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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

§ 17. General aspects of the Controversy

We have now enumerated and described the chief documents and events relating to the puritan campaign against the stage, culminating in the victory of 1642. The controversy has never really died out. It burst forth again in all its old vigour and with all its characteristic pedantry at the end of the seventeenth century. Curiously enough it was a high Anglican non-juror, Jeremy Collier, upon whose shoulders the puritan mantle fell; and his example was followed, thirty years later, by yet another Jacobite, William Law, the author of A Serious Call. Even modern writers have found it difficult to discuss the Elizabethan stage without ardently defending the puritans who attacked it. Yet the influence which the early fathers, like distant planets, seemed to exert upon every puritan in turn, the wholesale manner in which each borrows the arguments and expressions of his predecessor and, above all, the almost complete ignorance displayed by a large proportion of the assailants as to the real character of the institution they were attacking, combine to give the whole discussion an air of academic unreality. This impression, perhaps, is partly due to controversial methods which appealed forcibly to the Elizabethan intelligence, but which, by exasperating the modern reader, blind him to the genuine feeling that lies under their antiquated and absurd forms. For there can be no doubt whatever that puritan antipathy amounted to a fierce loathing, of whose strength a generation living in blander times cannot have any conception. In a word, the whole movement, from the outset, was not one for reforming the theatre but for abolishing it. Proposals for reform came rather from those who wrote in defence of the theatre, and whose attitude, it may be observed, was, in one sense, singularly in accord with that of their opponents. In the modern sense of the word, at least, they were puritans to a man. The stage-hater stoutly maintained that the drama did not and could not fulfil any ethical function. On the other hand, Bavande, Wager, Lodge, Gager, Nashe and Heywood, one and all, regarded the drama, first and foremost, as an engine for moral instruction. That such a man as Heywood should express himself thus, proves that he had scarcely more understanding than Stubbes and Prynne of the real nature of the drama which he represented. No one can pretend that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights troubled themselves about theories of conduct. The defenders of the stage made pitiful attempts to justify their craft upon moral principles; but, in admitting the subordination of art to ethics, they had yielded their whole position. Had puritans only studied the theatre more and the early fathers less, they might, starting with the premisses which their antagonists gave them have made out a much better case for prosecution. They had all the logic on their side. On the side of the apologists, was all the common-sense—if they could only have seen it!