Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

By Huston Diehl | Go to book overview

Introduction

In this book I argue that Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is both a product of the Protestant Reformation -- a reformed drama -- and a producer of Protestant habits of thought -- a reforming drama. Drawing on the insights of symbolic anthropologists who believe that religious practices help shape both individual consciousness and cultural forms,1 I show how the popular London theater that flourished in the years after Elizabeth reestablished Protestantism in England rehearses the religious crisis that disrupted, divided, energized, and in many ways revolutionized English society.

In the city of London, where the Edwardian reformers had attracted a significant number of Protestant sympathizers and the conditions of urban life predisposed citizens to embrace the new Protestant ideology, Elizabeth's ascension opened the way for intense and highly visible reform activity. Much of this activity was iconoclastic in the broadest sense, attacking the religious practices, as well as the sacred images, of the old religion and declaring many forms of popular piety idolatrous. Learned treatises argued that the doctrine of transubstantiation turned the eucharistic bread and wine into idols. Popular ballads satirized the Roman Mass, mocking its spectacle as trumpery and condemning its theatricality as trickery. Protestant sermons and catechisms taught that the relics, processions, and ceremonies of the old religion were superstitious, their efficacy fraudulent and illusory. Calvinist polemics denounced the human imagination and all its products as corrupt and untrustworthy. Commissioners responsible for carrying out the 1559

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1
See, for example, Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures ( 1973); Victor Turner, The Ritual Process ( 1969) and Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974).

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