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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 23. Puritanism and the Dramatists

In general, there can be no doubt that the intellectual condition of Cambridge, in the later years of the century, was superior to that of the sister university, and reflects itself as such in our literature. Puritanism, after being repressed at Cambridge, largely through the influence of Whitgift held its ground at Oxford under the patronage of Leicester as chancellor, and, in the later part of the period under survey, recovered much of its ground in Cambridge also. To the reaction against Calvinism at Cambridge in the later part of the reign of James I, and at Oxford under Laud, a mere reference must suffice. It is curious to notice the impression of a foreign observer like Paul Hentzner that the puritan form of faith or religion was distinct from that of the church as by law established; in his account of the universities, he expresses his astonishment that puritans (whom he describes as “entirely abhorring all difference of rank among churchmen”) “do not live separate, but mix with those of the church of England in the colleges.” Such was not the position taken up by those consistent adversaries of puritanism, the English dramatists of the Elizabethan and subsequent ages. It has been well pointed out by Creizenach that, of course with exceptions, it was not so much the doctrine of the puritans as their conduct of life and treatment of its outward forms which dramatists visited with their contempt and ridicule. The satire which puritanism provoked from them was that which has always directed itself against the assertion, actual or supposed, by any class, profession or association of men or women, of a claim to an exceptional degree of moral excellence or virtue, and against the hypocrisy which this assertion seems to involve. This was a sort of pretension or “humour” which robust common sense, coupled with keen insight into character, such as signalised Jonson would be certain to expose to ridicule and censure, quite apart from any religious party feeling. Protestant sentiment proper was hardly a marked characteristic of the Elizabethan or Jacobean drama, except when it formed an integral part of anti-Spanish or anti-Jesuit patriotism, and thus directed itself, as a matter of course, against a representative of the Marian reaction like Gardiner or an agent of Spanish policy like Gondomar. In a general way, however, it was natural that this political protestantism should grow weaker in the Stewart days when the court was no longer responsive to this kind of popular sentiment. In a few dramatists, such as Massinger and Shirley, personal reasons contributed to favour Roman Catholic ideas and views; but it cannot be said that these received from them anything beyond platonic goodwill. It may, perhaps, be added that the popular feeling which prevailed in England against Jews cannot be set down as more than the continued unthinking and undiscriminating acceptance of a popular prejudice of ancient standing; for Jews in London, during the whole of this period, were only few in number and very little known, and neither Shakespeare nor Marlowe is likely to have made the acquaintance of any Jews abroad.