Puritanism and Shakespeare: A Contextual Study

When a modern reader imagines a Puritan, a very defined image comes to mind. The Puritan is a rigid and hypocritical. They approach morality and the Catholic church with a morality Puritanism was not the source of the attack on theatre as a concept. While these images are rooted in truth, they neglect a complexity that Shakespeare presents in his works.The Puritan objections to the theatre were based mostly on moral subject matter and a desire to maintain law and order and while certain sects of Puritans acted hypocritically, there were large majorities of people who pursued their zealous moral standards with genuinity that was not captured by the bias in the theatre.

Directly anti-puritan plays such as Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair satirise Puritans in a manner that presents them from a limited perspective. They prologue of the play attacks rigid morality with a distinctly anti-puritan message:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;

Such Place, such Men, such Language, and such Ware,

You must expect: with these, the zealous noise

Of your Lands Faction, scandaliz’d at Toys,

As Babies, Hobby-horses, Puppet-plays,

And such like rage, whereof the petulant ways

Your self have known, and have bin vext with long.

These for your Sport, without particular wrong,

Or just complaint of any private Man,

(Who of himself, or shall think well or can)

The Maker doth present: and hopes, to Night

To give you for a Fairing, true delight. (Jonson 1)

The play features a character called, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy who is constantly mocked throughout the play. Upon arriving at a fair, Busy immediately denounces the frivolity of such excitement, “ And the whole Fair is the shop of Satan! They are hooks, and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you” (3.2 39-41). After denouncing the fair, he is almost immediately taken in by the smell of food and makes attempts to justify his presence at the fair, highlighting the hypocritical nature of Puritanism. In direct reference to the theatre, Busy also denounces a puppet show because a man cannot dress in women’s clothing. However’ when it is revealed that the puppets have no sex, Busy is quick to allow the festivities to continue. Once again, the hypocrisy of the Puritans is highlighted in light of their attacks on the theatre, pointing to the absurdity of their objections.

In contrasts to anti-puritan playwrights such as Ben Johnson, Shakespeare, while still presenting Puritans in a satirical and ultimately negative light, provides an image of a Puritan that is more complete than that of Johnson. R. Balfor Daniels claimed that Shakespeare’s “gentleness and humanity made him see that many Puritans were not, even in their opinion of plays and players, wholly wrong or utterly unreasonable or absolutely ridiculous” (42). In Twelfth Night the Puritan Malvolio is cast in a highly negative light because of his prudishness. This leads him to be brutally and comically mistreated by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria. Like Zeal-of-the-LAnd busy, Malvolio is caught in moments of lavishness, but the whole of his character his undermined by a genuinity to his beliefs. Shakespeare at once mocks him relentlessly and allows at least a small portion of respect towards the Puritans. Daniels analyzes that, “The excellence which [Malvolio] thinks himself crammed are not altogether imaginary. He is an able, honest and conscientious steward in Olivia’s household… but his chief defect is in his consuming pride” (Daniels 43).

The reader tends to allow their perspective of the Puritans be dictated by these satirical depictions that come from their opponents, however the term “Puritan” is more complex than a moral counter-culture. Historians continue to debate what being a Puritan actually means. Understanding the Historian Margot Todd defines Puritanism as “a self conscious community of protestant zealots committed to purging the Church of England from within its remaining Romish ‘superstitions’, ceremonies, vestments and liturgy, and to establishing a biblical disciple on larger society” (Todd 14). Puritanism was a social, religious and political movement, but not all Puritans approached social issues with the same zealousness. It was piety and outspokenness that separated Puritans from the other sects of protestantism; however Todd distinguishes the Puritans as more of a “moral majority, ” rather than a seething counterculture (2).They simply believed that the bible was to be the cornerstone for social change (23) and this led to their denouncement of the theatre. Their moral standards were not always a born out of pride or hypocrisy, but simply out of a desire for law and order. While this was often taken to harmful extremes, it deserves to be observed by historians rather than the satirized version.

While the satirical versions of Puritans presented by playwrights such as Shakespeare are not incorrect, they deny the variants and complexity of Puritanism by neglecting the threads of moderatism that run through their aggressively restrictive ideals.The common puritan objections to the theatre were usually not an objection to acting in itself, but rather the lack of moral order that came as a result of the theatre. The Puritan outrage against the Theatre extended largely from a desire to maintain law and order and a biblical view of morality. Prynne’s primary objections to the theatre centered around the immoral nature of the subject matter. Other Puritans were more concerned with the gathering of people and the potential for idleness and unlawfulness. In certain situations, drama was condoned by the puritans so long as it remained within William Prynne was an viscously outspoken opponent to the theatre. In his work, “Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge” he says regarding the theatre, “To omit all other particular instances, we may behold a real and lively experiment of it in profane and poisonous stage-plays, the common idol and prevailing evil in our dissolute and degenerate age” (Prynne 283). While this seems dramatic to a modern reader, he achieves a  moderacy that exists in his distinction of “profane and poisonous stage-plays” It is worth noting that there is a difference between the Theatre and drama as a concept. The Theatre is the cultural institution that playwrights such as Shakespeare have established themselves in. In the eyes of the Puritans, this institution was a breeding ground for sin and immorality. Amongst most Puritans however; the concept of drama in itself, was not a problem so long as it remained within a strict set of moral limitations. Prynne goes on to say, “ and these [academic plays] they hold at least-wise tolerable, if not lawful, so as these six provisions are allowed” (283). He maintains that plays are acceptable so long as there is no obscenity, no women or men dressed as women, no mention of “heathen gods or goddesses,” the plays are put on out of utmost necessity and never for monetary profit (286). The satirised version of the Puritan’s are not inaccurate in their depiction of the Puritan’s rigid morals; however, the

While Prynne focused on the technical aspects of the theatre, Gosson replied to the theatre on a more philosophical level, thus supporting the truth claims in Satire’s depiction of Puritanism; however, Gosson’s ideology continues to be rooted in the concept of maintaining order:

If we grudge at the wisdom of our maker, and disdain the calling he hath placed us in, aspiring somewhat higher than we should, as in the body; when the feet would be arms, the arms would be eyes;the guts would be veins, the veins would be nerves, the muscles would be flesh, the flesh would be spirit, this confusion of order weakens the head: so in a commonwealth… let them not look to live by plays; the little thrift that followeth their great gain is a manifest token that God hath cursed it. (Gosson 110)

The manifestation of identity confusion in the body, addressed by Gosson, reveals the fear of suffering that would inevitably come from the defiance of God’s commands. The objection is not about limiting one’s enjoyment, as Jonson may have portrayed it in Bartholomew Fair, it is about following rules in the social spheres.

When assessing Shakespeare’s mindset on Puritanism, it’s important for the reader to separate him or herself from the bias that most dramatic satires of Puritanism provide. The Puritan was not focused on removing pleasure from life, but rather to maintain law and order. Although the means by which they achieved this are questionable, there is an element of nobleness in this pursuit that deserved to be acknowledged. With this perspective in mind, Shakespeare seems to at once diminish and respect puritanism, providing a more accurate social image of the Puritan than that of most other playwrights.

Works Cited

Daniels, R. Balfour. “SHAKSPERE AND THE PURITANS.” The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 1, 1938, pp. 40–53.

Gosson, Stephen. “ Plays Confuted in Five Actions.” Shakespeare’s Theatre. Edited by Tanya Pollard. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 84-114.

Jonson, Ben. Bartholomew Fair. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1963.

Prynne, William. “Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge.” Shakespeare’s Theatre. Edited by Tanya Pollard. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 279-296.

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.”

Todd, Margot. “Introduction: The Demythologizing of Puritanism.” Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>