The Antitheatrical Body: Puritans and Performance in Early Modern England, 1577-1620

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du Toit, Simon William
Hildy, Franklin J.
The antitheatrical pamphlets published in Shakespeare's England provide an excellent view of the early modern religious engagement with the stage. However, critics have discussed the antitheatrical pamphlets most often by examining the theology or psychology they seem to represent. This study offers an interdisciplinary approach, as it stands at the shifting boundaries between performance studies, religious studies, and theatre historiography. It offers a close reading of puritan religious experience in the ethnographic grain, reading the struggle between the puritan and the stage through the lens of a contemporary discourse of embodiment: early modern humoral theory. Puritan practitioners of "spiritual physick" appropriated humoral physiology and integrated it with Calvinist theology to produce the embodied authority of prophetic performative speech. This study's central claim is that the struggle between the antitheatrical writers and the stage was a social drama, in which each side fought for social control of the authority of performative speech. I suggest that performance of prophetic speech is the primary signifier of puritan identity in English puritan culture. What distinctively identifies the puritan body is not physiological difference, but cultural practice, visible in the bodily dispositions constructed in puritan culture. The puritan body performs a paradox: it is closed, bridled, contained, and ordered; and it is open, permeable, passionately disclosing, and subject to dangerous motions and disorder. The puritan body knows itself as double. It is alienated from the flesh, and therefore constructs itself in a liminal process of becoming. I document evidence of a humorally grounded logic of practice within puritan culture; trace the outlines of the puritan body through the antitheatrical literature; and finally observe the social role of the antitheatrical pamphlets in the market for argument. The antitheatrical pamphlets order the worldly environment, shaping time and place to privilege the redemptive hegemony they construct. However, the pamphlets' engagement with the market for cheap godly print gradually served to etiolate their ritual authority. While the antitheatrical pamphlets served as "argument" that performed social distinctions, they also mark a transition in the public representation of puritanism, beginning the shift towards the carnivalesque body of the Stage Puritan.