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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: August 2012

1 - Shadows, jests, and counterfeits

Summary

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumb'red here

While these visions did appear.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.423–6

Attitudes to the theatre have always varied, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England saw a wide range of views expressed about its artistic and moral status. Though it was highly regarded by many, its popularity made suspect, in certain eyes, any pretensions it might have to being an especially serious or meaningful human endeavour, while certain stripes of religious fundamentalism, by no means solely ‘puritan’, regarded its appeal to the senses and its arousal of pleasure as morally corrupting. The moral debate about theatre, which can seem rather unsophisticated and wearisome to us, certainly affected the varying views as to the pedagogical value of theatre and performance, which will be examined at more length below. However genuinely felt the various moral attacks on the theatre may have been, they tended to rehearse old arguments dating back to the early church fathers, and they were parodied notably by Ben Jonson, in a hilariously meaningless stage argument between the hypocritical puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and a puppet, manipulated by the puppet-master Leatherhead, following Busy's noisy interruption and attempt to stop the show, near the end of the play Bartholomew Fair (1614).

Busy … my main argument against you, is, that you are an abomination. For the male among you putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male.

Puppet You lie, you lie, you lie abominably. […]

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