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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

§ 9. Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse

Quaint, simple-minded and long-winded Northbrooke remained a solitary pioneer. He has his special niche, of course, in Prynne’s pantheon of stage haters, and Stubbes, as we have said, evidently read him and learnt from him; but his immediate successors either did not know of him or deliberately ignored his existence. In 1579, the very year when a second edition of his book was appearing, a new writer was, with considerable ostentation, “setting up the Flagge of Defiance” to the prevailing abuses of the day, and claiming to be the one to “found the schoole and reade the first lecture of all.” This fresh arrival in the lists was Stephen Gosson, one of the most interesting and important of those who took up arms against the stage. Though not more than twenty-four years of age when he published The Schoole of Abuse, he had already, if Meres is to be believed, written pastorals which ranked among the best of his age, though none of the specimens of his poetry that have come down to us soars above the commonplace. In addition to this, the style of his Schoole suggests that he deserves almost as much credit as Lyly for giving to Euphuism its final and complete form; both having been bitten with the craze at Oxford, very possibly in company. Like Lyly, also, Gosson left Oxford for London, and took to the stage as both actor and playwright. At least three dramas were produced by him, as he tells us himself: Catalines Conspiracy, which appeared at the Theater, “a cast of Italian devices called The comedie of Captaine Mario” and “a moral” entitled Praise at Parting. From certain hints he gives us, we are led to suppose that his theatrical career was neither prosperous nor successful. Whether for this reason or, as he would rather have us think, because the nonconformist conscience was already beginning to make the playwright discontented with his surroundings, about the end of 1578 he left London and became a private tutor in the country, where he prepared his Pleasaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillers of a commonwelth, which was entered at Stationers’ Hall on 22 July of the year following.

If The Schoole of Abuse, was intended as a puritan palinode, it certainly does not read like one. Its worldly, flippant air, very different from the sober dulness of Northbrooke, suggests that this assault upon Parnassus was little more than a trick to catch the public ear and to win something of the success of Euphues, which had appeared a few months earlier. Doubtless its author also hoped that his remarks upon the drama would attract the favourable notice of London puritans. Among the letters at the end of the book is one addressed to the lord mayor and aldermen, applauding their policy with regard to the players, and touching the root of the matter in the remark that, “if their letters of commendation were once stayed, it were easie for you to overthrow them.” As Gosson was one of the few anti-dramatic writers who possessed a firsthand acquaintance of the theatre, it is interesting to observe that there is very little he can find to advance against it. He is careful to point out that nothing of an unseemly nature ever went on within the precincts of the playhouse itself; that actors might even be “sober, discreete, properly learned honest householders”; and that there were several “good playes and sweete playes” to be seen in London, among which, of course, are those by Stephen Gosson himself.

The patron at whose feet Gosson laid this work was none other than that “right noble gentleman, Master Philip Sidney Esquier,” who, as we learn on the authority of Spenser, was anything but flattered at the tribute. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the famous A pologie for Poetrie, written in the autumn of 1581 though not published before 1595, was undertaken, in the first place, as a reply to Gosson; the disdainful reference to “that kinde of people, who seek a prayse by dispraysing others, that they doe prodigally spend a great many wandering wordes, in quips and scoffes” being a palpable hit at him and his pamphlet.

Despite its affectation and folly, The Schoole of Abuse gained its immediate object. It was widely read, and met with a storm of opposition. Gosson refers to this in the introduction to his second book, The Ephemerides of Phialo, published in the autumn of 1579, making special mention of a tract, no longer extant, which assumed the curious title of Straunge Newes out of Affrick. Possibly this name, very similar to that of hundreds of news-pamphlets of the time, was intended to cloak the real nature of the publication from the eyes of the authorities. The author, whose name Gosson knew but did not disclose, has been conjectured to be Lyly, but without sufficient foundation. At the conclusion of The Ephemerides appears An A pologie for the Schoole of Abuse. Much of a piece with the work it sets out to defend—being, indeed, little more than a disquisition on the immorality of the pagan deities—this fresh contribution was undertaken in answer to a second champion who had come forward in defence of the arts. Gosson asserts that, after offering rewards at both universities to anyone who would write for them, the players had found a writer in London to comply with their needs. He had put forth a book, of which, at the time of writing, Gosson knew nothing save its title, Honest Excuses. This, there seems no reason to doubt, was the pamphlet by Thomas Lodge which has come down to us without a title-page.