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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

§ 3. Beginnings of Puritan opposition in England

The puritan opposition to the English stage did not burst forth in any violence until about 1576; but there are indications of its existence, apart from the translations just noticed, long before this date. English humanism, for example, though, for reasons already given, inclined to look favourably upon the drama, was in this as in many other respects laying down the lines upon which puritanism developed later. Roger Ascham was no puritan; yet his famous outburst against the popular romances of the day is remarkably similar in tone and feeling to the invectives launched by subsequent writers against plays which, to a large extent, were nothing but dramatised versions of these very romances. The connection between the humanistic attack upon the Italian novel and the puritan attack upon the romantic drama comes out most clearly in the case of William Alley, bishop of Exeter, whose condemnation of “Wanton Bookes” in The Poore Man’s Librarie (1565) expressly embraces plays. Alley appears to have been the first in England, since Lollard days, to take up the pen against the stage; he was the first Englishman, also, to cite with approbation the example of the ancient city of Marseilles, which “kept so greate gravitie” that it would never allow a player within its walls. A classical precedent of this kind was so well adapted to the case of the city of London that it was eagerly seized upon by later writers and reappears in almost every pamphlet written against the stage. Another remarkable indication of the prevalence of the anti-dramatic spirit at this comparatively early period is to be found in the prologue of Lewis Wager’s Life and Repentance of Marie Magdalene, first printed in 1566 but probably acted considereably earlier, which shows us a dramatist not only already on the defensive but employing the same arguments as were used, afterwards, by Lodge, Gager and Heywood. But perhaps the most tangible proof of the rising puritan flood was the quiet but persistent suppression by bishop, preacher and zealous mayor of local plays and pageants throughout England during the middle years of the sixteenth century, as no longer seemly in “this happie time of the gospell.” London, almost the only city in the kingdom with its own stage when the cleansing process was completed, was to be the scene of the great struggle between puritan and player.