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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

§ 8. Work of Pamphleteers

It is now time to turn to the literary side of the puritan campaign and to speak of the bombardment which the pamphleteers kept up, while the city fathers made their repeated assaults upon the stage. It will be remembered how the players had nonplussed the corporation by setting up their houses outside the walls of the city. The question was now as to what could be accomplished by the voice of the preacher and the pen of the pamphleteer. The erection of the Theater and the Curtain in 1576 and 1577 acted at once upon the already highly charged atmosphere and called down a veritable hail of sermons and tracts. Of the former, only one or two, which are preserved for our edification in book form, need here be noticed. There is, for example, the sermon of one Thomas White, delivered at Paul’s cross on 9 December, 1576 and, apparently, repeated on 3 November in the following year, to which we are indebted for the syllogistic statement of the plague argument already quoted, and which, by its reference to “the sumptuous Theatre houses, a continuall monument of London’s prodigalitie and folly” helps us to determine the date of their establishment. Another divine who, by publication, sought a larger congregation than had assembled to hear him at Paul’s cross was John Stockwood; his sermon, dated 24 August, 1578, laments the immorality of playhouses and the immense gains of players, and gives a very forcible expression to that feeling of rivalry between stage and pulpit to which we have referred.

From the printed sermon to the godly treatise is no great step. The honour of taking it belongs to John Northbrooke, a puritan clergyman residing near Bristol, who had suffered imprisonment at the hands of his bishop, apparently for some act of nonconformity. As his Treatise, wherein Dicing, Dauncing, vain Playes or Enterludes with other idle Pastimes etc. commonly used on the Sabbath day, are reproved by the Authoritie of the Word of God and auntient Writers, was entered for publication in the year 1577, it is natural to suppose that the erection of the playhouses was the immediate occasion of its appearance. Yet the book was rather a general arraignment of the “abuses” of the age than a special treatise on the subject of stage plays, to which scarcely more than a sixth of its space was given. Indeed, while its debt to Fenton’s Forme of Christian pollicie is considerable, it became, in its turn, as regards both contents and dialogue-form, the model for Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses. When he addresses himself to the subject of plays, it is the moral aspect of the question upon which Northbrooke lays especial stress, providing his readers with an appalling list of the vices which might be learnt at the theatre, while his remark that “it is better to be subject to a magistrate under whom nothing is lawful than under him to whom all things are lawful” indicates the remedy which commended itself to him and to most of his fellow puritans.