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.

Puritan approbation of the attack on royal policy embodied in A Game at Chess has never been questioned. More perplexing to critics is the apparent contradiction between this play and Middleton’s early comedies, in which ‘puritan’ seems to be a term of ridicule. The originality and importance of Miss Heinemann’s thesis lies in her claim that A Game at Chess does not represent either a freak or a sudden reversal of attitudes in Middleton’s career. She points out that although Middleton, unlike Shakespeare, always uses the word ‘puritan’ in a derogatory sense, he makes it clear that for him (as for a number of his contemporaries) it refers only to the extremist sects, never to the moderate, reforming opposition. These are the fanatics mocked in The Family of Love, The Mayor of Queen-borough, and in the famous christening scene of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Miss Heinemann believes that, fundamentally. Middleton’s sympathies inclined from the beginning towards the more typical, middle-of-the-road people we now designate as Puritans, that this tendency became more pronounced as he began to work for the City in 1613, and as the political climate worsened, and that it issued finally in the two ‘city tragedies’ which are his greatest plays. The Changeling (1621) and Women Beware Women (?1623) seem to her to possess a kind of social realism absent from the work of Webster, Ford, Massinger, or Beaumont and Fletcher. In their treatment of social mobility and ambition, women and marriage, and in their ethical and religious overtones, they reflect the values of the City and Country as opposed to the Court party.

Puritanism and Theatre has been published as a volume in the series ‘Past and Present Publications’, a series designed primarily for historians. This seems appropriate. Miss Heinemann’s book radically and provocatively redraws the map of Jacobean and, to some extent, Caroline theatrical activity. It questions the received view that the theatre during this period was necessarily allied with the Crown against Parliament, that its very survival was bound up with a need to celebrate ‘traditional’ and essentially aristocratic values. Literary critics will need to adjust their accounts of Middleton and other dramatists to her social and historical findings. At the same time, they are likely to discover that, in the process of developing her argument, she distorts or simplifies individual plays. Miss Heinemann’s debt to the work of Christopher Hill is everywhere apparent in her book – and fully acknowledged. Readers who found Dr Hill’s recent book, Milton and the English Revolution, stimulating but not entirely convincing are likely to harbour similar reservations about aspects of Puritanism and Theatre.

‘Few playwrights,’ Miss Heinemann states, ‘seem to have experienced the close citizen and Parliamentary connections and influences we have attempted to trace for Middleton.’ This does not mean that he was the sole representative of what she calls ‘the Parliamentary Puritan’ as opposed to the Cavalier trend in drama. Among the lost repertory of such popular theatres as the Fortune and the Red Bull there must, she feels, have been a number of plays of this persuasion. A few ‘opposition’ plays do survive – Thomas Drue’s The Duchess of Suffolk, Davenport’s King John and Matilda, Arthur Wilson’s The Swisser, or Glapthorne’s Albertus Wallerstein – and others preserve a sketchy existence through the records of censorship and prosecution. Massinger causes Miss Heinemann some difficulty. She (rightly) contrasts the fundamentally conservative and aristocratic ethos of A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam with the more flexible, middle-class ambience of Middleton’s city comedies. Yet Massinger was also the author of The Bondman, Believe As You List, The Maid of Honour, The Emperor of the East and the lost King and the Subject, all of them possessing traits associated with ‘opposition’ drama. For a number of reasons, Miss Heinemann does not want to admit Massinger to Middleton’s faction. This is probably right, but it seems unfortunate all the same that she does not allow the social and political implications of these plays their full weight, and that an undeclared but apparent bias against tragicomedy as a genre leads her to regard their endings as simpler and more glibly reassuring than they are.

Several of the polarities she tries to set up seem suspect in the light of the best recent work on Middleton’s contemporaries. Her wholesale acceptance, for instance, of John Danby’s highly questionable view of Fletcher blinds her to much in his plays that would seem pertinent to her argument. No one, surely, any longer regards the ‘heavy moralising’ at the end of the Chapman/Johnson/Marston collaboration Eastward Ho! as anything but a delicious spoof. Alexander Brome gets dismissed in a single reference as a mere purveyor (along with Beaumont and Fletcher, Shirley and Davenant) of ‘courtly elegant Cavalier drama, or ... light comedy foreshadowing that of the Restoration’. The issues at stake in Covent Garden Weeded, The Queen and Concubine, The Demoiselle and The Court Beggar deserve far more serious scrutiny than this.

It is perhaps inevitable that in the effort to see Middleton clearly, the profiles of some of his contemporaries should become generalised and blurred. Rather more worrying is a sense that Middleton himself suffers a degree of distortion in the interests of Miss Heinemann’s overall argument. Although she is intelligently aware that Middleton’s satire in his comedies is directed impartially at vice and folly in all classes, she cannot help coming down on the side of the City in dealing with individual plays. Personal predilection seduces her into asserting that ‘the conceited court gallants’ in The Family of Love are ‘even more severely ridiculed’ than the familists, or into what is almost a defence of the hypocritical Puritan gossips in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside as ‘not a patch on their anti-Puritan host’. She finds that the mockery in Your Five Gallants ‘is principally at the expense of aristocratic and court vices like lechery, dandyism, duelling and gambling’, conveniently forgetting that the gallants in question are all low-born pretenders to gentry, and that the gentleman-born Fitzsgrave is allowed to unmask and scourge them for their impudence and social-climbing at the end with a severity that would not misbecome Massinger’s The City Madam.

Miss Heinemann is convincing when she argues that Quomodo in Michaelmas Term should not be seen as a malicious portrait of a typical London merchant, but as a small-time swindler who would be condemned by the City itself. But it is not clear why she refuses to view Sir Bounteous Progress in A Mad World My Masters in a similar light. This gentleman’s ostentatious hospitality, far from demonstrating that ‘the aristocratic social and economic code is... utterly worm-eaten and corrupt,’ simply travesties that code, turning it into a form of self-advertisement poles apart from the ideal itself as celebrated in Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’. A similar forcing of Middleton’s text leads her to dwell on the ‘reiterated metaphors from cooking and house-keeping’ in The Changeling and Women Beware Women. According to her, such references pinpoint the specifically ‘citizen atmosphere’ of the plays. Although Livia and Isabella are supposed to be court ladies, they sound as though they actually knew what it was like to cook and run a house. According to Miss Heinemann this sets them off sharply from principal characters in Shakespeare, mere consumers of feasts and fine wines whose tables are spread and cleared by servants, and whose food imagery reflects their distance from such mundane middle-class employment. This distinction will not hold for an instant, as Miss Heinemann might have realised if, instead of latching onto Troilus’s ‘aristocratic’ account of ‘Love’s thrice repured nectar’, she had turned instead to his dialogue with Pandarus on the subject of the grinding, bolting, leavening, kneading and final baking of a loaf of bread. Pandarus is no more likely than Livia ever to have done what he describes in such concrete detail, but the language is just as homely and knowledgeable. Moreover, it might be argued that no protagonist in Middleton’s two ‘city tragedies’ ever displays anything as down-to-earth as Desdemona’s needful attention to ‘the house affairs’ in Othello, or the princess Imogen’s ability to whip up excellent meals for four people in a cave – not to mention Titus Andronicus’s startling expertise as a pastry-cook.

Miss Heinemann is a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic. Puritanism and Theatre is likely to be valued less as a study of Middleton’s plays than for the questions it asks – and to a large extent answers – about links between the City and the theatres, about supposed Puritan hostility to drama, and about the ways in which the point of view of the opposition made itself felt, despite the censor, on the Jacobean and Caroline stage. Here, the contribution she has to make is substantial. The book is thoroughly researched, original, imaginative and bold. In the re-evaluation of the drama of the late Jacobean and Caroline periods, a belated process of understanding only now getting properly under way, it will be crucial.

Indeed, the impact of Miss Heinemann’s book can already be felt in Professor Bradbrook’s John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist. As the subtitle suggests, this is a picture of Webster significantly different in focus and effect from the one Professor Bradbrook offered some forty-five years ago in the original edition of Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. In general, her work on Renaissance drama has been moving away from purely literary study into the domain of social history. Nonetheless, it is striking how central the research done by Miss Heinemann – and by Mary Edmond, the genealogist who in 1976 uncovered the basic facts about Webster’s family and livery company connections – is to Professor Bradbrook’s latest book.

The first half of John Webster attempts to provide a context for the citizen-poet in terms of the little circle of London parishes in which his life was rooted. By telling the stories of Richard Mulcaster, High Master of Merchant Taylors’ School, which Webster attended, of John Davies, the poet whose stormy career at the Middle Temple overlapped Webster’s own by two terms, of Penelope Rich, Sidney’s Stella, whose home adjoined the Webster family’s coach-building business, and of another and more dangerous London neighbour, the international spy Antonio Perez, she sets out to reconstitute the environment which must (she feels) have fed Webster’s imaginative and artistic life. It all makes excellent reading in its own right, and provides a series of highly suggestive analogues for characters and situations in the plays.

One of Professor Bradbrook’s most endearing qualities as a critic is her willingness to change her mind, to modify earlier interpretations either in the light of recent scholarship or simply because she dislikes imprisoning works of art within the confines of her own past readings, however influential those readings have proved to be. It is clear that she now has considerably more admiration for Webster’s jagged, deliberately disjunctive dramatic technique than she once did. Individual characters in the tragedies look less melodramatic and more credible when approached from the real-life world of Penelope Rich and her battle to become the legitimate wife of Charles Blount, or from that of Perez and his ally the Princess of Eboli, who ended her days as a prisoner, without trial, in a perpetually darkened room. Professor Bradbrook’s attitude towards the Duchess of Malfi’s clandestine second marriage has also shifted. It is now the failure of the Arragonian brethren to fulfil their family obligations by seeking out a suitable second husband for their sister which comes into sharp focus, not the ‘sinful’ remarriage of young widows.

Building on Miss Heinemann’s association of Middleton’s A Game At Chess with Thomas Drue’s The Duchess of Suffolk of the same year. Professor Bradbrook speculates that The Duchess of Malfi – first printed in 1623, and with a plot similar to that of Drue’s play – might well have been revived in 1624 ‘with an anti-Spanish slant’, and so have participated in the theatrical protest against the government’s Spanish policy. Wisely, she stops short of any attempt to enlist Webster as a paid-up member of the Parliamentary Puritan camp. On the other hand, it is clear that the dramatist who was ‘free’ of the powerful Merchant Taylors Company, himself the author of civic pageants, collaborator on the citizen plays Northward Ho! and Westward Ho!, and responsible for the double-edged but vital portrait of the merchant Romelio in The Devil’s Law-Case, was not someone for whom the City represented an alien or hostile world. Webster’s two great tragedies, the centre to which all criticism of his work inevitably returns, look illuminatingly different in this London perspective. In 1935, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy stood in the vanguard of a new approach to Renaissance drama. In 1980, John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist seems to occupy a similar position.