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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

§ 13. The Controversy at the Universities

As puritanism, in its origin, was intimately connected with humanism, it was only natural that the anti-dramatic spirit should have early penetrated to Oxford and Cambridge. Gosson asserted that “many famous men in both Universities have made open out-cries of the inconveniences bredde by playes.” It is probable, however, that the number of these was never very large at a time. In 1565, we hear of “two or three in Trinity College,” Cambridge, who did not think that Christians ought to countenance plays; and, in 1579, there broke out a “controversy between Mr. Drywood of Trinity, and one Punter a student of St. John’s, Cambridge” on the same subject. Four years previously, at the same university, the privy council had forbidden all “common plays,” with a view to keeping the youth of the nation undefiled. This and a similar order, in 1593, seem to indicate that the council’s real convictions, on these occasions, at any rate, inclined towards puritanism, and that its support of the stage in London was largely actuated by the wishes of the queen and, perhaps, by a desire to interfere with the city’s authority. Such orders, of course, did not touch academic or private plays, which, naturally, flourished at the seats of classical learning. Most puritans, indeed, allowed them to be harmless. At Oxford, for example, a certain John Case, in his Speculum Moralium Quaestionum, published in 1585, while utterly condemning the public or “common” play, not only allows, but goes out of his way to defend, the academic play. Yet Case’s defence in itself shows that the matter was already under discussion in university circles; while his pointed reference to the Mosaic text, forbidding persons of one sex to wear the dress of the other, proves that the lines of the later controversy had been thus early laid down.

When, therefore, William Gager of Christ Church, a well known Latin dramatist, and John Rainolds, an eminent theologian, afterwards president of Corpus Christi, crossed swords, in 1592, on the subject of the propriety of the academic play, they were fighting over old ground. The duel, however, attracted considerable attention at the time owing to the reputation of the combatants. Never before had the drama a more learned opponent than Rainolds or a more accomplished defender than Gager. The dispute broke out over the performance of Gager’s Ulysses Redux, a Latin tragedy, to which Rainolds had been invited by a friend. By way of covering them with ridicule, Gager, following a common practice among Latin dramatists of this age, had placed some of the puritan objections to the drama in the mouth of one of his characters. Unknown to Gager, Rainolds had used many of these very arguments in the letter in which he had refused the invitation, and he naturally supposed that their reproduction was intended as a personal insult to himself. A correspondence followed, in the course of which Gager sent his opponent a printed copy of his Ulysses Redux by way of self-justification. Rainolds’s reply, which forms the first section of a volume entitled Th’ Overthrow of Stage-Playes printed at Middleburg in 1599, attacks both this and a comedy by Gager known as Rivales, at the same time setting forth at full length his objections to all forms of dramatic representation. Gager, like other stage apologists, had appealed to antiquity; Rainolds refers him to a Roman praetor’s decree against actors. Gager’s performers, moreover, had twice broken the divine law, first in playing on the Sabbath and, secondly, by donning women’s clothes. The latter point, a stock argument in the puritan portfolio, is treated with overwhelming fulness. Gager’s elaborate reply, dated 31 July, has never yet been printed and was, indeed, practically unknown, until attention was called to it two years ago. It is claimed as one of the most graceful and convincing of the treatises in answer to the puritan attack. Every argument of Rainolds is courteously but firmly met, while, at times, the learned dramatist waxes eloquent in defence of his art. Despite this urbanity and the request with which the letter closes, that the dispute should be dropped, Rainolds was in no mind to allow his adversary the last word. After a delay occasioned by sickness, he produced, on 30 May, 1593, a very lengthy reply in which, however, he did little more than recapitulate and enlarge his previous arguments. Gager received this fresh outburst in contemptuous silence, but his friend Alberico Gentili entered the lists on his behalf and a discussion in Latin followed, chiefly dealing with the legal aspects of the dispute.

This Oxford controversy, it should be borne in mind, was of a different nature from the discussion upon the merits of the public stage which had been proceeding in London. Indeed, one of the most intersting points about it is Gager’s manifest contempt for the professional side of his craft. While valiantly defending himself and his young actors from the aspersions of Rainolds, he admits the worst his opponent has to say about “common playes.” As an occasional recreation for learned gentlemen, acting received his highest praise; as a regular means of livelihood, it was regarded with scorn. This contempt of the gentleman for the rising class of actors, which had only a remote connection with the loathing and abhorrence of the puritan, was, undoubtedly, a factor in determining the social status of Shakespeare and his fellows. The latter were often, it is true, on terms of familiarity with the noblemen of the day; but, however great a favourite he might be, and however respectable and wealthy he might become, the Elizabethan common player was a “servant” in the eyes both of the nobleman to whose company he belonged and of everyone else. Even Shakespeare’s main ambition, apparently, was to become a “gentleman.” It is not difficult to understand the disgust of those who amused themselves with the time-honoured academic play, at this intrusion into their sphere of persons whom they would deem base-born hirelings.