The Puritans and the Theatre

The Puritans were an influential minority of Protestants who were dissatisfied with the Elizabethan Settlement. (One commented that Anglicanism was “a crooked compromise betwixt two religions.”) The Puritans desired a simpler Church ritual and doctrine more in line with Calvinism –a return to what they conceived as the “pure” form of the early Christian Church. (However, their name was given to them by their detractors, who scorned “Pure-itan” self-righteousness.) Defining Anglican or Puritan belief is difficult because both groups had overlapping aims and ideals. There was no common creed that set Puritans apart, and Anglican doctrine was ambiguous by its very nature as a middle ground between two religious extremes. But despite ambiguities, uncertainties, and differences of opinion (or faith), religious leaders seemed to share a naïve hope: “May God at length grant that we may all of us think the same things*!” In the same spirit, to promote order and stability, Elizabeth claimed that she strove for a realm without “diversity, variety, contention and vain love of singularity.” (From a letter written to Archbishop Parker in 1565.) When Elizabeth first came to the throne, the twelve or so returned exiles in the House of Commons were influential enough to force Elizabeth to make greater concessions to the Calvinists than she may have intended. But after the initial settlement the Queen forbade Parliament to initiate religious legislation of any sort. (Later she even commanded that religion not be discussed, thus exercising her right to set limits on “freedom” of speech.) Although the Queen’s ruling against legislating religion was ignored time and again, bills that passed both Houses were promptly vetoed. These included a 1571 bill to reform the Prayer Book and several later bills to enforce stricter observation of the Sabbath. As the Puritans became better organized, they had some success influencing elections; but their motions in Parliament to adopt the Calvinist Prayer Book twice failed, and a petition to allow Puritan freedom of conscience was lost in Church bureaucracy*.


Despite good organization and brilliant pamphlet campaigns, the Puritans could make little progress against Elizabeth’s resistance to change; in 1586 Star Chamber decreed the establishment of the Stationer’s Company, which was empowered to censor all writings before they were published and to hunt down unlicensed printing presses. The Puritans eventually achieved a measure of victory for their cause. Click to read more* about it.  Further reading on this topic. Given that the Puritans were adamantly opposed to the theatres, constantly trying to close* them, it is not surprising that there were some devastating parodies of the Puritan mentality on the stage. Shakespeare’s art tends to the ironical rather than the satirical; but there is at least one caricature in his plays aimed at the Puritans: Malvolio* in Twelfth Night. More savage are Ben Jonson’s parodies of the Puritans as Tribulation Wholesome and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair: both are shown to be corrupt, worldly, and self-seeking.

Zeal being zealous

Zeal-of-the-Land Busy interrupts a puppet show, claiming it to be worship of a heathenish idol. Jonson deliciously picks up the rhythms of the evangelist preaching:

Down with Dagon, down with Dagon; ’tis I will no longer endure your profanations. . . that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam*, a very beam, not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the mood, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam, nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the brethren; a very great beam; an exceeding great beam; such as are your stage-players, rhymers, and morris-dancers.  (5.5.1-11)

Zeal is defeated in his argument with one of the puppets, as he had earlier discovered excellent (if hypocritical) reasons for enjoying the other sights of the fair he had come to castigate. Fighting for the stage The players waged a running battle with the Mayor of London and his Council; the theatres were eventually closed by the Puritan Parliament in 1643.


The name means “evil-wishing.” Malvolio is sanctimoniously opposed to revelry.

2.Practicing what he preaches?

Zeal is referring to the passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Further reading on this topic Zeal-of-the-Land Busy may have been defeated in Jonson’s satire of the puritan attitude to the theatre, but his brethren in parliament were increasingly active: in September of 1642 the puritan parliament by edict forbade all stage plays and closed the theatres. They rapidly fell into disrepair and neglect; at the Restoration in 1660, only the Red Bull was still intact, and soon it too was superseded by the new, indoor theatres with their proscenium arches, and French traditions in acting–in particular, women were for the first time seen as actors. Few of the great writers for the theatre were still active when the theatres were closed. John Ford, and James Shirley* were still alive, but only William Davenant carried the older traditions into the new period.

The edict

Whereas. . . the distracted estate of England, threatened with a cloud of blood by a civil war, calls for all pallible means go appease and avert the wrath of God, . . . it is therefore thought fit and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, that . . . public stage plays shall cease and be forborne.

Further reading on this topic.

the-puritans-and-the-theatre.doc  Here’s a printer-friendly mode with pics (!)

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