The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1324 Monday, 21 December 1998.
Date: Friday, 18 Dec 1998 15:17:07 -0500
Subject: 9.1317 Re: Ghost from Purgatory
Comment: Re: SHK 9.1317 Re: Ghost from Purgatory
I have no quarrel at all with the notion that the Elizabethan theater
engaged issues that arose as a result of the Reformation and
Counter-Reformation, and that were urgently before the minds of many
English people in the 1590s, questions of faith, of spiritual knowledge,
of salvation, of the modes of representation and mediation vouchsafed to
us by God, etc, etc. But some recent critics have wanted to take a
stronger line here, insisting that the theater was in some unexplained
way a compensation or surrogate for lost spiritual satisfactions, using
formulations like "the theaters offered their audiences a collective
theatrical experience much like the one that had been offered by the
Catholic church". This seems to me to beg a very great number of
questions. In fact, I very much doubt that any English Catholic Mass,
with the possible exception of Coronation masses, and these didn't
change much anyway, was anything at all like a theatrical performance,
any more than a modern Mass is like a performance of "The Odd Couple".
More importantly, such an argument threatens to confine Catholic (and
Protestant) spiritual practice and life to a few brief moments in
Church, surely a lamentably impoverished vision of early modern
religion. That some theaters, in some few instances, made use of former
church land is neither here nor there-most of them didn't and most old
church land was put to other use (if all theatres were so located, that
would be something else). That the theater was a large collective
undertaking and a popular success says nothing specific about its
relation to the Church-it had also been so when the Church was
flourishing a century earlier. That polemicists said Catholicism (or
Protestantism) was a bunch of cheap tricks doesn't mean the common
citizen thought the theater was a place where "unresolved desires left
by the Reformation could be engaged, and at least partially resolved".
What were these "unresolved desires"? Who experienced them? Do we
seriously believe that someone mulling over whether her soul was in
eternal peril for having gone to a heretical church service would have
this anxiety resolved by attending a performance of "Hamlet"? Concerns
about the nature and availability of repentance are implicit in "Doctor
Faustus", but that hardly means the play has somehow taken the place of
the old sacrament of penance. That would be a cheap trick!
Certainly religious issues, being urgent concerns, appear on the stage.
They also appear in Donne, Spenser, Byrd, Tallis, even Hilliard. And no
doubt some theater-goers also thought seriously about these religious
issues. How could they not? But we need to know a lot more than we do
about the character of early modern religious experience before we can
simply see the theater as remedying a postulated Elizabethan religious
impoverishment or confusion.