Protestantism And The Stage

In the sixteenth century, the image of the "theater" came to play a potent role in public symbolism, religious or otherwise. John Calvin famously declared that the world was a "theater of the glory of God," in which the divine works of creation and redemption were displayed for the benefit of humanity, who were invited to become participants within, rather than mere observers of, what they saw.24 This suggests that Calvin and his successors might have warmed to the theater as an art form capable of communicating the gospel in dramatic form—not unlike the highly successful medieval mystery plays. In fact, they did nothing of the sort. The early Protestant hostility toward the theater was striking.

While there are notable exceptions, such as Martin Bucer's De ludis honestis ("On the propriety of plays," 1551), a predominantly negative tone had set in by about 1560.25 Anti-theatrical tracts poured from the presses: John Northbrooke's A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes (1577), Gosson's Schoole of Abuse (1579), Philip Stubbes's Anatomie of Abuses (1583), and John Rainold's Overthrow of Stage-Players (1599) castigated the stage and its players.26

Why this hostility? The answer once more lies in the Protestant anxiety about both the fictionality of drama and the implied deception on the part of actors. Drama was about fabrication, falsity, and the feigning of truth—behaviors that were clearly out of bounds for pious Protestants.27 Others added to the litany of complaints: the play was a "bastard of Babylon" (William Crashawe) in that it displayed examples of evil, thus encouraging others to emulate them. In his Histrio-Mastix (1632), the Puritan moral fanatic William Prynne (1600-1669) argued that "popular stage-playes are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions." Its 1,100 pages castigated every form of drama, arguing that they represented a vile degradation of true Christian piety.28 Prynne had an especial animus against women actors, whom he described as "notorious whores." The work is perhaps notable chiefly for its length, its bilious tone, and its virtual ignorance of contemporary drama. (Prynne confesses that he was lured into attending four plays by degenerate colleagues—clearly four too many for his taste.) Interestingly, his main criticism of Shakespeare was that his works were printed on better-quality paper than most Bibles.

Yet despite this clamor of criticism, English Protestantism was not united in adopting such critical attitudes toward the stage. Might not the drama be put to religious use? Was it not a vehicle that, despite its faults, could be used to advance religious debates and agendas?29 A case can certainly be made that popular theatrical performances under Elizabeth I and James I could be seen as reflecting themes of English Protestantism with an intention of shaping Protestant habits of mind.30 Others have seen intra-Protestant debates surfacing in the drama of the period. Is Shakespeare's rollicking, drunken Sir John Falstaff based on Sir John Oldcastle, a proto-Protestant martyr?31

Where the other major writers of his age became involved in the great religious debates of the age—Ben Jonson became a Catholic and ended up in prison, while Christopher Marlowe dabbled in a little Protestant espionage here and there—Shakespeare, Protestant England's greatest playwright, kept his own counsel. We know little of his personal religious views, even though the subject has attracted much attention.32 Yet rumors persisted that Shakespeare was more Catholic than Protestant. Richard Davies, a Protestant, commented in the early seventeenth century that "Shakespeare dyed a papist." This possibility must be kept open. There is much in his dramas that sits uneasily alongside Protestant doctrine.

The most debated example concerns the Ghost in Hamlet.3 It is quite clear that Shakespeare intends us to understand that the Ghost has come from purgatory. The term is never mentioned, presumably because it would never have got past the vigilant Elizabethan censor. But it is there, unmistakably, in the imagery that Shakespeare uses (1.5.11—14). The Ghost is:

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in days of nature Are burnt and purged away.

The Ghost thus inhabits the vast imaginative space left empty by English Protestantism's final banishment of purgatory in 1563. The Ghost returns from purgatory and by doing so brings purgatory back into the English public domain in a fictionalized and thereby transformed shape. Shakespeare's Hamlet participates in a dangerous, forbidden, exotic "cult of the dead"—and enables the audience to do so as well by stepping back in time, when such beliefs were the norm.34

Protestantism having taken the drama and spectacle out of religious life by abolishing Catholic ritual, England was troubled by a cultural void—a sensory vacuum that needed to be filled. In one sense, Shakespeare's dramas moved in to occupy the space left vacant by the banishment of Catholic ritual. At several points, Shakespeare seems to echo hints of long-suppressed Catholic rituals, evoking their rich memory to highlight the aesthetic austerity of their Protestant equivalents.

An instance of this can be found in the brief final act of The Merchant of Venice. The passage is so beautifully constructed that the audience is likely to fail to notice that it is apparently irrelevant to the plot. Yet the passage contains an astonishing number of allusions to the Easter Triduum of the Catholic church—as if Shakespeare is deliberately evoking its memory and its rich symbolic allusions. As the liturgy celebrates Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, it sets out a number of images and formulas: the Easter moon; solemn music in the open air; a single candle; the veneration of the cross; the refrain "This is the night" repeated eight times. The same elements are present in this brief final act: moonlight, a single candle dispelling the darkness, the playing of music, the phrase "in such a night" repeated eight times; kneeling at holy crosses.35

Under the Puritan Commonwealth, music and drama went into decline. Even as early as 1641, a Puritan-dominated Parliament passed legislation closing down all of London's theaters. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the theaters came to life again. The bawdy Restoration dramas of this era represented both a reaction against the moral censoriousness of the Puritan age and a celebration of the looser moral codes of the new monarchy.

In America, however, the Puritan influence continued to be strong, at least in the northern states. The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn (1644-1718), had little time for the theater. He dismissed it with a rhetorical question: "How many plays did Jesus Christ and his apostles recreate themselves at? What poets, romances, comedies, and the like did the apostles and the saints make or use to pass their time withal?" The answer was obvious, and as far as Penn was concerned, that ended the discussion. Pennsylvania's "Frame of Government" (1682) laid down that "stage-plays" and related activities were to be prevented, since they "excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness and irreligion."

Those who had hoped that the American Revolution would bring about a transformation of attitudes were doomed to disappointment. Meeting in Pennsylvania in 1774, the Continental Congress declared that it would "discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibition of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments." Four years later, Congress tightened up its hostility to the performance of plays still further by laying down that "any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage, or attend such plays, shall be unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed."

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