In 1605, the Bishop of Lincoln noted that no one would denounce his neighbours for religiously unorthodox opinions ‘unless he be very malicious’. William Chaderton was an enthusiastic pursuer of recusants, and no non-conformist himself, but even someone who spent much of his time dealing with the problem of religious heterodoxy recognised the way in which neighbourliness trumps other ideologies. In this book, Brian Walsh considers the importance of such ‘quotidian ecumenism’ (p. 54) in relation to the stage and argues that ‘the theater helped to create, enlarge, and sustain an open-ended public conversation on the vicissitudes of getting along in a sectarian world’ (p. 2). Walsh draws on a useful phrase from Willem Frijoff—‘the ecumenicity of everyday’—to express what, despite the religious difference on which historians focus, was the lived experience of many: ‘informal daily intercourse and peaceful co-existence among people, regardless of their confessional leanings’ (p. 9). Walsh analyses the language of religious division and queries ‘the cultural work’ (p. 20) done by labels such as Puritan, Papist or Brownist. One interesting example of the malleability of such labels is the name of Jonson’s character Win-the-Fight. Despite her humorously explicit Puritan name, Win-the-Fight goes by the diminutive ‘Win’, and therefore her religious affiliation can be misread—or is she intentionally distancing herself from her mother’s sectarian naming?—for ‘Win’ is also the diminutive of a popular Catholic saint (‘you thought her name had been Winifred, did you not?’ [Bartholomew Fair, 1.3.128–9]). The book consists of five chapters: Chapter One covers sectarian divisions in Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris; Chapter Two discusses Puritans in city comedy (primarily Middleton and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair); Chapter Three turns to Shakespeare and explores the extent to which Malvolio and Angelo can be considered Puritans; Chapter Four discusses the use of the label ‘Lutheran’ in Rowley’s When You See Me You Know Me; and Chapter Five considers the balance of Catholicism and reformed thought in Pericles. Given the title, the reader is led to expect, if not a treatment of Islam and Judaism, at least more on Catholicism and recusancy, but this is at heart a book about how shades of Protestantism (and Puritanism in particular) are engaged with on the early modern stage. Recent criticism has shown that the godly were less antithetical to the stage than has long been assumed; but Walsh’s original insight is that theatrical types could also be tolerant towards Puritanism. In Chapter Two, Walsh successfully illustrates how, in city comedy, ‘the foibles ascribed to Puritans tend to blur into the more general attack on vice to which the period’s dramatists subject their society as a whole’ (p. 40). Walsh works to find evidence in plays which are usually seen simply as ‘anti-Puritan’ that ‘integration and inclusion tend to be the outcomes for Puritan characters’ as the plays ‘provide models of allowance, if each in deeply ambivalent ways’ (p. 41). Walsh is persuasive (particularly in relation to Middleton’s The Puritan Widow) in his argument that the stage Puritan encodes both ‘the complex acknowledgement that hypocrisy is rampant in the world of early modern London, and the simultaneous attempt to make Puritans bear a disproportionate share of derision for this’ (p. 50). Chapter Three turns to Shakespeare and interrogates the universally accepted idea that Malvolio and Angelo are linked with Puritanism. Walsh brings a refreshing scepticism to the debate and argues that these plays draw attention ‘to the problem of signifying religious difference through accusatory, partisan labels’ (p. 126)—although he does end by accepting the traditional reading. Walsh rightly stresses Olivia’s oft-overlooked valuation of Malvolio (though it is arguable whether Olivia values him ‘because’ [p. 87] of his Puritanism) but perhaps rather glosses over the extent to which her famous exclamation—‘oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio’—expresses a critique of his isolationist attitude. Walsh’s argument is at its most persuasive when he accepts the traditional idea of Malvolio and Feste as representative of different religious outlooks (as well as two characters with a personal animus) and suggests that Olivia’s desire to have both among her household ‘represents a gesture towards everyday ecumenicity which the play fails to enact’ (p. 111). Walsh’s reading of Measure for Measure likewise brings a new sense that Shakespeare is at odds with the inclusive aims of other city comedy in these plays: ‘by linking unfinished happy endings to the persistence of religious strife, both plays warp comic form to offer a sceptical assessment of the prospects for social harmony in an age of factionalism’ (p. 88). The strength of Walsh’s thesis lies in its genuinely fresh take on the extent to which the stage could include, or engage with, its Puritan characters, rather than simply reject or ridicule them. It includes rarely studied plays (such as A Knack to Know a Knave and An Humorous Day’s Mirth) alongside more well-known examples to show how ‘plays that feature godly characters offer an integrationist rather than an exclusionary approach to the problem religious dissenters posed for English society’ (p. 11). What is perhaps most surprising about Walsh’s thesis is that he presents Shakespeare’s plays as being less tolerant in this regard than his contemporaries—Malvolio and Angelo are more excluded from the ‘happy-ending’ of their comedies than Zeal-of-the-Land Busy or the titular Puritan Widow. (Given the importance of both Puritanism and Shakespeare to this book, however, it would have been good to have had a fuller engagement with Falstaff, and how his surprising Puritan ancestry plays out in very different ways from that of Malvolio and Angelo; although, pertinently for Walsh’s argument, he, too, ends up being excluded.) Walsh’s readings are generous and nuanced, and this is an original and thought-provoking book which fully succeeds in its aim of ‘defamiliariz[ing] certain critical assumptions about the way Puritanism is depicted’ (p. 96) on the stage, and examining how this contributes to the ‘richly perplexing’ (p. 127) endings of Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure in particular. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 3, 2018
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