Essay, Pages 7 (1535 words)
In discussing Puritanism in this period we are immediately faced with the problem of definition. ‘Puritan’ was initially a term of abuse for the militant Protestants who sought further reform within the church. Initially the reformers were strongly influenced by Calvinist doctrines and they called for increased attention to preaching, the study and interpretation of the Bible and the simplification of elaborate rights. The Puritan movement seemed to be one of degrees rather than of type.
Within the movement, itself a branch of the Anglican church, could be found people from various classes, ranging from those with Puritan sympathies to the radical reformers.
It is seen as a religious and moral temper rather than a structured movement. The attack on the stage was initiated by some of the more militant Puritans, but the rebuttal of the dramatists seemed to treat all Puritans in the same way. The attack on the playhouses began in Elizabeth’s reign with Puritans protesting against the building of theatres, although at this point their objections came to nothing.
Anatomie of Abuses of Philip Stubbes
After this many tracts were produced warning about the evil and ungodly teachings of plays. In his Anatomie of Abuses of 1583 Philip Stubbes strongly condemns stage plays. He claims that they ‘maintaine bawdrie, insinuate foolery, and renue the remembrance of heathen ydolatrie. ‘ He gives us proof by looking at the people ‘flocking and running to Theatres and curtens, daylie and hourely, night and daye, tyme and tyde to see Playes and Enterludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdie speeches… uch clipping and culling: such winckinge and glancinge of wanton eyes, and the lyke is used, as is wonderfull to behold.
Stubbes, like many other writers of these tracts, is mainly against playing on the Sabbath but in this attack we can see also the concern for the ‘idolatry’ commanded by the stage. He is also aware of the fact that many secular plays portray loose morals and profane subjects which could corrupt the onlooker, regardless of their final outcome and the judgements passed on these ‘wicked’ characters. He states that portraying sacred subjects is blasphemous as drama has no instructive value.
To many Puritans the very fact that these actions were being portrayed on the stage, and being given a chance to influence people, was unforgivable. Stubbes’ work, along with several others, ends with a threat of suppression of the stage. It seemed to many that Puritans could threaten the future of the stage and the livelihood of playwrights. The reaction of the playwrights was to ridicule these pious people on stage. In Elizabeth’s reign there was no unity of dramatists against Puritans, although several Puritan figures cropped up in plays and were heavily satirised.
Perhaps the most well known puritanical figure of the Elizabethan stage was Shakespeare’s Malvolio. He is, of course, not a Puritan in any historical sense, but as an incarnation of the Puritan’s besetting foible of self-righteousness, making himself a judge of others. Sir Toby questions Malvolio’s conviction in himself in Act II saying, ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? ‘ (II. iii. 120-22). ‘Cakes and ale’ are symbols of jollity and this shows Malvolio’s puritanical hatred of church ales and the feasting that took place between Christmas and Twelfth Night.
Elizabeth had no particular concern for the Puritans, unlike her successor James whose fear of Puritans ranked alongside his hatred of Catholics. He wished to rid the country equally of both groups. In 1617 he issued the Book of Sports which outlined the recreations permissible on Sundays. All ministers were required to read it from the pulpit, which caused great controversy with the Puritans who advocated a strict Sabbath rest. The book was written to counter the Puritan view of the Sabbath as well as the popish recusants who used Sunday recreations to entice his subjects away from the church service.
James’ opinion of the Puritans gave dramatists even more scope to satirise them. James attempted to bring the public stage under the control of the crown and he appointed a Master of the Revels to censor plays which made any reference to monarchy or the established church which could be taken in a negative way. His dislike of the Puritan movement, however, allowed dramatists to develop more and more ridiculous pious characters. Before 1600 puritanical allusions were slight but under James they sharpened and left us with a stock comic view of a Puritan. The onstage Puritan was easily recognisable.
Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair
Their liking for a plain style of dress and certain manners of speech were easy targets for a satirist. Puritans were portrayed as greedy for money, despite their feigned unworldliness; they were noisy, overpious and hypocritical. The most obvious example of a stage Puritan is Zeal-of-the-land Busy in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. He is dominating in the amount of dialogue he is given, which parodies Puritan pulpit oratory, and is an embodiment of hypocrisy and religious excesses. The argument with the puppet in Act V stages the old conflict between actors and Puritan writers.
Busy says of the puppet/actor that ‘his profession is profane’ (V. v. 60). He also claims that his main argument against actors ‘is that [they] are an abomination; for the male among you putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male’ (V. v. 90-2). His convictions are made to look trifling when, fewer than 20 lines later, he confesses his conversion on the matter. Zeal-of-the-land Busy is also amusing in his ability to see Rome everywhere, another satirical trait of Puritans who wanted to destroy any remnants of popish idolatry.
The Jacobean theatre
He calls a tray of gingerbread men an ‘idolatrous grove of images, this flasket of idols! ‘ (III. vi. 92). It is his hypocrisy, however, which I believe would have raised the most laughs in the Jacobean theatre. His disapproval of the Fair could not be clearer when in Act III he says, ‘the wares are the wares of devils; and the whole fair is the shop of Satan! ‘ (III. i. 38-9), yet he continues to revel in the place. These attacks on Puritans gave the audience a feeling of superiority, although the Anglicans were hardly better, the Puritans stressed their purity.
Unlike Jonson, Thomas Middleton was known, at the least, to have Puritan sympathies and yet was still writing for the ‘profane and idolatrous’ stage. This anomaly stresses the fact that Puritanism was a varied branch of religious feeling. Most of his patrons were also Puritan but not necessarily Puritanical. They owned mansions, which were often old monasteries which had been given to them after the Reformation, they purchased fine fabrics and hired musicians for special occasions. In fact, these were the very hypocritical types which many playwrights were mocking.
Families such as the Sidneys were likely to have feared a Catholic restoration which would have deprived them of their recent aristocratic status. This combination of Puritan playwright and Puritan patron shows that the theatres were only attacked by extremists. Middleton’s The Changeling takes its main source from The Triumph of God’s Revenges Against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther, by John Reynolds. This tract was incredibly popular with Puritans, being ranked by some alongside Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
The way Middleton portrays the responsibility of women, the insistence that crime should be equally punished regardless of rank and the general acceptance of the folly of idleness shows the Puritan way of seeing the realities of everyday life. This shows that although many Puritans condemned the theatre for not being educational, their ideas were being portrayed in a positive light, although in a subtle and perhaps more persuasive way, on the stage. For the most part Puritans were strongly criticised on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. This is due in part to a strong anti-clerical feeling in London.
Margot Heinemann makes the point in her book on Puritanism and Theatre that religious hypocrisy has been a source of humour for centuries but the Anglican church was protected from satire by political censorship. Satire about pious hypocrisy on stage was only possible about Puritans, unless the setting was foreign when friars and cardinals could also be mocked. 7 This is an important point when looking at the accumulation of weight of anti-Puritan satire over James’ reign. It is clear that the Puritan vices were magnified on the stage as a way of punishing those who threatened the dramatists. As W.
Holden points out, it is the zealots and eccentrics who are made typical of the whole movement. They are ‘witty pictures of fools who have gone mad on religion’. 8 The dialogue between the Puritans and the playwrights was bitter and both sides kept pushing to have their voices heard. The how and the why of Puritan presentation on the stage are interwoven and for every overzealous Puritan there was an exaggerated form of him onstage. It is interesting that at the time of the vehement attacks of the Puritans the public theatres opened with the work of the generation of Shakespeare and Jonson, showing how often conflict produces fantastic art.