Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Synopsis

"Forbidden Matter examines some half dozen plays, written between the early 1590s and the early 1630s, to demonstrate how they reflect the religious controversies of their time. Religious issues were a topic of intense interest in early modern England, making them ideal for treatment in the theater. Differences among religious beliefs could provide the kinds of conflicts necessary for drama, and with their shock value as well as their topicality, such plays could attract a wide audience. Certainly for contemporary playgoers the works analyzed here were far too controversial to be considered merely light entertainment." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

When Edmund Tilney, the master of revels, ordered the writers of the play of Sir Thomas More to revise their script according to his instructions, he ended with the direct threat: “otherwise att your own perrilles.” The words are surely forbidding. The Revels Office was exercising the power given it by the Privy Council to prohibit the acting companies, in the words of the 1598 minutes, to “handle in their plaies certen matters of Divinytie and of State unfitt to be suffred.”

But the language of these Star Chamber proceedings does not forbid all matters of divinity and state. Although “censorship was considerable,” it could not be absolute. Moreover, as Stephen Greenblatt points out:

The Tudor and Stuart regulations governing the public stage were
confused, inconsistent, and haphazard, the products neither of a tra
ditional, collective understanding nor of a coherent, rational attempt
to regularize and define a new cultural practice. They were instead a
jumble of traditional rules and offices designed to govern older, very
different theatrical practices and a set of ordinances drawn up very
hastily in response to particular and local pressures.

Faced with these inconsistencies, playwrights and revels officers clearly worked out a modus operandi: “conventions that both sides accepted as to how far a writer could go in explicit address to the contentious issues of his day, how he could encode his opinions so that nobody would be required to make an example of him.” As a result the theater managed with considerable success to discuss forbidden subjects and to dramatize controversial matters despite nominal government prohibitions. As . . .

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