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 Prepared for the fourth British Postgraduate Conference,

The Shakespeare Institute

Stratford Upon Avon

27-29 June 2002


The starting point for this paper is a quotation from the University preacher, John Rainolds. He said that ‘The vanity and unlawfulness of plays and interludes hath often been spoken against by the holy men of God.’ It is fair to say that this statement is characteristic of the opinions of leading Puritans in relation to the Early Modern theatre. In expanding on his views, Rainolds placed considerable emphasis on the way people conducted themselves at playhouses which he characterised as being  ‘idle places of intercourse’. The first Puritan anti-theatrical writer was  John Northbrooke was wrote in 1577 that plays ‘are not tolerable nor sufferable in any common weale, especially where the gospel is preached’[1]. The other side of the debate is also reflected vividly in the plays themselves. In Twelfth Night for instance the aristocrat Sir Toby Belch famously asks of the Puritan steward, Malvolio ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale ?’[2], subtlety placing a character in opposition to the very form he was participating in. Also in Measure for Measure Puritanism is critiqued, this time by depicting a Puritan character, Angelo, as being a sinister hypocrite, one who seeks to enforce a code of behaviour by force of law which he cannot maintain himself. A further play which addresses this concern is Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor which is currently playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. The eponymous actor, Paris, is given a major speech where he defends his profession against the charge that they ‘corrupt youth and traduce superiors’ by ‘bringing vice upon the stage’. The point Paris goes on to make is that in the theater, evil is punished and good triumphs in the end.  In a sense though, it was Malvolio who had the last word, enacting the revenge his promises with his final words in Twelth Night, because in 1642, the anti-theatrical element won the day and all playhouses were closed. This objective of paper is to examine why such a  profound antagonism existed between the theatre and Protestantism; in so doing it will be necessary to look beyond the world of the theatre and consider why it was the nature of theatrical performance was incompatible with Protestant state of mind itself.


The most straightforward and common explanation that has been advanced draws a direct link between allegations of unruly behaviour at theatres and Puritan disapproval. This contention is something that is supported by several accounts of audiences, not least from playwrights themselves. Dekker described the groundlings  as ‘garlic-mouthed stinkers’ while Marsdon in 1600 described them as being ‘pasted to the barmy jacket of a Beer-Brewer’[3]. Several instances of lawlessness at theatres are to be found in court records and, in addition, prostitutes were known to frequent theatres in order to attract custom, a particularly significant feature for the Southwark theatres which were located close to the London brothels. Behaviour of this nature was diametrically opposed to the precepts of Puritanism, which saw man as consisting of soul and body and, as Martin Luther said ‘the soul can do without everything except the word of God’[4]. Evil was seen as residing in the physical world, which it was man’s duty to escape. The overtly materialist environment of the theatre with its emphasis on entertainment and pleasure could readily be seen as the embodiment of the root of evil.


We should however be careful not to exaggerate the extent of unruly behaviour at theatres.  One relevant statistic is that the pickpocket caught in 1600 at one of the Middlesex amphitheatres was the only case out of 118 proven cases that year, to be taken at a playhouse[5], this despite the limited numbers of places where crowds could gather. While minor disturbances were probably common, Theatre historian Andrew Gurr speculates that ‘Riots, brawls and lawbreaking were hardly everyday happenings and it is impossible to gauge to behaviour of a typical audience by them’. Similarly, although it is certainly the case that prostitutes plied for trade at the theatre, it is likely that there would be much richer pickings at the Southwark taverns. After all, potential clientele would not wish  to incur the unnecessary expense of entering a theatre if their true purpose lay elsewhere.


Perhaps then we should look at the subject matter of the plays, depicting as they did acts of violence and sexual promiscuity, bringing the public into contact with a side of life that may be have been considered to be better suppressed. This is, in essence, the argument that Massinger was countering in The Roman Actor by pointing out that plays generally ended up by reinforcing conventional morality, rewarding virtue and condemning vice in line with broadly traditional standards.


I would therefore suggest that such factors alone are not enough to explain the venomous way in which Puritans conducted  their attack. The preacher Philip Stubbes description of plays as being ‘sucked out of the Devil’s teats, to nourish us in idolatry, heathrenry and sin’[6] is one of the more colourful examples of this phenomena. Notable here is not just the strength of the sentiment but also the  theological expressions used in so do doing. In particular, the reference to idolatory and heathenry echoes the language which was often used to condemn the  world of pre-Reformation religion, that is the medieval Catholicism which was still remembered and perceived as a very real threat by Protestant figures. What  I will now is to set out two ways in which I think the theatre was the legatee of  aspects of pre-Reformation religion, both of which I think throw some light on the depth of the opposition that existed.


The firstly area concerns the institution of holidays and the related concept of carnival. Throughout the fifteenth century, there were between forty and fifty of such days in the calendar, all connected to religious feast days and often being structured so as to follow the pattern of the seasons, one example being Rogation Sunday. The celebration of such feasts gave rise to the culture of carnival and I would like now to consider ways in which the theatre was the inheritor of that culture. Theories of Carnival and the Carnivalesque were first developed by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who defined these terms as relating to all manifestations of a counter-culture which are popular and democratic, and operate in opposition to a formal and hierarchical culture. He sees such manifestations as the victory of the old world over the new, as the way the principles of inversion can be brought to bear through the medium of festive misrule. Whether carnival in fact acts as a genuine opposition to mainstream culture or is merely a safety valve for pent up rebellious frustration, is a matter for debate. For the purposes of this essay however, two factors are important. Firstly, the way the concept of the carnivalesque is embodied in theatrical performance and secondly, the link with pre-Reformation religion.


With respect to the first point, the idea of carnival as a means for understanding theatrical performance may be illustrated by consideration of any number of Renaissance plays and, indeed, much has been written about Shakespeare’s festive comedies. For this paper however,  I intend to consider Thomas Dekker’s  The Shoemakers’ Holiday   which contains almost all of the characteristics that have led critics to draw connections between the notion of carnival and the theatre – namely, emphasis on food, drink and sex, inversion of social roles (The shoemaker, Eyre becomes Mayor, the apprentice, Rafe marries the noble Jane), the taking of time off work and the honouring of a saint. In Bakhtin’s key work, Rabelais and his World, he develops the concepts of ‘degradation’ and ‘grotesque realism’. The contention here is that in all cultures there is a dichotomy between the high and the low, corresponding to earth and air. Carnival represents is the earthly element of culture, dealing with the lower part of the body, that is to say, the genitals and the belly. A key point is that while the earth swallows up dead material and degrades it; in so doing it generates new life. In the same way he emphasised the life giving elements of the grotesque realism of low or popular culture. He said that it ‘knows no other lower level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving’[7]. Two key characteristics to be found in The Shoemakers’ Holiday, bawdy humour and the emphasis on food, cumulating with the final banquet illustrate how these ideas were reflected in popular theatre and serve to give the play much of its vitality. Stanley Wells in his introduction to the Revels edition certainly thinks that this is an appropriate way of understanding it. He says that ‘Outside Eyre’s world lie poverty, and war, and discord and old age, just as they lie outside the theatre where their defeat has been celebrated. But this recognition of the limits of the holiday do not devalue it. On the contrary, it sharpens its focus, defines its poignancy and asserts its importance’[8].


Clear too is the way in which this type of celebration is an aspect of an older world, where the Catholic faith was  universally held and where the church was compliant in the creation of days set aside for popular revels. The linkage of such festivals with the seasons has been highlighted by Eamon Duffy in his influential study, The Stripping of the Altars as being one of the most important ways in which the Catholic Church maintained its hold on the popular imagination and therefore an area about which its Puritan successors held particular anxieties. Bakhtin himself was a associated with religious and philosophical groups and his writings on Carnival were, to some extent a defence of popular religion against the Soviet state where he resident, and this may well lie behind his assertion that Carnival celebrated an older world. In any case, it is surely significant that The Shoemakers Holiday, despite being a play, as argued by Julia Gasper, to betray Militant Protestant convictions, is structured along Carnivalesque lines which themselves hark back to a pre-Reformation state of mind. It may well be that the theatre is so caught up in the ideas of Carnival that its characteristics will inevitably surface and, an instinctive understanding of this proposition, prompted the suspicion and ultimate rejection of the medium by leading Puritans.


The second area where I would suggest that  there is a theological clash between the culture of theatre and the beliefs of Calvinism and Lutheranism may be understood by considering the importance of the centrality of the saints in medieval worship and the consequent profusion of statues and images used by the faithful for the purposes of devotion and prayer. This too was to prove problematic for the Puritan faith and in turn had implications the Early Modern theatre. The basis of their concern was the Second Commandment which read ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’[9].  The forerunners of the Puritans, the fifteenth- century Lollard movement had already promoted an iconoclastic agenda with respect to the visual images which had served such an important didactic function in the pre-Reformation church. As a counterpoint, they has staunchly promoted vernacular versions of the Bible thereby endorsing the word as a more precise and effective mode of knowing that the image. The cult of the saints was seen as doubly dangerous, on one hand diverting the worship that was due to God and on the other promoting graven images that were the focus of saintly homage, whether in the form of manufactured images, or relics which formed the objective of pilgrimage.


Although the Lollards had limited impact in their own time, their theology of images was to gain support with the Reformation. Iconoclasm was imposed among the Swiss states in the 1520s, and in France and the Netherlands in the 1560s. In England there had been outbreaks of iconoclasm in the 1530s, often in conjunction with the dissolution of the monasteries. This process had gained pace in the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) and despite reversals under Queen Mary, was largely completed in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth. A parallel movement to the destruction of images in places of worship was the ending of the medieval dramatisation of the Bible in the form of the Mystery Plays. Interestingly, it was the impersonation by actual persons of the figures of a narrative that drew the mistrust of the reformers. This was expressed most clearly in the decree of the ecclesiastical commission of York in 1576 which stipulated that no play or pageant  be played wherein either representations of God or the administration of sacraments ‘be counterfeited or represented’. They clearly saw the representation of the sacred as been unacceptable, and the 150 year tradition of Mystery Plays came to an end with the final performance of the Coventry Cycle in 1579. That is not to say however that this form of theatre, based as it was on an insistence of empathy of the audience with suffering, especially in scenes of the crucifixion, was to have no residual influence. Indeed, Michael  O’Connell in his book, The Idolatrous Eye,  argues that there is direct line of decent, in terms of the nature of the theatrical experience between the medieval religious plays and the Renaissance stage.


  This linkage should not be thought of  as one of theological type so much as one derived from the physicality of human experience, foregrounded and made the subject of spectacle. In particular, O’Connell points to the scenes of bloodshed and torture which originated in the Bible being literally re-enacted in  a secular drama, giving rise to what has been called a ‘theatre of cruelty’. The play I have chosen to illustrate this is John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi partly because, like The Shoemaker’s Holiday is has often been argued to be encode a Protestant theology. The play includes many memorable visual images of suffering, including as it does the onstage violent deaths off all of the main characters. The Duchess in particular achieves a kind of moral authority due to the manner of her death and it does seem plausible that this creation of sympathy had its theatrical roots in the portrayal of the suffering of Christ. We often hear that point made that Renaissance audiences went to hear plays, not see them, but the aspect of theatre that is under examination here is of course the visual,  a matter of much significance, especially for a culture staved of images. It is equally plausible that this evocation of the tragedy of seeing and feeling would have been recognised by Puritans as belonging to a recently suppressed tradition which they were anxious to remove completely.


Arguing against this understanding of  The Duchess of Malfi is Huston Diehl in his book Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage, in a chapter entitled ‘The Rhetoric of Witnessing’. Here he considers in some detail iconoclastic beliefs of Puritans but nevertheless concludes that The Duchess of Malfi is deeply sympathetic to Calvinism and is itself, ‘profoundly iconoclastic’[10]. Diehl points out that the act of witnessing is a central theme of the play and goes on to identify the different type of seeing which, in turn lead to two different forms of theatricality. The first, supposedly associated by Webster with Catholicism, is illustrated by the dumb show at the centre of the play, in which the Roman Catholic Cardinal publicly casts aside his vestments and takes on the apparel of war. The scenes exposes a betrayal of holy office and sacred setting  with a  brazen assertion of political power while the accompanying lyric emphasising the artificiality and ungodly nature of the spectacle by used of words such as ‘adorn’d’, ‘deck’ and ‘beautify’.  The second type of seeing, this time one endorsed by the play, is connected with the figure of the Duchess who Diehl sees as a protestant martyr, whose virtues are characterised by her faith in God, her opposition to Catholic church officials and her renunciation of materialism. Here both the audience and the other characters in the play are witnesses to an act of protestant valour, similar to the illustrations of Protestant martyrdom which had been used by John Foxe in Acts and Monuments to add force to his arguments.  According to Diehl, the objective of this mode of theatre is to promote self examination and to ‘deflect the eyes of the spectators away from the physical world and direct them inward and, perhaps, heavenward.


While Diehl may well have interpreted the intended impact of The Duchess of Malfi accurately, his thesis suffers from the inherent problem that his vision of a Calvinist mode of theatrical experience is startlingly similar to the Roman Catholic use of images which were used to promote the cult of saints. Nevertheless, Diehl suggests that such objectives  are uniquely Calvinist when they appear in the work of a Protestant writer such as Webster. It seems more likely that the closure of the theatres in 1642 was testimony to the inability of Protestant writers such as Dekker and Webster to resolve the fundamental opposition between Puritanism and theatre; an opposition between an internalised, spiritual and literary religion on one hand and an entertainment form which was the partial legatee of an opposing system of belief which stressed the physicality, and the visual aspects of life.


[1] O’Connell M, The Idolatrous Eye, OUP, 2000 page 15.

[2] Shakespeare W. Twelfth Night 2.3.103-4, The Norton Shakespeare - Walter Cohen (editor).

[3] Gurr A,  Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, CUP, UK, 1987, page 19.

[4] Englander et al (editors), Culture and belief in Europe 1450-1600, Blackwell, 1994, p age181.

[5] Gurr page 223.

[6] O’Connell, page 14.

[7] Knowles, page 5.

[8] Wells, page 44.

[9] Authorised King James Version, Oxford World Classics, Exodus 20.4.

[10] Huston, page 183.