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  • Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in the Antitheatrical Controversy
  • David Hawkes (bio)


The controversy over the Elizabethan and Jacobean English theater turned on the distinction between the “use” and the “abuse” of plays. The antitheatrical pamphleteers generally claimed that they were not opposed to the theater per se, but only to its “abuse.” As John Northbrooke’s Treatise (1577?) explains: “As farre as good excercises and honest pastimes & plays doe benefit the health of manne, and recreate his wittes, so farre I speake not against it, but the excessive and unmeasurable use thereof, taketh away the right institution thereof, and bringeth abuse and misuse . . . and therefore they are rather chaunged into faults and transgressions, than honest exercises for mans recreation.” 1 In his Apology (1579), Stephen Gosson cautions his readers that “I touche but the abuses . . . When we accuse the Phicition for killing his patient, we finde no faulte with the Arte itselfe, but with him that hath abused the same,” 2 while Thomas Nashe’s Anatomie of Absurditie (1589) denies that the antitheatricalists have truly made this distinction: “[they] extend their invectives so farre against the abuse, that almost the things remaines not whereof they admitte anie lawfull use.” 3

Thomas Heywood makes the same point in 1612, when he writes of acting: “I hope there is no man of so unsensible a spirit, that can inveigh against the true . . . use of this quality: Oh but say they, the Romanes in their time, and some in these days have abused it, and therefore we volly out our exclamations against the use. Oh shallow! . . . The use of any generall thing is not for any one particular abuse to be condemned.” 4 Francis Rous (1622) concedes this tendency in some antitheatricalists, but ascribes it to [End Page 255] the enormity of the “abuse.” Acting is lawful in itself, he notes, “But such great abuses, have defiled this kind of Representation, that it hath not onely left the true and naturall profit of it, but it hath seemed to many grave and godlie men rather fit to be taken away than hopefull to be cured.” 5 Even supporters of the stage are at pains to note that they are not defending the “abuses” to which, they confess, that medium can be subjected. In 1612, John Taylor concluded that “Playes are good or bad, as they are us’d, / And best intentions often are abus’d,” 6 and Thomas Lodge’s Reply to Gosson (1580?) is typical: “I wish as zealously as the best that all abuse of playinge weare abolished, but for the thing, the antiquitie causeth me to allow it, so it be used as it should be.” 7

How can we define this all-important “abuse” of the theater? The participants in the debate usually portray it as a problem specific to contemporary London—“abuse” is a local and modern phenomenon. After noting the ancient patristic arguments against the theater as such, John Stockwood (1579) asks “And this they speake in the general dislike of them; but what would they have spoken thinke you, if they had seen the greate abuse of our playes?” 8 Gosson (1579) also distinguishes ancient from modern “abuse”: “if Diogenes were nowe alive, to see the abuses that growe by playes, I beleeve hee woulde rather to be a Londoners Hounde then his apprentice.” 9 Sometimes the contemporary theater as a whole is identified as an “abuse” of poetry. Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry, which was composed in reply to Gosson’s The School of Abuse, maintains a strict distinction between edifying poetry and the vulgar theater: “But I have lavished out too many words of this play matter. I do it because, as they are excelling parts of poesy, so there is none so much used in England, and none can be more pitifully abused; which, like an unmannerly daughter, showing a bad education, causeth her mother poesy’s honesty to be called in question.” 10

On the other hand, most writers are quite willing to allow religious and educational drama. The main objection, it seems, is not to the theater per se, but to the startlingly new form taken by the...

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pp. 255-273
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