In E.K. Chambers 4-volume book on The Elizabethan Stage, the 160 pages of texts he terms “Documents of Criticism” and “Documents of Control,” (4.184-344), give some sense of the intense opposition to the Stage that the actors and their patrons were up against. Whether framed in terms of religion: that it led to sin, or of politics: that it led to riots; or of public health: that it led to epidemics, the fundamental opposition was more than just to boys imitating women, peasants imitating kings, unruly crowds, bawdy stories and fear of riots. Fueling it from deep within both hearts and minds was a strange and terrible fear of imaginative literature.
Chambers goes only so far as his subject permits, but the fear and loathing engendered by the Stage was only a small part of a spreading nervousness, not only about imaginative writing, but about all forms of Art, a nervousness that was not limited to the Protestant Reformation, but infected the Catholic Counter-Reformation as well. A tide of right-wing hysteria over Sin and the Devil spread through Europe, leading to the horrors of the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, and to rabid witch hunts in Germany and France. Authorities have always been nervous about writers, witness Ovid’s exile and Cicero’s beheading. But this went deeper than politics, to an existential fear of life itself.
In England, pictorial art sunk to the lowest level it would ever reach. In a culture where extremists had just finished destroying most of the public art, smashing the stained glass windows and the statues in the churches, making bonfires of their paintings of saints and their beautifully carved rood screens, melting down the gold and silver altar plate, it’s hardly surprising that native born artists were not encouraged. Science too was driven underground by a widespread fear of sorcery and demon worship. That the literary arts were held back by the same kinds of fears is never given the weight it deserves.
Fears learned at school
This negative attitude towards art and science was being taught to English schoolboys as can be seen from the works of pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham. In his 1563 book The Schoolmaster, Ascham, tutor to the Queen, had this to say of music and math:
Some wits, moderate enough by nature, be many times marred by overmuch study and use of some sciences, namely, music, arithmetic, and geometry. These sciences, as they sharpen men’s wits overmuch, so they change men’s manners oversore, if they be not moderately mingled, & wisely applied to some good use of life. . . . Galen saith, much music marreth men’s manners. . . .
Thus, the practice of science and art must be bent towards practical ends, pure enjoyment was not just a waste of time, it was actually harmful. During the previous generation, similar comments were made by Sir Thomas Elyot, whose 1531 book, The Gouvernor, the primary work on the subject of teaching the nobility during Oxford’s childhood, has this to say about music:
It were therefore better that no music were taught to a nobleman than, by the exact knowledge therof he should have therein inordinate delight, and by that be elected to wantonness, abandoning gravity, and the necessary cure [care] and office in the public weal [health] to him committed. . . ; it suffic[eth] a nobleman, having therein knowledge, either to use [music] secretly, for the refreshing of his wit when he hath time of solace, or else, only hearing the contention of noble musicians, to give judgement in the excellency of their cunnings [skills].
Yet, however poorly they regarded music as a profession, neither of these humanist pedagogues would have been equally dismissive of poetry, for without poetry they would have had little means of teaching their students Greek or Latin. Not only were most of the texts they commended for use in class written in verse, a favorite method for teaching writing was to have students translate a text from prose to verse or from verse to prose (Baldwin 1.88). Nevertheless, outside university and humanist circles anxieties over sin were causing authorities to cast an increasingly sour eye on the literary arts. As a result, English literature during the period preceding Shakespeare was not just mediocre, it was terrible.
Drenched in daubs of doomy dread
Early 20th-century critic, C.S. Lewis, has given this period in English literature its lasting label:“the drab era.” To see the truth of this one has only to read a few poems by Thomas Churchyard, or George Turberville. Not only were the preferred topics of their day on the morbid side, dwelling largely on old age and death, or if on love, on only its worst aspects. Their verses trot grimly along like overburdened little donkeys in an unchanging, end-stopped, clip-clop rhythm.
Nor is their prose much better. The 1561 translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano into English by Thomas Hoby is a prime example of the twisted syntax and limited vocabulary of what was then the approved prose style, a delicious irony, for while Castiglione’s book was considered the ne plus ultra of elegant Italian, of Renaissance sprezzatura, Hoby’s English is so dull and so hard to follow that a modern editor has found it necessary to translate some of the denser passages. As Burghley’s brother-in-law, we can feel certain that Hoby’s prose would have been the style admired by the translators gathered at Cecil House during Oxford’s early teen years.
Drab was the style throughout all writing in the 1560s, and God help anyone bold enough to try something different! As the nation regained its balance after the decades of religious revolution (roughly 1540-1560), the European Renaissance, so long in coming to England due to the years of political and religious strife––like a light struggling to break through heavily curtained windows––found new opposition from reformers who suspected anything that smacked of Art. Beauty was the Devil’s favorite lure. After all, weren’t Homer and Ovid and all those other ancient poets little more than pagan devil worshippers? Poets were liars––didn’t Plato say so?
Poetry meant imaginative literature
We must keep in mind that, to the Elizabethans, the word poetry meant more than it does now. To them the term covered imaginative literature of any kind, novels, novellas, criticism, satire, journals, and plays as well as what we think of as verse. (Writers we call playwrights, they called poets; the OED lists first use of the word playwright to 1687. ) Even things we’d call prose were considered poetry if the writer colored his descriptions of landscapes, conversations or events with touches of artistry.
So the argument was not just against rhyme and meter; it was against allowing the imagination the slightest bit of freedom. We must keep in mind that the concept of Art as something potentially sublime was a product of the Renaissance that had not yet reached England, where, still mired in a medieval view of the world, artists were seen simply as ordinary artisans with specialized skills; portrait painters were on the same level with sign painters, writers with secretaries, actors with acrobats, and so forth.
In 1579, Stephen Gosson, recently graduated from Oxford and in need of a living, was paid by the bishops to attack his former mates, the playwrights of Norton Folgate, in a pamphlet “containing a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters and such-like Caterpillars of a commonwealth.” Adopting the euphuistic style recently popularized by John Lyly and Robert Greene, Gosson fired his verbal cannonade:
. . . as I cannot but commend his wisdom, which in banqueting feeds most upon that that doth nourish best, so must I dispraise his method in writing, which, following the course of amorous Poets, dwelleth longest in those points that profit least and, like a wanton whelp [an untrained hunting dog], leaveth the game [hunt] to run riot. The scarab flies over many a sweet flower and lights in a cowsherd. It is the custom of the fly to leave the sound places of the horse and suck at the botch [anus]; the nature of colloquintida, to draw the worst humors to itself; the manner of swine, to forsake the fair fields, and wallow in the mire. And the whole practice of Poets, either with fables to show their abuses, or with plain terms to unfold their mischief, discover their shame, discredit themselves, and disperse their poison through all the world.
And so forth, as he compares the playwrights to every nasty thing he can think of. Having heard rumors perhaps that Philip Sidney frowned on the Stage, Gosson dedicated his diatribe to him. Mortified, Sidney, accepted now as one of the great poets of the coming age, responded with his famous Apologie. Not all plays are worthwhile, admits Sidney, noting some abuses that particularly irritate him, but Poetry itself is hardly to blame since all the ancient works of wisdom and knowledge were poems.
Whiffs of sulfur and “taunting judgments”
To the reformers, however, Sidney’s tract was simply beside the point. As they knew full well, writers capable of stirring the intellect and rousing the emotions are all too easily drawn into the service of the Devil, so the better the writing, the more dangerous. All behavior, writing included, must be constantly guarded lest it slip into Sin. In everything, including writing, the best way is the cautious way, the middle way, avoiding ornamentation or rhetoric, that is, except where needed to combat the Devil. After all, if preachers couldn’t use their imaginations to create nightmare visions of the torments of Hell it might be impossible to frighten the unwary back to virtue.
Added to the Devil’s tricks and the anxieties of pedagogues were the attacks of literary critics, as damaging to creative experimentation then as now, and even more influential. Though as yet unpublished, every circle had its own critic, guardian of the group’s interest, whose greatest pleasure came from tearing apart any newly published work of the imagination. Unlike the reformers, these were the guardians of the greatness of the ancients. Nothing new could ever come close, certainly nothing in English. Thus a constant theme in these early works is the concern over “carping correctors,” a universally negative attitude attributed to envy, which meant something closer to malice then than it does today.
So this was the Elizabethan poet’s Catch-22: if it’s not good enough to tempt the Devil then it must be really badly written. The 1566 preface to Painter’s Pallace of Pleasure is an early example of what most concerned writers and printers:
Enjoy therefore . . . this present book, and courteously with friendly talk report the same, for if otherwise thou do abuse it, the blame shall light on thee and not on me, which only of good will did mean it first. But yet if blaming tongues and unstayed heads will needs be busy, they shall sustain the shame,. . . . No virtuous deed or zealous work can want [lack] due praise of the honest, though faulting fools and youthly heads full oft do chant the faultless check that Momus’s mouth did once find out in Venus’s slipper.
Point being: anyone who dared to publish his own poetry was setting himself up for a drubbing. (The reference to Venus’s slipper comes from Erasmus’s Adagia, an allusion to Momus, the god of satire, who castigated Venus for adorning herself. Had she remained as pristine as she was when borne from the sea her beauty could not be faulted, but by adorning herself with fancy shoes, etc., she lowered herself to a common trollop.)
Yet change was in the wind. And as so often happens when a cultural pendulum has been pulled to one extreme for too long, this one was about to swing, very fast and just as far, to the opposite extreme. And no power in England, no Devil’s temptation, no fear of critic’s envy or of royal prejudice was going to stop it. The genie known as the English Literary Renaissance was about to be released from the bottle it had been stoppered up in since Chaucer first returned from Italy, and no one––not the Church, not the Cecils, not the monarch––could ever force it in again, though Heaven knows they tried.