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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.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 3. Grounds of objection to the Drama

In the city of London, jurisdiction over public theatricals rested, under the proclamation of 1559, in the mayor and corporation, steady foes of the drama. The decay of the feudal system under the Tudors had increased the importance not only of the immediate neighbourhood of the court, but of the capital; and London was now the centre of theatrical activity. Elizabeth’s own love of the play tended to the same result; and the privy council, on the whole, supported her in defending the acted drama against the attacks of the city government. The difference between court and city was the cause of many disputes and much uncertainty, as is shown at length in a later chapter of this volume, where it is also related how an unforeseen result of the city’s opposition was the enormous stimulus given to theatrical art by the building of playhouses outside the common council’s jurisdiction but within easy reach of the citizens of London.

The quarrel was due to other causes besides the religious difference, and the inevitable conflict between the feudal privilege from which companies drew their origin, on the one hand, and, on the other, the rights of the corporation, which meant the growing importance of the middle class. A very reasonable objection was advanced against the overcrowding of narrow streets by people riding or, later, driving to the playhouses, and by the concourse of loafers and beggars; furthermore, apprentices and others were tempted to play truant and occasional tumults or crimes resulted from the massing of numbers of people in holiday mood. A theatrical performance, like the performance of a miracle-play in earlier times, meant a procession through the streets with drums and trumpets. It would not be fair, however, to ascribe to plays alone all the disturbances which are on record. Such incidents as those which took place outside the Theatre in 1584, when “one Browne, a serving man in a blew coat, a shifting fellowe,” attacked an apprentice with a sword, were due rather to the fact that the neighbourhood of this house was the “ordinary place for all maisterles men and vagabond persons… to meet together and to recreate themselfes.” The gravest cause for the corporation’s objection to plays—a cause which the privy council readily supported them in avoiding—was, however, the recurrence of the plague, to the grievous and prolonged visitations of which full reference is made in the chapter discussing the conflicts between puritanism and the stage. But, in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I and Charles I, every year was a plague year, and, besides 1582–3, 1585, 1586, 1593, 1603, 1613, 1625 and 1636 were very bad plague years. It was important to check the spread of infection by preventing the gathering of crowds, and plays were forbidden whenever it seemed desirable. Early in the reign of James I, all performances were prohibited when the number of deaths a week reached 30; and, in or about 1619, 40 was fixed as the limiting number. This frequently entailed the closing of places of public performance during the whole of the summer and autumn, when companies sometimes “broke,” sometimes went on tour in England and sometimes travelled abroad. The history of these travels is well worth study, but lies outside the scope of this work.