The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.
But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.
Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.
One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…
Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity
So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…
Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.
For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”
It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.
Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.
Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.
The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.
Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:
‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:
‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”
Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.
To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online