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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

§ 12. Waning interest in the struggle

The pamphlets we have hitherto considered cover a period of about ten years, the agitation to which we owe them being directly traceable to the erection of the playhouses in 1576. But these houses, in spite of all the efforts of the city authorities, were now firmly established, and, though puritan feeling against them did not in any way decrease, the general public, we may suppose, began to take considerably less interest in the discussion. The failure, too, of the city’s determined attack of 1583–4 probably took the heart out of the pamphleteers. Moreover, in 1588, a fresh topic of public interest arose in the famous attack upon the bishops by Martin Marprelate, which, indeed, made so large a stir as to throw into the shade for some time to come all other aspects of puritanism. Nor is it fanciful to suppose that the great struggle with Spain, which belongs to the same period, diminished the demand for pamphlets of this nature. Preachers, we cannot doubt, continued to denounce the stage with unabated vigour. Theologians, we know, did not cease in the course of their treatises to warn their readers against it. But such contributions to the controversy as possess any importance, in the last fifteen years of Elizabeth’s reign, are almost entirely on the side of the players. It was, for example, doubtless by way of apology that Robert Greene penned the “large digression” on “Playes, Playmakers, and Players” in his Francesco’s Fortunes (1590). Again, his friend, Thomas Nashe, whose satirical pen was the most powerful that had yet been wielded against the puritans, in his earliest work The Anatomie of Absurditie, the title of which, probably, was intended to recall that of Stubbes’s, who, indeed, is attacked by name, devotes considerable attention to the writers upon “abuses,” “who make the Presse the dunghill whither they carry all the muck of their melancholicke imaginations.” And, in his Pierce Penilesse, published in 1592, during which year, be it noted, the theatres had been closed because of a riot, he advances still further into the enemy’s quarters. After “a bout” with those who presumed to attack poetry, he here embarks upon a lengthy defence of plays. He declares that they are the salvation of idle men about town, keeping them from worse occupations and giving them something upon which to sharpen their wits. The playgoer has not only an opportunity of learning the history of his country, but the examples of the great and good of the past are set before his eyes, while vice, in all its forms, is “most lively anatomized.” As for the attacks of the city, he asserts that they were made solely in the interest of the

  • Vintners, Alewives and Victuallers, who surmise, that if there were no Playes, they would have all the companie that resort to them, lye bowzing and beere-bathing in their houses every afternoone.
  • So telling an argument was not likely to be allowed to rust for want of use. A few months later, it did service in an enlarged form as Tarlton’s defence of “the profession” in Chettle’s Kinde Hart’s Dreame. For any reply to these, however, or, indeed, for anything in the nature of a definite attack upon the stage, we may look in vain among the pamphlets published in London at this period. One more passage at arms took place before the end of the century; for this, however, we must turn from the capital to the universities.