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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

§ 11. Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses

In the same year, 1583, a book was published which has an importance far beyond that belonging to it as a contribution to the controversy under discussion. This was The Anatomie of Abuses, by the foremost of puritan social reformers, Philip Stubbes. Practically, nothing is known of his life, and it is unfortunate that the only contemporary testimony extant concerning his character is a ribald story in the anti-Martinist tract, An Almond for a Parrat. His literary activity, which covered a period of some thirteen years, seems to have begun about 1581, when he published a broadside ballad setting forth the fearful fate that had befallen “a lewde fellow usually accostomed to sweare by Gods Blood.” A second edition of this, containing another ballad of similar nature, appeared shortly afterwards. Stubbes continued this practice of turning the public taste for horror to godly purposes in his fourth and most important work, by bringing together a formidable array of examples of divine judgments suddenly executed upon sinners of various kinds. This book, the famous Anatomie of Abuses, the title of which, perhaps, was intended to suggest comparison with the fashionable Anatomy of Wit, was printed on 1 May, 1583, and, immediately becoming popular, passed through four editions in three years. It was followed, a few months later, by a second part no less interesting, if less well known, than its predecessor. Both were “made dialoguewise” and consist of descriptions and condemnations, backed by scriptural text and the aforesaid terrible examples, of those evils in the commonwealth which needed abolition or reformation. In all this there was nothing original. The records of the time are full of references to tracts against dicing, gaming, sabbath-breaking, usury and so forth. Excellent as his intentions were, Stubbes’s title to fame rests rather on the vigour and picturesqueness of his style, the shrewdness of his observations and, above all, the surprising knowledge he displays as to the manners and customs of his age. The Anatomie of Abuses and Harrison’s Description of England, which is dealt with elsewhere, are our two chief contemporary sources of information upon the social and economic conditions of the Shakespearean period. The lengthy description which Stubbes gives of the extravagances of Elizabethan fashion is a unique storehouse of facts relating to late sixteenth century costume. But this famous passage has tended unduly to obscure the merits of the rest. The opening words of The Anatomie give us to understand that the author had been travelling up and down the country for “seven winters and more,” collecting material for his book. Certainly nothing but the greatest patience and industry could have brought together all these details upon a great variety of subjects. The flippant Nashe, attacking Stubbes and his like in The Anatomie of Absurditie, declared that they “extend their invectives so farre against the abuse, that almost the things remaines not whereof they admitte anie lawfull use.” There is some truth in this; but, had Stubbes been less earnest and less sweeping, we should have had none of those interesting and curious allusions to church-ales, barbers, football, astrologers and a hundred other seemingly trivial matters. Moreover, there is much sound commonsense behind most that he writes. While pleading on almost every page for the rights of the poor, he has no sentimental pity for the idle vagrant. Rackrenting, prison reform and many other problems that still press for solution, are touched upon in a manner that would do credit to a modern socialist. The Anatomie of Abuses is a very remarkable book. It is essentially the work of an original thinker, and, in fact, is an early attempt to sum up the moral and economic forces of a nation in a fashion far removed, but not radically different, from that employed by the sociologists or political economists of the twentieth century.

Though confined to a short section of some five or six pages, entitled “Of Stage-Playes and Enterludes, with their wickedness,” Stubbes’s condemnation of the theatre is far the most uncompromising and intolerant that had yet appeared in England. Also, he was unmistakably sincere, which is more than can be said of any of his predecessors except Northbrooke and the preachers. The devilish origin of plays and their ghastly moral results are sharply and effectively driven home in Stubbes’s hammerlike style, weighted by the authority of Scripture and the early fathers. There is no mincing matters; to patronise the theatre is “to worship devils and betray Christ Jesus,” and, as for players themselves, they can only be earnestly exhorted to repent and so flee from the wrath to come, which, as Stubbes thought, was to come speedily. These trenchant observations, in a book which at once became popular, must have gone to swell the rising puritan opposition. Stubbes himself, it may be noted, rose with the tide; for a conciliatory preface, admitting that some plays were “honest and chaste” and, as such, “very tollerable exercyses,” was omitted after the first edition, thus proving that his final opinion on the matter was one of unqualified condemnation.

In William Rankins, who, in 1587, published his pretentious Mirrour of Monsters, we seem to have a case somewhat similar to that of Munday. The Third Blast rings weak and hollow beside Rankins’s strident denunciations of the “spotted enormities that are caused by the infectious sight of Playes”; yet, in 1598, Henslowe lent his company [char]3 in order to purchase one of Rankins’s plays. So rapid a fall from the heights of virtue creates suspicion. Despite the violence of its language, the Mirrour does not quite succeed in striking the note of sincerity. The voice is the voice of the godly; but the euphuistic style and the elaborate pageant “Of the marriage of Pride and Luxury” with which the book closes suggest the flesh pots of Egypt.