Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Puritanism and the Closing of the Theaters in 1642

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Puritanism and the Closing of the Theaters in 1642

Article excerpt

UNTIL comparatively recently, the stock assumption of literary historians was that in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there was an intense mutual antipathy and hostility between Puritanism and the stage. Puritans regarded theaters as abominable haunts of vice and corruption which a well-regulated state would completely suppress. Dramatists regarded Puritans as hypocrites, who pretended to be holier than other people but were in fact motivated by various kinds of greed, for food, sex, and money. The standard view can be seen in three American studies from the first half of the twentieth century: E. N. S. Thompson, The Controversy between the Puritans and the Stage (1903), A. M. Myers, Representation and Misrepresentation of the Puritans in Elizabethan Drama (1931), and W. P. Holden, Anti-Puritan Satire 1572-1642 (1954). They provide useful surveys of attitudes on both sides, and also have considerable value as repositories of raw material: they combed through the various dramatists and brought to light the comments made on Puritans.

In 1980 appeared Margot Heinemann's Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts. Her main argument was that there existed a Parliamentary Puritan opposition to King James, notably in the second half of his reign, and that Middleton was writing on behalf of this opposition, particularly in his notorious play A Game at Chess (1624), which she saw as a scathing satire on royal policy. She used various arguments to show Middleton as working for Puritan patrons, but I will not spell them out as I have already expressed my reservations about them elsewhere. (1) Her book aroused considerable enthusiasm among literary scholars, though it has to be said that historians reviewed it much less favorably. (2) She established "opposition drama"--plays attacking King James's policies, especially his foreign policies--as a kind of literary genre, and subsequent critics extended her approach to other dramatists, as did Julia Gasper in her book on Dekker, The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker, which appeared in 1990.

Heinemann was rather dismissive of Caroline drama, the drama of the 1630s, seeing it as enfeebled by harsh censorship and lacking the radical and populist elements of the best Jacobean drama. Martin Butler, however, in his Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642, published in 1984, argued that Caroline drama was not simply royalist and sycophantic, as used to be commonly thought, but independent and intelligently alert to the social and political crises of the time, and was often hostile to the policies of king Charles. In the same year, 1984, Jonathan Dollimore published his Radical Tragedy, which argued that Jacobean tragedy was skeptical toward, and subversive of, current political and religious orthodoxies. The books by Heinemann, Butler, and Dollimore differed in various ways, but shared a basic assumption that early seventeenth-century drama was critical of James I and Charles I. Not surprisingly, this could lead to the suggestion that drama played a part in the shift of attitudes which provoked the civil war. Butler put the idea fairly cautiously:

  It has become fashionable among historians to see the Civil War as
  the product as much of miscalculation, accident and circumstance as
  of design, but if we wish to see the readiness of those who were
  prepared to go to war as part of something much more deeply-rooted,
  then we may conclude that the drama too, by calling the old
  certainties into question and educating attitudes to them over a
  period of years, was in part responsible for creating the conditions
  in which men would have the capacity, and the will, to take such a
  step. (3)

An Italian critic, Franco Moretti, made a much more sweeping claim: "Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy contributed, more radically than any other cultural phenomenon of the same period, to discrediting the values of absolute monarchy, thereby paving the way, with wholly destructive means, for the English revolution of the seventeenth century . …

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