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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIV. The Puritan Attack upon the Stage

§ 1. The attitude of the Reformers towards the Stage

SEEING that the stage has always been intimately associated with religion, we can scarcely be surprised to find it the subject of vehement controversy at the two most important periods of religious revolution known to history—the rise of Christianity and the dissolution of the medieval ecclesiastical system. The latter event, being less fundamental and less universal than its predecessor, was, also, less disastrous to the stage, and in England alone, where the forces for and against the drama were most evenly matched, was there any real struggle. This struggle possessed many of the characteristics of that which had gone before; and indeed, at first sight, the puritan attack upon the Elizabethan theatre seems little more than a distant echo of the great battle which had raged around the Roman spectacula. Yet the stage was hated as sincerely and as bitterly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it was in the third and fourth, and for reasons strikingly similar. These reasons were both theological and ethical; and it will be instructive to consider them separately by way of introduction.

The Roman stage was essentially a pagan institution and remained such, in spirit, long after the triumph of Christianity. The early church hated it, therefore, first and foremost for its idolatry. It represented the old religion in a peculiarly alluring and ineradicable form, and it was the most dangerous of those “pomps” which every Christian renounced at baptism. So long as the Roman theatre existed, it was felt to be a rival of the church, and not until the dramatic elements inherent in the catholic ritual had given birth to the religious drama of the Middle Ages was a temporary reconciliation between church and stage brought about. From that time forward, the stage was included in the ecclesiastical machinery and was freed from the attacks of all save heretics and reformers. In the fourteenth century, for example, there was produced in England A tretise of miraclis pleyinge, in all probability by one of Wyclif’s followers, which condemns the miracle on the score of its profanity. The reformation itself, however, was at first not at all, and never completely, hostile to the stage. Fired by the renewed interest in the classical drama and conscious of the convenience of the religious play as a controversial weapon, reformers, among whom Melanchthon stands conspicuous, were, in the first half of the sixteenth century, setting themselves, all over Europe, to bring the stage into the service of the reformation. England, like Germany, had her protestant dramatists, chief of whom were John Bale and, strange as it may sound, John Foxe, both working under the direct influence of the Lutheran drama; while, at Cambridge, the movement found its theoretical exponent in Melanchthon’s disciple, Martin Bucer, whole De honestis ludis, was published about 1551. Precept and example, however, were alike soon forgotten in England, and this for two reasons. First, the English stage was destined by force of circumstances to become secular. The frequent religious changes in the middle years of the sixteenth century made it dangerous for the government to allow the theatre to be used for partisan purposes, and, accordingly, one regulation after another was passed to prevent the handling of matters of religion or state upon the stage, culminating in the proclamation of 16 May, 1559, whereby Elizabeth provided for the strict licensing of the drama. Secondly, the reformation was itself rapidly changing its character; and, as Geneva became its centre of authority instead of Wittenberg, the realm of anti-Christ was mapped out with greater precision and was found to embrace many spheres of activity which had hitherto been considered honest. When protestants became puritans, they were not long in discovering that the drama, which they had been forbidden to utilise for their own purposes, was without authority in holy writ, and before long, that it might not be suffered in any Christian commonwealth. It was natural, also, that they should hark back to the early fathers for their arguments: for the puritans had the same casus belli as the fathers, though in a stronger form. The Elizabethan drama was, in a measure, the direct heir of the medieval miracle-play: probably, the contemporaries of the later growth scarcely realised the fundamental differences between the two. And the medieval miracle-play was, in origin, half liturgy and half folk-play: in other words, it was twice damned, since, like the maypole, it was heathen, and, like the mass, popish. “Idolatry,” Cyprian had declared, “is the mother of all public amusements”; the puritan could add a second parent—popery. As William Crashawe, father of the poet, put the case in a sermon at Paul’s cross:

  • The ungodly Playes and Enterludes so rife in this nation, what are they but a bastard of Babylon, a daughter of error and confusion, a hellish device (the devils own recreation to mock at holy things) by him delivered to the Heathen, from them to the Papists and from them to us.
  • As a “bastard of Babylon,” the stage which Shakespeare trod was, in the eyes of his puritan contemporaries, more than immoral: it was unholy. When this is realised, we catch and understand the note of passion in tracts which at first sight seem academic essays in polemic borrowed from early Christian divines.