished with regard to the German drama were wrecked by the Thirty Years' war, and also by the want of a capital town with an appreciative and artistic audience. Germany had no capital such as would attract all the highest talent to itself and render the stage independent of the favor of single princes.
Nay, the condition and prospect of German drama were even worse than this would indicate. The higher classes came to despise their native tongue. As they had formerly looked to Latin as the proper language of scholars and the only fit medium of discourse on important subjects, they now regarded the use of French as the distinguishing mark of modern elegance and culture. Such was the feeling and utterance of Frederick the Great when at the height of his power Voltaire, when residing at his court, declared that he found himself as much at home in Paris. German, he said, was a language for servants and horses. Little did either king or royal guest suspect the mighty changes which a single century was to make in the relations of their respective countries and languages.