The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England 
by Michael O'Connell.
Oxford, 198 pp., £30, February 2000, 9780195132052
Show More
Show More

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.

Anyone who believes that the classics were a more significant or beneficial influence on Renaissance drama than the cycle plays should reconsider what kind of dramaturgy the two models offered. Classical drama, outside the universities, meant Latin drama – Seneca and Terence and Plautus (it is hard to find a single mention of Sophocles’ Oedipus in 16th-century England; Seneca’s received the accolade of translation into English). It also meant the recently discovered Poetics of Aristotle, which already by the late 16th century was a much commented text. Our own understanding of Aristotle is filtered not through those early commentators, but through Matthew Arnold, who first suggested that the tragic hero required a fatal flaw. Aristotle states simply that he (or they – he isn’t really concerned with the tragic hero) makes a mistake: such as marrying his mother, or killing Polonius instead of the King. Nobody in the Renaissance thought Aristotle’s half-sentence on the subject worth much notice. The commentators were much more interested in turning his brief account of dramatic coherence into a set of rules, the unities. Stage time must approximate to real time (give or take 22 hours); the stage must present a single place. There should be no subplots, no mingling of genres, no porter in Macbeth nor gravediggers in Hamlet nor a king in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and no Winter’s Tale at all. Those Roman dramatists conformed very nicely to the model. Seneca’s armchair violence was familiar to every schoolboy. But that was not what the schoolboys saw, if, like Shakespeare, they were within reach of Coventry, or any of the other towns where the Corpus Christi plays were performed; and it was not how they envisaged the stage, if they went on to become dramatists for the new London theatres.

What they saw was the dramatised assumption that the stage was as infinite as the audience’s imagination, and could encompass Heaven and Hell in the same theatrical space; where Noah’s closing of a window of the Ark and the singing of a psalm could stand in for the forty days of rain. The Elizabethan stage, like that of the cycle plays, took infinite possibility for granted. The problem now is that we still take it for granted. What is ‘still there’ is the hardest of all things to see. If asked what the 21st century had inherited from the Middle Ages, most people would probably come up with the visible remains first, the castles and churches. The great institutions – universities, the common law and the law courts, Parliament – would require more thought and knowledge. But the most commonplace and the most useful things of all, such as the alphabetical index (still by far the best information-retrieval system even in an electronic age) and buttons (which made fitted clothing possible, and therefore created the possibility of fashion) would probably not figure at all. They aren’t medieval, they just are. And drama is rather the same. Its freedoms, now inherited by film (imagine imposing the Aristotelian unities on the cinema), are so much part of our own familiar culture that we forget that they ever had to be invented at all. If we do think about it, we assume that it was the Elizabethans who did it. ‘Medieval’ is increasingly synonymous with a dumping-ground for everything we don’t choose to be associated with, such as the witch-hunts of the Enlightenment, or modern high-tech torture; not a term for the foundations of our culture.

This inability to see what is normal makes it particularly hard to describe what the Renaissance dramatists inherited from the theatre they grew up with. Their classical debts are blazed across the texts, in a whole series of verbal allusions ripe for explication, and duly explicated by commentators ever since. The influence of religious drama, on the other hand, is largely silent, in the sense that it cannot be read off from the page. It is there, not in the text, but in staging and situations, like the mocking of York before his murder in Henry VI Part 3, or in the readiness to have at the centre of a scene an actor who doesn’t speak and is therefore non-existent on the page. It is there, as Emrys Jones suggested, in the sheer scale of Shakespeare’s tetralogies of history plays, and in their structure of fall, bitter consequences and ultimate redemption – the pattern that goes from the domestic strife that loses France and divides England to the triumph of the Tudors, and from the deposition of Richard II to the glories of Henry V. It is there, too, in the assumption that when the actors talk of horses, the spectators do see them printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth. If you have been brought up on a theatre that encompasses Heaven and Hell, the vasty fields of France are no problem at all, and a staged battle of Agincourt is easy on the imagination after the drowning of Pharaoh’s hosts. Once you have seen God on stage, it doesn’t strike you as odd that you can see the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream who are invisible to most of the human characters. If you have watched the course of history from the Fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgment in a single day, or even over three days, then you are not likely to give the odd jump of 16 years between acts a second thought, and the anxieties of the classical theorists look like the pedantry they are. After the black humour of the soldiers in the Crucifixion plays, the porter and the gravediggers appear not as interlopers but as figures of a natural inclusiveness, like human society itself. If you are brought up in a world where the 40 days of the Flood can be represented by the singing of a psalm, then the impossible compression of time in Othello or Richard II doesn’t need explanation. Am I the only person to find that the precisely realistic time scheme of a film such as High Noon – which requires the suppression of a lifetime of assuming that stage time or film time is infinitely expandable – demands far more mental effort than films that take the passage of days or years for granted?

The religious theatre also required the staging of violence and that affects the text as much as the action. There is no need for a descriptive Senecan rhetoric of violence, sometimes no need for words at all. In one of the plays of the buffeting of Christ, he never speaks. So far as the written text goes, only the other characters have any existence; but on stage, the authority of his silence transforms their taunting into futile babble. When before your eyes there is a man on a tree and blood running down, the language can be kept for much more interesting things than spelling out the details of an offstage execution. Heywood’s 1560 translation of Seneca’s Thyestes contains a jolly description of the crackling of the frying livers of Thyestes’ children as they are spit-roasted. The speeches in the Crucifixion plays consist of the workaday barbarity of the soldiers’ conversation, breaking up the verse structure, as they get on with their job; Mary’s despairing laments, with their profound dramatic irony of her ignorance of the purpose of it all; and Christ’s long speeches, the first moment in which the unbroken music of the verse is heard, which combine an appeal to the audience’s theological knowledge with his own immediate dramatic situation, often taken from the Old Testament prophecies.

I pray you people that pass me by,

That lead your life so lykandly [pleasantly],

Heave up your hearts on height!

Behold if ever ye saw body

Buffet and beat thus bloody,

Or yet thus dolefully dight [grievously treated].

A rhetoric of violence is replaced by the urgent confrontation of a dying man and a watching and listening audience.

Shakespeare started off by experimenting with violence and rhetoric together. Lavinia is raped and mutilated offstage, then makes her entry as a silenced witness to her own tragedy, only for her uncle to rhapsodise at awkward length on the grievousness of her state. Ten years later, his handling of such episodes was much more sophisticated – or, to put it another way, he was much more ready to use the methods of the cycle plays than those of the classical dramatists. The laconic is much more effective than baroque elaboration. ‘Is it the King?’ ‘One side will mock another; th’other too.’ Or, for a mere slap, ‘I have not deserved this’ – this is a language that reconfigures violence into something else, and which is made possible by the taking for granted that the violence is shown. When the characters of Shakespeare’s early plays hear of disaster, they respond with the rhetorically appropriate speech for the occasion, such as schoolboys had to practise composing on their slates; in his later plays, characters under extreme pressure are more likely to have coherent speech break down altogether, or, like Macduff, to freeze into silence, and disappear from the printed page in the process.

This three-dimensionality – the actual corporeal presence of the actors, and the accompanying integration of spoken language with stage direction and body language – means that the theatre has a perilous accessibility. There is minimal translation needed between the conventions of representation and what is being represented. A staged play does not require the mental effort of converting a two-dimensional arrangement of paint into a three-dimensional action, even less imagining black marks on paper to stand for the deeds and words of actual people. The Puritans didn’t approve of the reading of anything so frivolous as plays, but there was no special animus against them in printed form. It was the theatre itself that was dangerous. On stage, the people are there, and they are real; we see them move, hear their voices. Even in such an impossible fiction as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, author and audience are complicit in an agreement that this is all really happening, to the point where Shakespeare cons us into thinking that Theseus is silly to doubt the supernatural: after all, we have just seen it. Greek tragedy, with its masks and dancing and ritual effects, makes far less claim to realism; and there is still some argument over whether Seneca was meant to be acted or declaimed, and it has to be said that it doesn’t really make much difference. The Romantic notion that Shakespeare was better read than seen misses the most important point. Renaissance drama, like the medieval, was embodied.

That, to come back to O’Connell, was at the root of the trouble. Roman Catholicism was a faith that encouraged embodiment: the actual body of Christ in the Eucharist, the relics of the saints. Even ‘mere’ artistic representations, such as statues of the Virgin, could weep or sweat or bleed, and those that didn’t were still treated as objects of pious and, in the eyes of the reformers, superstitious reverence. Faith was expressed in corporeal action, in kneeling or genuflecting, in the creeping to the Cross at Easter, or by going on pilgrimage. Protestantism, by contrast, was a doctrine of the Word. The Bible was not only the ultimate, divine authority; it was sufficient. Anything beyond that was idolatry.

The pre-modern stage believed in bodies. The earliest surviving play performed in England, the Anglo-Norman Adam, gives elaborate directions for representing Adam and Eve and God; it gives instructions for costumes, gestures and body language, and for the changes to be made in them after the Fall. It matters that the buffeting and the Crucifixion and the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalen, like the raped Lavinia, the blinding of Gloucester, the murder of Desdemona and the resurrection of Hermione, are enacted by real people: that for so long as the play lasts, the characters are real people. Pauline Kiernan has argued, in Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama (1996), that just as Sidney claimed the priority of poetry over history or philosophy on the grounds of its freedom from mere fact, allowing the poet to imitate God in the act of creation, so Shakespeare believed in the priority of drama over poetry because theatrical creation (like God’s) took physical form. His narrative poems constantly call attention to the failure of embodiment in the other arts, in Venus’ fleshliness and sweat that can never get beyond verbal description, or in the painting of the Trojan War in Lucrece that can give the illusion of an entire body by a glimpse of the top of a head or a spear grasped in a hand. But then: ‘Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms’. The man and the corpse are both actual people: for the purposes of the play, a real old man and his dead daughter. A painted or sculpted pietà, on which the configuration of bodies in the scene may be based, is designed to arouse affective devotion, but it is evidently not the real thing. Did the old man in Westmorland know that the blood he saw was not genuine?

Such principles may still leave an unexplained gap between the secular theatre and the charge of idolatry, but they do go a long way towards explaining the sheer excitement of Renaissance drama. This wasn’t due to its adding the occasional veneer of classicism, nor to its expansion of subject matter beyond the religious; it was playing with fire, eternal fire in the eyes of the Puritans, the Muse of Fire for Shakespeare. The authors of the cycle plays first invented the infinite possibilities of the stage through enlisting the audience’s imagination, but by the 1570s such things had long become habit. Marlowe and Shakespeare rediscovered its sheer audacity, demanding audience complicity in believing that Tamburlaine’s world conquests or a shipwreck are happening right there in front of your eyes. Perhaps that is why Shakespeare closes his own life’s cycle with Prospero’s prayer for mercy at the Day of Judgment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 17 · 6 September 2001

Helen Cooper (LRB, 9 August) suggests that we have inherited ‘the alphabetical index … and buttons’ from the Middle Ages. A better dating for buttons would be the Middle Bronze Age, or even earlier (say, 2500 BC), to judge by the evidence from a number of prehistoric burials where clothing perished but stone, jet and bone buttons survived.

John Coles
Thorverton, Devon

Vol. 23 No. 18 · 20 September 2001

In her review of Michael O'Connell's The Idolatrous Eye (LRB, 9 August), Helen Cooper gives an account of the qualities of embodiment which English Renaissance drama inherited from its pre-humanist antecedents. Italian humanists were determined to create a new classical drama, based on rules inherited (or invented) from ancient theory and example: what we think of as medieval theatre practices were seen as lacking in cultural correctness and social prestige. French classical drama, in its turn, followed the new style to the letter: English and Spanish actors and dramatists were more stubborn about retaining what they thought was useful from previous forms of theatre. But feelings of discomfort with theatre were not peculiar to Puritan or even Protestant cultures: there were writers just as fanatically opposed to theatre in Counter-Reformation France and Italy. This phenomenon cannot be explained by a Protestant-Catholic conflict, nor can it be approached through a study of English culture alone.

Richard Andrews
University of Leeds

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences