Literature and Theatre
The English Protestant monarchy took the lead in exemplifying the continued importance of Christmas to post-Reformation England. Mostly the Christmas celebrations, which by the early seventeenth century had consolidated into a list of customary foods, activities, and entertainments, carried little or no potentially objectionable devotional content. The central ideal for the season was open-handed generosity, signified primarily by the copious amounts of food showered on guests. Traditional foods consumed during the holiday included roast meats, mince pies, and plum puddings washed down with wine, strong beer, and the 'strong brown ale' in the wassail cup. King James I's initiative on Christmas is reflected in John Taylor's Complaint of Christmas, the pamphlet that ends with the ecumenical suggestion that Protestant faith could use a little bolstering with Catholic charity and vice versa.
The Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine of transubstantiation were maintained during the early years of Reformation under Henry VIII. When Henry's young son Edward ascended the throne, the English Reformation gained momentum. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and the leading theologian during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, gradually adopted Huldrych Zwingli's figurative understanding of the sacraments as the official Anglican position, and reformed the liturgy accordingly. This chapter focuses on crucial moments in Philip Sidney's romance narrative Arcadia that are informed by Eucharistic thinking, rituals, and emotional experience. As a remnant of the officially abandoned faith, the Catholic Eucharist remained an active force in Elizabethan culture for a wealth of reasons. Not only did a considerable group of Englishmen and women cling to the old faith, but the potential official return to Catholicism also remained an issue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
One common response to the seemingly radical tonal shift between Acts 4 and 5 has been to scour the latter for signs of dissension and unease: evidence that all is not as well in Belmont as it appears. This chapter expresses that the two acts are united by a pervasive Easter symbolism that revolves around Shylock's conversion. Act 4's echoes of the passion and crucifixion are well known. But if Act 4 alludes to Good Friday, Act 5 alludes to Holy Saturday and the dawning of Easter Sunday. While the language and rituals of the Easter Vigil present an uncomplicated narrative of Jewish-Christian succession, the liturgy's complicated history raises implicit questions about that narrative and about the immutability of any religious identity. Protestant familiarity with the Vigil appears to have come through multiple channels. The play is unquestionably more interested in Christian harmony than in Christian-Jewish harmony.
This chapter examines how the conventions of the goodnight ballad contribute to or even constitute both how and what the songs communicate. In Eastward Ho, an understanding of the public use and persuasive power of the goodnight ballads clarifies the satirical and coercive intent of the final song. The reading does not dwell on the sincerity and agenda of a single character. Such a reading finds the play satirical about drama yet serious about grace, providing a commentary on how style, form, and convention can simultaneously and uneasily both facilitate and subsume sincerity and honesty. Goodnight ballads fit well into Bruce Smith's balladic assessment as they are psychological, social, and emotional as well as both political and religious. They create communities though participation and inclusion as well as through delineation and exclusion. While every goodnight ballad deviates somewhat from the conventions, most follow a highly recognizable script.
For decades, John Webster's The White Devil has been pushed and pulled between the poles 'early' and 'modern'. On one end is the claim that the play in fact offers a complexly moralist, even providentialist worldview. On the other end is the reading of The White Devil as a cynical, even radical tragedy. This tragedy bears witness to a culture facing nihilistic anxieties and represents the many subversive tendencies of early modern English tragedies more generally. This chapter expresses that The White Devil, with its many religious references and performances, offers less than moralism, more than cynicism. Following the longstanding evaluation of religion in early modern English studies, the chapter re-examines the purpose of religious performance, cynicism, and meta-theatricality in The White Devil. The White Devil is especially attuned to religious mediation as a process of inter-subjectivity.
The 1570 "Homelie against Disobedience" and court sermons responding to the Northern Rebellion and the threat posed by Mary Stuart employ biblical figures to develop a spiritual interpretation of current events. Public sermons in 1587, the year of Mary Stuart’s execution, and in 1589 likewise use biblical typology which shades into nationalism. Recent critics see the Mercilla episode, in its idealization of Elizabeth’s attitude and inaccurate presentation of Mary Stuart’s trial, as evidence of Spenser’s bad faith or a sophisticated critique of power. Rather, his allegory recalls preachers’ use of typology to spiritualize recent events and present them as reflecting well upon Elizabeth and God’s care of England.
Occasional liturgies are scripts for religious services which respond to specific occasions: emergencies like plague (in 1563), Muslim invasions in Europe (in 1565 and 1566), bad weather (in 1571), the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the London earthquake of 1580, the Spanish invasion (expected from 1586 through 1588), or plots against the queen like Dr. Parry’s in 1585 and Babington’s in 1586. Two occasional liturgies from 1576 and 1585 offer readings and prayers for November 17, signalling that, like Pentecost and Christmas, Accession Day was part of the church year. Identifying England with Israel, liturgists treated Elizabethan current events and public figures as interchangeable with events and characters described in the Bible. Elizabethan churchgoers thus had abundant training in decoding allegorical narratives—a facility they could bring to a reading of The Faerie Queene.
Elizabethan preachers and homilists embraced providentialism, looking to history, both biblical and secular, to read universal moral principles and God’s eternal purposes in their contemporary scene. According to John Aylmer, Esther was a type of Anne Boleyn while Mordechai figured Archbishop Cranmer; Richard Curteys saw Athaliah as a type of Mary Tudor, and David foreshadowed Elizabeth. According to William Barlow, the Roman Coriolanus typified the Earl of Essex, while the earl perversely saw himself as David and Elizabeth as Saul—an identification Barlow took seriously enough to refute at some length. Thomas Holland, preaching on Accession Day, recounted the positive attributes and godly behaviour of the Queen of Sheba without explicitly identifying her with Elizabeth, demonstrating how adept sermon-goers were expected to be at the kind of allegorical reading The Faerie Queene demands.
Some 20th and 21st century literary critics treat allegoresis as a project fraught with psychological and philosophical complexity and The Faerie Queene as deliberately obscure or ironic. Most early marginal comments demonstrate that Spenser’s first readers found the poem’s allegorical message accessible and mainstream. Sermons, aspiring like Spenser (in this work) to orthodoxy, are similarly didactic. When a preacher addressed a public audience, biblical types of Elizabeth like Moses, David, and Hezekiah, appeared without reference to unedifying details. The implication for The Faerie Queene (though not for all of Spenser’s work): ostensible praise and blame may be taken at face value.
Sermon references to courtiers and court inveigh against ambition, luxury, pleasure-seeking, flattery, and intrigue while commending biblical courtiers like Joseph, Moses, David, and Nehemiah for their godliness and service to common people. Elizabethan courtesy, a Christian virtue reflecting the character of God, is properly manifested in court as well as contryside: by noblemen to those in distress and to commoners like shepherds, and conversely by hospitable householders like Abraham and Lot to their angel visitors, or Caelia to Redcrosse and Melibœ to Calidore. Its opposite is malicious slander like that personified in the Blatant Beast. Sermon references to court and courtesy show that Spenser’s treatment of these topoi, far from being subversive or jaded, is very conventional. Spenser’s Calidore had important biblical role models, particularly in Nehemiah and Moses.