Plays for Puritans

Anne Barton

  • Puritanism and Theatre by Margot Heinemann
    Cambridge, 300 pp, £12.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 521 22602 3
  • John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist by M.C. Bradbrook
    Weidenfeld, 205 pp, £10.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77813 7

In Act II of Twelfth Night, Maria says of Malvolio – that poker-faced enemy of cakes and ale, bear-baitings, and all ‘uncivil rule’ – that ‘sometimes he is a kind of Puritan.’ Cautious and qualified though this statement is, Maria retracts it almost at once: ‘the devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass.’ She insists that Malvolio’s defects spring from his own hypocrisy and self-love. They are not, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek wants to believe, associated with a particular religious and political alignment in Elizabethan England. Maria’s scrupulousness here about an easy misuse of the term ‘Puritan’ would seem to be Shakespeare’s own. Although critics often permit themselves to describe the repressive Angelo in Measure for Measure as ‘puritanical’, no one in the comedy ever does so, nor is any connection implied between the ‘outward-sainted’ deputy and the party which, by 1604, had already begun to indicate its opposition to royal absolutism as well as to Popery in all its forms. As Shakespeare uses it (twice) in All’s well that ends well, the word ‘Puritan’ signifies nothing more than ‘anti-Papist’. In Pericles, it occurs as a straightforward synonym for ‘virtuous’ and even as late as The Winter’s Tale the single ‘puritan’ among the sheep-shearers in Bohemia is no refuser of festivity. He contents himself with fitting psalms to the hornpipes he relishes as much as anyone else.

Shakespeare’s scanty and moderate reference to the movement which impelled his friend Ben Jonson to create such comic monsters as Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, or the Banbury lay preacher Zeal-of-the Land Busy (first discovered ‘fast by the teeth i’ the cold turkey pie’), seems typical of his reluctance to affix labels to people or take political sides. But, in the light of the general argument advanced by Margot Heinemann in Puritanism and Theatre, it may be that we should also regard it as the quite natural response of a man less committed than Jonson to the royalist or ‘court’ party. Shakespeare had at least one patron (William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke) with substantial Puritan affiliations. He himself must have been aware that the public theatres had enemies – and supporters – in both the Puritan and Anglican camps.

Miss Heinemann sets out to distinguish Puritan separatists and extremists, such as the Brownists or the Family of Love, from a broad mainstream of reforming opposition, bent, at least initially, upon purifying church and state from within. She argues, against the assumptions of older historians of the stage, that a great part of the London popular theatre audience, some of the habituees of the private playhouses, and even certain noble patrons of the drama at court, were Puritans in this wider sense. These were the people who flocked to the Globe on nine successive days to see the King’s Men perform Middleton’s savagely anti-Catholic play A Game at Chess, making it the greatest box-office success of the period, and infuriating King James. Middleton wrote A Game at Chess in 1624, in the wake of the Spanish marriage crisis, and after some ten years of close association with the City, first as the author of its pageants and then, from 1620, as its official Chronologer. Miss Heinemann suggests, convincingly, that prominent Parliamentary Puritans in the City probably protected Middleton after A Game at Chess was closed down by royal command, and the dramatist had been summoned to explain himself before the Privy Council.

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