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WE come again to a period when the influence of the Church was arrayed against the theater; and this time its efforts towards its suppression were markedly successful. It is perhaps unnecessary to recall to the reader that the London Corporation, during the greater part of the sixteenth century, had been in a chronic state of resentment on account of play-actors and playhouses. The reasons for their complaints were, for the most part, sound enough: opportunities for lawlessness and violence, congestion of traffic, encouragement of disreputable taverns, and danger of the spread of the plague. As time went on, other arguments, somewhat less reasonable, came to light. Some people contended that it was sacrilegious for men to dress up in clothes belonging to the other sex. (No women were as yet on the English stage. Women's parts were taken by boys.) One clergyman, not a Puritan but a Churchman, issued a pamphlet in which he stated that the stage was the cause of the visitations of the plague: when it was not present the ungodliness of the plays brought it on as a curse from heaven; and when it was present, the gathering in the playhouse caused it to spread.

About the time Shakespeare arrived in London there was an outbreak against the theater which was especially violent. An earthquake had occurred in 1580, and in the following year there was a recurrence of the plague. At a bear-baiting show, given on a Sunday, a wooden scaffolding had given way, killing several people and injuring others. A few years later, a brawl outside the theater caused serious disturbance. To many of the good people of London, all these things were signs of the wrath of heaven against the play-acting profession, and arguments for its extermination. When it was recognized that play-acting, not long before, had been utilized as a means of teaching the lessons of the Church, the argument against it was that it was popish. At the very time when England was making the greatest single contribution that any modern nation has ever made to the literature of the stage, preachers both Puritan and Anglican, pamphleteers, and politicians were loud in their denunciations.


Fortunately, the stage had a powerful friend in Queen Elizabeth. Since companies of actors "belonged" to the queen and were under the protection of the highest nobles of the land, the fight over the theaters resolved itself mainly into a struggle on the part of the queen's agents, or counsel, to outwit the decrees of the city Corporation. One method was to regard the giving of a play as a "rehearsal" for a royal production. Of course these "rehearsals" could be as numerous as the manager wished; and the public could be, and was, admitted. This practice brought on a bitter quarrel in which professors of Oxford and Cambridge were involved. One wise man at Oxford condemned the public plays, but defended those of the universities. "As an occasional recreation for learned gentlemen, acting received its highest praise; as a regular means of livelihood, it was regarded with scorn." [1] In all this contention, however, the astute Elizabeth managed to have her own way. The stage and its players were kept alive.

After the death of Elizabeth the condition of playing companies was changed. The privilege of licensing and protecting them was gradually withdrawn from the nobles and taken over by the king. The London theater was thereby strengthened, but dramatic activity in general received a blow. It became more fashionable to attend public performances; and the court masques brought brought to the city many people of talent -- painters, musicians, designers, actors and playwrights. Plays became more polished, less coarse, but often more indecent. Protected by the play-loving monarchs, actors were less apprehensive of the law, and did not scruple to ridicule their enemies. As the seventeenth century wore on, no doubt politics had as much to do with the feeling against the theaters as religion; for playwrights and actors inevitably were classed among the supporters of the crown. The scandal was increased by the licentiousness of the court, where so many attractive theater people found protection, and by the extravagances connected with the masques. Actors grew bold and began to insult the pious-minded, especially the Puritans.

As the difficulties between the crown and Parliament increased, there were circulated numerous pamphlets and petitions in which the stage was attacked for its immorality, indecency and extravagance. All the old arguments, which had preceded the building of the playhouses in the sixteenth century, were revived. The annual attacks of the plague in the years following 1630 were exceptionally violent. In 1642 Parliament issued an ordinance suppressing all stage plays; and five years later even a stricter law was passed. Finally, in 1648 all playhouses were ordered to be pulled down, all players to be seized and whipped, and every one caught attending a play to be fined five shillings. Of course, no such ordinance, in such a city as London, could be completely enforced; but the playhouses, in effect, were practically closed from 1642 until the Restoration in 1660.

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 246-8.

Related Webpages

1 Cambridge History of English Literature.

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