Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England by Ellen MacKay, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

by Ellen MacKay

View All Available Formats & Editions

The theater of early modern England was a disastrous affair. The scant record of its performance demonstrates as much, for what we tend to remember today of the Shakespearean stage and its history are landmark moments of dissolution: the burning down of the Globe, the forced closure of playhouses during outbreaks of the plague, and the abolition of the theater by


The theater of early modern England was a disastrous affair. The scant record of its performance demonstrates as much, for what we tend to remember today of the Shakespearean stage and its history are landmark moments of dissolution: the burning down of the Globe, the forced closure of playhouses during outbreaks of the plague, and the abolition of the theater by its Cromwellian opponents.


 Persecution, Plague, and Fire is a study of these catastrophes and the theory of performance they convey. Ellen MacKay argues that the various disasters that afflicted the English theater during its golden age were no accident but the promised end of a practice built on disappearance and erasure—a kind of fatal performance that left nothing behind but its self-effacing poetics. Bringing together dramatic theory, performance studies, and theatrical, religious, and cultural history, MacKay reveals the period’s radical take on the history and the future of the stage to show just how critical the relation was between early modern English theater and its public.

Editorial Reviews

Comitatus - Jennie Friedrich

“[A]n engaging and rich exploration of drama’s unique relationship with history. Readers willing to indulge Mackay’s new historicist impulses will appreciate her relentless and enthusiastic engagement with the theoretical ‘stuff’ of early modern performance.”
Times Literary Supplement - Tiffany Stern

“The book has much to recommend it as a new approach to old stories. Its bold analysis and focus on various forms of destruction remind us that catastrophe could be creatively harnessed and exploited. The suggestion that perilousness is the point of theatre, rather than a consequence of it, revivifies and repositions the anecdotes MacKay tells. . . . [A] book for those interested in theorizing the creative potential of theatrical disaster.”
W. B. Worthen

Persecution, Plague, and Fire is a provocative and important book, one of the few—in some senses, the only—to engage both pro- and antitheatrical discourse in early modern England. MacKay’s effort to track a kind of conceptual aporia in the early modern theater’s understanding of its historical position, and indeed of its effective means, is developed in great detail, and with significant interpretive flair and originality. It’s a very powerful book.”

Joseph Roach

“Theater practitioners have drawn crowds with catastrophe since the first ancient chorus swooned and fell to the ground, but Ellen MacKay shows how the Elizabethans added plague and perdition to their preoccupation with ‘soundrie slaughters and mayhemmings’ caused by the devilish engines of the stage, literal and figurative. Persecution, Plague, and Fire is written with pyrotechnics that rival the stage fires it witnesses.”

David Bevington

“How did the Elizabethan theater manage to achieve its incomparable greatness—or even to survive—in a time of relentless plague, Puritan hostility, fires, and other vicissitudes of adverse fortune? Ellen MacKay’s brilliant insight is to narrate a story of theatrical enterprise based on disastrous accidents, erasure, and a taxonomy of fatal performance, leaving an undiscovered poetics in its wake. This book superbly captures the sense in which the Elizabethan theater is so quintessentially like all theater at its best and most evanescent: now you see it, now you don’t. The life of performance resides apocalyptically in its impermanence.”

Sixteenth Century Journal - Colleen E. Kennedy

“A demanding yet rewarding eschatological reading of the early modern English theater. . . . Important and erudite.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Persecution, Plague, and Fire

Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50019-5

Chapter One

The Theater as Persecution

Tragedy's Guilty Creatures

Even before Jonas Barish yoked the terms together, it has been the custom in criticism to regard antitheatricalism as a prejudice. The view of the stage as a fundamentally benign institution, falsely accused and wrongly condemned, is stuck fast in the thinking of a discipline that takes the Poetics as a foundational text. And yet, as to the question of how we know the theater is good, criticism can offer little grounds for an answer. Hard evidence of the theater's salubrity is hard evidence to gather so long as we know that a play is only pretense, its relation to the real world figurative and fleeting. If, as Maria von Trapp tells us (paraphrasing Lucretius), "nothing comes of nothing; nothing ever could," it follows that the theater, the place where nothing is consigned to happen, must be defined by its incapacity to do something good.

To grant tragedy a way out of this dilemma, Aristotle champions the virtue of the theater's inconsequence; his ingenuity is to see in a play's eventlessness safe conduit for emotions that might, if left unchecked, lead to acts unfriendly to the state. The theater as he imagines it therefore demonstrates its worth not by what it does but by what it keeps from happening, rendering its influence an unchartable succession of crises vicariously purged and averted. One of the more remarkable features of this philosophy is its persistence; even Brecht, who is the keenest critic of catharsis, marvels at its continuing ability to keep history on the straight and narrow path of an unyielding status quo. Calling it an "illusion that excites [the spectator] for two hours and then leaves him more tired than ever, filled only with vague memories and vaguer hopes," Brecht regards Aristotelian drama as the guarantor of time's unruffled passage, an apparatus deployed by the state to strongarm the past and present into quiet and seamless alignment.

Against the long tradition of a theater that promises nothing as its best effect, the theater of early modern England subscribes its audience to a very different bargain. My introduction has shown that its accidental archive preserves performances whose disappearance leaves a mark. This first chapter takes up the English playhouse's signature injury; its gift for "turn[ing]" the "guttes" of the spectator "outward" and "blaz[ing] with colours to the peoples eye" his, or more likely "her secret conveighaunce." Odd as it sounds, this is a talent the theater is proud of; the quotation comes from Stephen Gosson's paraphrase of a lost scene in Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London (1581), in which the allegorical character of Conscience recommends playgoing as a preventative to sin's concealment. To Gosson's great vexation, this gut-spilling ends up furnishing the emerging stage with its most vindicating rationale. In what follows, my aim is to account for the tenacity of this idea, by bringing out what tends to get forgotten in conscience's protheatrical use: the catastrophic alignment with Rome's debauched past.

Since the closest thing to a theatrical manifesto in early modern England is Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors (c. 1608), it seems appropriate to begin where it starts: the dream sequence in which Heywood renders antitheatricalism a nightmare from which he cannot awaken. At "about that time of night when darkness had already overspread the world," the playwright reports being summoned like a knight-errant to the defense of the tragic muse Melpomene, who appeared to him with "her heyre rudely disheveled, her chaplet withered, her whole complexion quite faded and altered; and ... her habit ... with the envenomed juice of some prophane spilt inke in every place stained: nay more, her busken of a wonted Jewels and ornaments, utterly despoiled." It is no wonder that scholarly posterity regards antitheatricalism as a prejudice when the Apology paints the stage as the virgin-victim to the "seditious Sectists" of the age. But as to the question of how he knows the theater is good, and thus well suited to the "despoiled" "busken" of a victim's part, Heywood turns with pride to its unsafety record. In the Apology, proof of the stage's service to the state is the hurt-or to be more exact, the capital punishment-that comes of fooling.

It is a canny move on Heywood's part to have Melpomene first make this service known. No sooner has she appeared to him than she reminds the playwright of the virtues of her art: "Have not I whipt Vice with a scourge of steele,/Unmaskt sterne Murther; sham'd lascivious lust,/Pluct off the visar from grimme treasons face,/And made the Sunne point at their ugly sinnes?" By its own contention, the theater-or at least its most serious and metonymic genre—advertises itself as a force of reckoning: at once infallible inquisitor and forensic genius. Inasmuch as both are purgatorial in design, the manner of this business is not unlike the work of catharsis, but whereas Aristotle's tragedy clears the air of any sins in the making, Heywood's exposes the sinners in its midst: by the mysterious workings of the theater's vigilante justice, occulted and unsolved crimes are brought to a righteous close. Thus to Melpomene, as to Hieronimo, the value of the theater is the carnage of just deserts that it doles out.

Implicit, though perhaps not very, in this idea of the stage is the pleasure taken in bringing chickens home to roost. While our stock account of the spectatorial experience is all about suspension and sublimation, with audiences suffering the emotional travail of their witnessing in the full and reassuring certainty of its inconsequence, the spirit of Tragedy from which Heywood takes dictation delivers the satisfaction of endings borne out in the here and now. The result is a very different understanding of the theater's relation to history: in contrast to Brecht's opiate of the masses, the theater enacts a justice denied by the state, supplying the catastrophes demanded by crimes that have gone unpunished. At its most self-righteous, then, Tragedy defines itself to an early modern English audience as an instrument of eventuation, a means of crashing the curtain down on lamentable histories that have somehow escaped the de casibus routine.

The wunderkammer of "strange accidents" and "like wonder[s]" that make up the Apology for Actors advertise this apotheothetical feature. Heywood finds, for instance, that the "whole world" would not have been conquered had not Alexander witnessed "the destruction of Troy acted"; he finds too that it could not have been brought low a second time if Julius Caesar had not watched "the like representation of Alexander in the Temple of Hercules." In sum, the whole cataclysmic business of history—the rise and ruin that take us from one age to the next—depends upon dramatic performance, such that "to see a Hector all besmeared in blood, tramping upon the bulkes of Kinges," remains the certain course to "any noble and notable attempt." Clearly, the pattern of theatrical influence The Apology lays out is not at all in keeping with the idyll of Aristotelian tragedy. For its elite audience of kings and emperors, drama wields a ground-clearing force: it prods great men into great acts of desolation. Still, this sort of influence is not quite the fulfillment of Melpomene's promise, and Heywood seems to know it. With actors' "Antiquity" and "Ancient Dignity" well established, "it followes," he writes, "that we prove these exercises to have beene the discoverers of many notorious murders, long concealed from the eyes of the world." Thus distinguished as the climactic evidence of his defense's closing argument, the two incidents that he marshals to this end are worth a close look.

The first of these concerns a "Norfolk" woman (from the town of "Lin") who is suddenly troubled to distraction by a performance of Friar Francis, a play that survives only in the Apology's remembrance. This "old history," hoary even in Heywood's time, rehearses a familiar moral: a young wife, "insatiately doting on a young gentleman," murders her husband and then suffers the visitations of his angry ghost. Heywood reports that "as this was acted," the "townswoman, (till then of great estimation and report) finding her conscience ... extremely troubled," suddenly cried out "oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatening and menacing me." Roused by her "shrill and unexpected outcry," "the people about her, moov'd to a strange amazement, inquired the reason of her clamor, when presently un-urged, she told them that seven years earlier, she, to be possest of such a Gentleman ... had poisoned her husband, whose fearefull image personated itself in the shape of that ghost." The event resolves in the way that the play might have, had it been permitted to continue: apprehended and examined by the city justices, the woman is condemned for murder and sent to the scaffold.

A second case of an oddly similar type is said to have taken place in Amsterdam, a stop for a troupe of English players touring abroad. This time the play in question dramatizes the conspiracy of a group of laborers to murder one of their company, a penitent named Renaldo whose industriousness has made the rest of the men redundant. To put an end to his overzeal, the laborers wait for Renaldo to fall asleep, then drive a nail into his temple. During the climactic act of this conspiracy, Heywood reports that once again "a sudden outcry" erupted from a remote gallery. Pressing in upon the site, the audience perceived "a woman of great gravity, strangely amazed, who with a distracted and troubled brain oft sighed out the words 'oh my husband, my husband!' " Too overwrought to watch the rest, the woman was conducted home, where she languished despite the care of her solicitous neighbors. Among her visitors was the local churchwarden, who bore this strange news from his sexton: in "ripping up" a grave in the parish cemetery, a skull was exhumed "with a great nayle pierst quite through the braine-pan." Hearing of this discovery, and "out of the trouble of her afflicted conscience," the widow admitted to the murder of her husband twelve years earlier, by "driving that nayle into that skull." The authorities are then left to hasten the tale to a just conclusion: "this being publicly confest," Heywood writes, "she was arraigned, condemned, adjudged, and burned."

Several of their features recommend these stories for the special place they occupy in the Apology, as Heywood is eager to point out. Until now his argument has depended upon the wisdom of the ancients, and he has wielded it dutifully enough ("The word Tragedy ... is derived from the Greeke word [for] goat," begins one lesson). But at the last, Heywood decides to abandon "all farre-fetched instances" and prove his case by "domestike" and "homeborne truth[s]," "which within these few yeares happened." What persuades is therefore neither "Antiquity" nor "Ancient Dignity" (if the two can be held distinct), but gossip, preserved in the form of the "domestike" and "homeborne" anecdote. At once outré, unspecific, yet (Heywood purports) all too "tru[e]," the wonders that he cites to supplant the more authoritative proofs of "ancient" history are much like Gawdy's news, for what makes the playhouse the place to search out final reckonings is the gut-turning hurt that comes of fooling.

It is impossible to know whether these widows catch hold of the public's imagination to the extent that Heywood claims they do ("these therefore out of other infinites, I have collected, both for their familiarnesse and latenesse of memory"). Unquestionably, though, their story lingers in the minds of his fellow dramatists. Three separate tragedies rehearse some version of his lore, each one during an inset or offset meditation on the judicial virtues of theatrical performance. In A Warning for Fair Women (1596), three male bystanders are inspired by the "strange" "reveal" of a local murder to trade stories on the subject of homicides supernaturally discovered (2019). The climactic example in this suite sounds remarkably familiar:

    A woman that had made away her husband,
    And sitting to behold the tragedy
    At Linne a towne in Norffolke,
    Acted by Players travelling that way,
    Wherein a woman that had murtherd hers
    Was ever haunted with her husband's ghost:
    The passion written by a feeling pen,
    And acted by a good Tragedian,
    She was so mooved with the sight thereof,
    As she cryed out, the Play was made by her,
    And openly confesst her husband's murder. (2037–48)

Philip Massinger offers a saucier version of the same tale when he has Paris, the hero of The Roman Actor (1626), hauled before the Senate to defend his profession. Charged with assailing "persons of rank and quality" with barbed satire (1.3.39), Paris reasons that the poignancy of a play is hardly the fault of its performer, as when his company presents

      a loose adult'ress,
    That does maintain the riotous expense
    Of him that feeds her greedy lust, yet suffers
    The lawful pledges of a former bed
    To starve the while for hunger; if a matron
    Howsoever great in fortune, birth or titles
    Guilty of such a foul, unnatural sin,
    Cries out, "'Tis writ by me," we cannot help it. (1.3.115–22)

That last exclamation—"'Tis writ by me!"—is especially telling. Unlike Master James, the townsman who means to thrill his audience with the strangeness of the widow's outcry in A Warning for Fair Women, Paris banks on this confession's legibility: like Heywood does with "Oh my husband, my husband!," Massinger imagines " 'Tis writ by me!" to stand in for the elocution of a crime that needs no actual confessing. The difference between A Warning and The Roman Actor, then, is the distance between accidental news and "an old proverb verified." By the time Massinger backdates the phrase to Domitian's Empire, a good thirty years after his anonymous colleague dramatizes it, the playwright's interest is not in the surprise of the confession but in the familiarity of its occurrence, rendering the confession of the Norfolk widow at once inexorable and axiomatic.

The reason, as one might well conjecture, is Hamlet (1601). At a turning point in this tragedy, the Prince seeks a way to assess the guilt of his uncle, and hits upon a solution that turns Master James' anecdote into Massinger's polygraph test:

      I have heard
    That guilty creatures, sitting at a play
    Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
    Been struck so to the soul that presently
    They have proclaim'd their malefactions.
    For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
    With most miraculous organ. (2.2.584–90)

Hamlet's recourse to the proverbial—murder will out—makes his scheme close enough to A Warning's gossip to pass for a paraphrase of it. At the same time, Hamlet's extrapolation—a play's the thing that outs murder—formalizes the confessional effect that Paris says his company "cannot help." From here it is but a short step to an unsurprising conclusion: The Mousetrap is the cornerstone of guilty creature lore. Its self-exonerating display of how performance works still grips our imagination with an idea of the theater that is outré, badly evidenced, and yet convincingly 'true.' Chapter 2 will test the strength of Hamlet's theory in some detail; for now, I mean only to emphasize the way that Hamlet, in his recollection of "proclaim'd" "malefactions," makes the case for the theater's "true use" and "quality." In a play that is engrossed by the question what has the theater done for us? and that offers such beguiling answers as furnished our happiest memories and supplied our fondest acquaintance, it is here, at the moment of The Mousetrap's conception, that the stage promises as its greatest good history's redress. In Hamlet the performance of a play not only draws out the true circumstances of the past succession, but summons down an appropriately cataclysmic end.

Crucially, then, Hamlet does not just vindicate acting, but holds up the theater as a cure for a troubled age. Since it is the Prince's unsought mission to "right" a time that is "out of joint" (1.5.197, 196)—a time that, as Claudius says, has given "justice" the "shove" (3.3.58)—the virtue of Hamlet's tragedy, and (to proceed in the common extrapolation) of tragedy in general, is justice's long-awaited reappearance, returning the "native hue of resolution" to a world "sicklied o'er" (3.1.84, 85). By their strange mixture of the accidental and the apotheothetical, "guilty creatures, sitting at a play" are thus responsible for tragedy's potent combination of prodigious efficacity and epochal confusion; they imbue the theater with both the "promise" of "emancipat[ion]" and the looming sense that an "end of history" is at hand.


Excerpted from Persecution, Plague, and Fire by ELLEN MACKAY Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ellen MacKay is assistant professor of English at Indiana University.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >