Blood Running Down

Helen Cooper

  • The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England by Michael O'Connell
    Oxford, 198 pp, £30.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 19 513205 X

In 1644, the Puritan cleric John Shaw journeyed up to Westmorland to instruct the local people, who, he had been told, were sadly lacking in knowledge of the Bible. The need was confirmed when he interrogated an old man whose long life in the wake of the Reformation seemed to have left him entirely ignorant of all matters theological and ecclesiastical. When pressed as to whether he knew anything about salvation through Jesus Christ, the old man eventually recalled that he had once seen a play ‘where there was a man on a tree, and blood ran down’.

For Shaw, such knowledge may have been worse than nothing. Christ represented on stage, as on crucifixes and rood-screens, was no better than an idol, an icon in the sense that has given rise to the term ‘iconoclast’: a fraudulent substitute for true religion that must be destroyed. Such things were false gods, diverting the worship of the ignorant from the one invisible and spiritual Being whose only authorised manifestation was in his Word, the Bible. Like the Patriarchs and Prophets in their confrontations with the heathens of the ancient Middle East, the Puritans saw their task as a ruthless battle against idolatry, in which there was no room for half measures. Compromise with an idol was a denial of God.

In The Idolatrous Eye, Michael O’Connell tackles a more difficult question: why did the Puritans believe not just religious but all forms of theatre to be idolatrous? It’s not difficult to see why they disapproved of the great cycles of religious drama. Although the cycles were loosely based on the Bible, they did not adhere to ‘the sincerity of Scripture’. The traditional day for performing them, Corpus Christi, celebrated not just the Incarnation but the papist doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the representation of God on stage was in flagrant contravention of the Second Commandment. But it’s much less obvious why Dr Faustus or King Lear, As You Like It or Volpone, should come under the same ban. O’Connell never does come up with a final answer; but his quest constitutes one of the most interesting explorations yet made, not just of the theology of the theatre, but of the connections between pre-Reformation Biblical drama and the theatre of the high Renaissance.

It’s easy to think of these two kinds of drama as independent of each other: of the cycle plays as medieval and therefore primitive, and of Shakespeare and the rest as writing in a newly sophisticated glow of classical humanism. Every single one of those assumptions and epithets is wrong. Most records of the performance of the cycles and other religious plays come from the 16th century, and by no means all from before the Reformation. Most were suppressed only in the middle decades of Elizabeth’s reign. Coventry’s own cycle was regularly played, plague permitting, until 1579, and its citizens were still agitating for a revival in 1591. Kendal, perhaps sufficiently out of the way not to attract episcopal attention, managed to keep performances going into the 17th century: John Shaw’s old man would not have had to remember so very far back to recall that Crucifixion. Any playgoer over the age of 25 who went to watch the plays of Marlowe or the early Shakespeare had been born into a world where the cycles were still the dominant form of drama – the most traditional, the most ambitious and the most sophisticated. More to the point, Marlowe and Shakespeare grew up in such a world, too. Coventry is not so very far from Stratford, and the plays (like those of Athens) constituted a civic festival designed to draw in audiences from miles around. It must be probable that the young Shakespeare saw them at least once, maybe several times; and there is every reason to imagine that they made a deeper impression on him than on the old man in Westmorland. They would have provided not just a handful of unforgettable images, but a revelation as to what was possible on stage.

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