Plays for Puritans
- 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.
Vol. 3 No. 2 · 5 February 1981
SIR: Anne Barton, a scholar of English Literature, reviewing Puritanism and Theatre by Margot Heinemann, writes that the author ‘is a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic’ (LRB, 18 December 1980). Historians, on the other hand, have tended to pronounce a reverse judgment on the book. Both reactions exemplify a basic difficulty of interdisciplinary studies – namely, keeping up with more than one subject. In fact, much of Dr Barton’s adverse literary criticism of Puritanism and Theatre can be explained as a consequence of Miss Heinemann’s outdated historical concepts. The polarities of Court and Country, Crown and Parliament, Puritan and Anglican etc, are now at an increasing discount among historians. Therefore, the attempt to type Thomas Middleton as the spokesman of a Parliamentary Puritan opposition during the 1620s is almost certainly doomed from the outset, and hence also the distortion and simplification of individual plays about which Dr Barton complains. The positive evidence for Middleton’s Puritanism remains extremely flimsy and his patron the Earl of Pembroke was a leading courtier. Moreover, the message of Middleton’s A Game at Chess coincided with the policy in 1624 of the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. Conversely, there was strong Puritan opposition to the theatre, voiced by ‘moderates’ like John Rainolds – something which Miss Heinemann seriously underplays.
Department of History, University College London
Anne Barton writes: To say that Margot Heinemann is ‘a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic’ is not to claim that her history is unassailable. As I point out in my review, Puritanism and Theatre has its Hill-ish excesses. In particular, Dr Tyacke is right to question Miss Heinemann’s assumption that a Parliamentary Puritan party had crystallised by the early 1620s. (Though Miss Heinemann can scarcely be blamed for not having read Conrad Russell’s Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629, which appeared when her book was already in the press.) Her general argument, however, seems to me much less crude than Dr Tyacke makes out. True, polarities like Court v. Country and Puritan v. Royalist turn up, but it is virtually impossible to write about the early 17th century without using the inherited vocabulary to some extent. (Dr Tyacke proves my point – and, incidentally, ignores the deliberate breadth of Miss Heinemann’s category ‘Puritan’ – by falling back on a Puritan v. Court opposition in his eagerness to refute the book’s treatment of Pembroke.) Carefully deployed and craftily qualified, the old words – most of them, after all, used by contemporaries – still have value. Of course, Dr Tyacke is right to say that Buckingham’s position in 1624 was anti-Spanish. But he is wrong to imply that Buckingham would therefore approve of A Game at Chess. His appearance in the play as the morally ambiguous White Duke must have pleased Pembroke, Middleton’s anti-Spanish but also anti-Buckingham patron. The royal favourite cannot have been flattered by the allusions to his lechery and personal vanity. To take up Dr Tyacke’s last remark: it is simply untrue to say that Miss Heinemann underplays the opposition to the theatre voiced by some Puritan ‘moderates’. As I observe in my review, she goes out of her way to concede it. The study of pre-Civil War England is now in such a confused and contentious state that any new contribution is liable to sniping from some quarter. It is to be hoped that when Dr Tyacke publishes his own, long-awaited book on the period, some of the problems which currently bedevil interdisciplinary work will be resolved.
Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981
SIR: Nicholas Tyacke, before pointing out what he sees as errors of emphasis and interpretation in Margot Heinemann’s Puritanism and Theatre, makes a general point about ‘a basic difficulty of interdisciplinary studies – namely, keeping up with more than one subject’ (Letters, 5 February). Doesn’t a lot of the difficulty derive from the way in which we conceive of ‘disciplines’ and ‘subjects’ as securely discrete entities which can be moved between (at the mover’s risk) only if it is understood that they are the bases from which we move?
The way in which academic institutions are currently structured into disciplines which are hypo-thetically complete and masterable often leads to individuals ignoring the help which may be at hand though under the guise of another discipline. Each object of study makes its own particular demands for skills and information which are seldom identical with those supposedly comprehended by the discipline in which an individual formally works. The need to ‘keep up with one’s subject’ is surely not as important as the need to equip oneself with the skills and information required by one’s particular object of study.
The executive convenience of ‘subject’ and ‘discipline’ divisions – divisions which operate on a number of levels including the distribution of editorial responsibilities in the academic presses and the layout of the bookshops which market their products – cannot justify a situation in which historians may use literary texts as ‘evidence’ in ways which seem naive or insufficient to more expert readers, and in which ‘history for historians’ is a different thing from ‘history for literary critics’.
School of English, University of Leeds
Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981
SIR: I would like if I may to clarify certain points arising out of my comment on Anne Barton’s review of Puritanism and Theatre by Margot Heinemann (Letters, 5 February). Readers both of the book and of the review will certainly gain the impression that a sharp distinction is being drawn between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Puritans, and that hostility to the theatre was only characteristic of the latter. Hence my citation of John Rainolds, author of The Overthrow of Stage-Plays (1599). He was the chief spokesman for the Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 and a major religious influence on his generation. His Puritanism is demonstrably moderate, involving acceptance of episcopacy and personal conformity. A later edition of The Overthrow of Stage-Plays was published at Oxford in 1629, during the chancellorship of the Earl of Pembroke.
That said, I think there is probably an important difference btween clerical and lay Puritan attitudes to the theatre. The problem only arises in the case of Thomas Middleton, however, if it is insisted that he was in some sense a Puritan, and the evidence still strikes me as flimsy. My point in emphasising that Pembroke was a courtier was intended as a comment on his politics, not his religion. Of course there were Puritan courtiers, although whether Pembroke was one is another matter. The views of Conrad Russell, to which Dr Barton refers, have been available since the mid-1970s. More generally, Dr Barton enters a plea for the old terminology ‘carefully deployed and craftily qualified’, but it is precisely the failure to do this which is at issue. Indeed, many of the ‘old words’ appear to have failed completely as analytical tools.
Department of History, University College London