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Dramatic Censorship In Renaissance England Essay, Research Paper

The attempt of governments to regulate literature and drama dates back to classical antiquity. Satires, superstitious and heretical works, astrological treatises, and other works disagreeable to monarchs or clergy suffered suppression in the days of ancient Greece and Rome. In England, the censorship can be traced at least as far back as the last quarter of the thirteenth century.

The rise of provincial companies in Elizabethan England had a profound effect on the organization and control of drama. A large proportion of acting companies made a business of strolling. In doing so, they escaped local responsibilities and made it difficult for any community to hold them responsible for their conduct. A strolling actor was viewed as a potential menace to society because he was masterless, and therefore irresponsible. The law recognized this, and in 1572, a statute was passed requiring traveling players to ?be the retainers of some baron of this realme, or ? other honorable personage of greater degree,? or to ?have licence of two justices of the peace at the least? (Albright 7). It became mandatory for the group of strollers to have a patron responsible for their conduct in order to give license for them to perform. This law was revived throughout the years and over time, became the chief support for opponents of drama.

Many individuals had influence over the regulation of theater. Although naturally the sovereign had direct control, their wishes were carried out through the Privy Council, Chamberlain, Master of the Revels, Treasurer, Mayor, and occasionally the ecclesiastical officers.

The Master of the Revels was a key figure in the licensing and censorship of professional drama from the time of Shakespeare to the closing of the theaters in 1642. He was an official in the Lord Chamberlain?s office, responsible for providing suitable entertainment at court. The Master enabled actors to become accessories of the court and aristocracy, while also providing them with a stable environment where they could practice their trade to a more diffuse audience in the public theaters (Dutton 2). In 1581, the Queen gave the serving Master, Edmond Tilney, a special commission that authorized him:

to warne commaunde and appointe in all places within this our Realme of England, as well within the francheses and liberties as without, all and every plaier with their playmakers, either belonging the name or names or using the facultie of playmakers or plaiers of Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes or whatever other showes soever, from tyme to tyme and at all tymes to appeare before him with all such plaies, Tragedies, Comedies, or showes as they shall readiness or meane to sette forth, and them recite before our Servant or his sufficient deputie, whom we ordeyne appointe and aucthorise be these presentes of all suche showes, plaies, plaiers, and playmakers, together with their playing places, to order and reforme, auctorise and put downe, as shallbe thought meete or unmeete unto himself or his said deputie in that behalf.

(Chambers, 4, pp.285-7)

He was also given the powers to enforce this authority. The Master?s primary concern was to suppress anything that may cause social disorder.

A myriad of subjects were considered dangerous in Elizabethan Drama. Indulging in religious controversy, any kind of sacrilege, and criticism of sovereigns are just a few examples of chief offenses to authority and reason for censorship. On May 16, 1559, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation that instructed all the Masters of the Revels on what was not acceptable in plays:

And for instruction to every one of the sayde officers, her majestie doth likewise charge every one of them, as they will aunswere: that they permit none to be played wherein either matters of religion or of the governaunce of the estate of the common weale shalbe

handled or treated, being no meete matters to be written or treated upon, but by menne of aucthoritie, learning and wisedome, not to be handled before any audience, but of grave and discreete persons.

(Chambers, 4, pp.263-4)

An intriguing matter is the significance religion had in theater when Elizabeth I was enthroned. When Elizabeth came to the throne, the treatment of religion on the stage became an especially important issue. In 1559, Elizabeth gave an order prohibiting plays in derision of the Catholic religion, mass, saints, and God. The order was not heeded, and thus she gave another proclamation that firmly forbade political and religious problems to be discussed on stage stating, ?wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weall shalbe handled or treated: being no meete matters to be written or treated upon, but by menn of aucthoitie, learning, and wisdome, nor to be handled before any audience, but of graue and discreet persons? (Albright 95). Albright notes that in 1559, Elizabeth had to assure the Spanish Ambassador that her own religious faith had much in common with Catholicism. Albright also adds that Elizabeth?s active policy did not carry out that impression, raising the question of what her underlying reason could be in her divergent view of religion in theater. While Elizabeth?s decree was not perfectly enforced, it had a major impact in theater over the next fifteen years. Religious discussion, even that which did not oppose the belief of the sovereign, was an uncomfortable matter to be put on stage, for objection could always arise.

Plays that criticized governmental policies toward other nations were always open to censure by authorities. In the time of Elizabeth, they were generally indirect (Dutton 7). Closely related with criticism of royal policies is satire on foreign nations. The satire was usually innocent, but when the three rival nations of England -Spain, France, and

Scoteland ? were introduced, a more serious type of satire developed and the difficulty arose (Albright pp.148-149). This satire was probably intended to influence public opinion, and censors were particularly cautious of what to allow on stage.

Playwrights had to treat contemporary matters with great care in their work. When an Elizabethan dramatist sought to portray the affairs or faults of his sovereign or those of other nations, he was usually known to do it by analogy, ?by using well-known love affairs of the past or picturing a tyrant kind who was dead? (Albright 104). Although

Elizabeth I forbade any discussion of affairs of the state entirely, dramatists still worked around it. They set a contemporary incident, situation, or problem in the past and used type characters of the past to portray characters of their own day. The story was made into an allegory or morality that required a fair amount of intelligence to interpret it appropriately (Clark pp.56-59).

Various methods were employed in the censorship of drama. The methods in which the Master of the Revels indicated his objections in detail are evident in a number of plays, such as The Second Maiden?s Tragedy, Barnavelt, Sir Thomas More, and The Seaman?s Honest Wife (Albright pp.193-196). Though other alterations than those due to censorship appear, enough are clearly distinguishable as a censor?s changes to make the methods clear. Crossing out of words, lines and long passages, as well as marginal comments on both matter and form were found in most of these plays. Sometimes, as in Sir Thomas More, the censoring would require a complete reorganization of the whole play (Gildersleeve 93). If additional objections were discovered after the rewrite of a play, the authorities had the right to recall licenses for the dramas. It is important to note

that the ?local hits? were not usually printed in plays. The most ?dangerous? dramas were revised before submission to the Master of the Revels or other authority for permission to print, and then introduced extemporaneously (Albright 196).

The prefaces, inductions, prologues, and epilogues to plays, especially those printed after the play was produced, often contained author?s reactions upon the censorship. The Induction to Mucedorus by Thomas Lodge is a great example of said reaction. The case is presented here in the form of dialogue between two abstract characters, Envy and Comedie. Envy boasts that he can overthrow Comedie by inducing a poet to write a play

Wherein shall be compos?d darke sentences,

Pleasing to facetious braines:

And euery other where, place me a Iest,

Whose flie me to puissant Magistrate,

And waighting with a Trencher at his backe,

In midst of iollitie, rehearse these gaules,

(With some additions)

So lately vented in your Theator.

He, upon this, cannot but make complaint,

To your great danger, or a least restraint.

(Clark 42)

This piece is eloquent testimony of Lodge?s resentment of censorship and it?s authorities.

Sir Sidney Lee, in discussing the attitudes of playwrights and theatrical companies toward publication of plays, states that ?a very small proportion of plays acted in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I ? some 600 out of a total of 3000 ? consequently reached the printing-press, and the bulk of them is low lost? (100). The basis of his statistics is murky at best; but, assuming them correct, one wonders how and why only one-fifth of the plays produced are still here today. Even after overlooking lost plays and plays of

temporary interest, the proportion of plays published between 1580 and 1640 seems unusually small. Considering some of the conditions of production and disposal of plays can help explain why most of the plays were not published in their own day. Albright discusses that there was a very free appropriation of the plots of older plays. Reputable authors took over not only plots of older plays, but also whole lines from earlier plays (202). The desire to see a play in print as one of the authors ?collected works? was probably lessened when both the author and his readers were aware that the author?s contributions to the work were slight.

Margot Heinemann notes that a common assumption in literary history is that the critics against theater in Elizabethan England were Puritans (18). The term ?Puritan? was first applied to men who sought the purist form of worship. As time passed, the term

acquired a political significance, representing those who were contending the principles of liberty. It was also applied to men who protested against the immorality and corruption in church and state (Gildersleeve 215). Puritans were highly opposed to drama. They believed it was sinful, irreligious, and were determined to discipline it.

On September 2, 1642, the Parliamentary Puritans issued the following edict:

Whereas the distressed estate of Ireland, steeped in her own blood, and the distracted estate of England, threatened with a cloud of blood by a civil war, call for all possible means to appease and avert the wrath of God appearing in these judgments: amongst which fasting and prater, having been often tried to be very effectual, have been lately and are still enjoined: and whereas public sports do not well agree with public calamities, nor public stage-plays with the seasons of humiliation, this being an exercise of sad and pious solemnity, and the other being spectacles of pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious mirth and levity: it is therefore thought fit and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, that while these sad causes and set-times of humiliation do continue, public stage plays shall cease and be forborne. Instead of which are recommended to the people of this land the profitable and seasonable considerations of repentance, reconciliation and peace with God, which probably will produce outward peace and prosperity, and bring again times of joy and gladness to these nations.

(Gildersleeve 223)

When the Puritans passed the law suppressing plays, plays were definitely suppressed. Over the next decade, attempts to revive performances were made but this edict practically closed theaters, marking the end of Elizabethan drama.


Albright, Evelyn M. 1927a. Dramatic Publication in England, 1580-1640. New York:

D.C. Health. Reprinted 1971

Chambers, E.K. The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923

Clark, Eleanor G. 1941. ?Ralegh and Marlowe: A Study in Elizabethan Fustian.? New

York: Russel & Russel Inc. Reprinted 1965

Dutton, Richard. 2000 Licensing, Censorship and Authorship in Early Modern England.

New York: Palgrave

Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron. 1908 Government Regulation of the Elizabethan

Drama. New York: Columbia University Press

Lee, Sir Sidney. 1916 A Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Macmillan

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