Styles of Belief, Devotion, and Culture

William Prynne, from Histrio-Mastix: The Player's Scourge; or, Actor's Tragedy

[Click on image to enlarge] In this passionate 1633 tirade of over one thousand pages larded with authorities in text and margins — classical philosophers, church fathers, Protestant theologians — Prynne denounced stage plays, cross-dressed male actors, court masques, mixed dancing in masques and everywhere else, maypoles, wakes and other rural festivals, country sports on the sabbath, Laudian ritual, stained-glass windows and much more, staking out the most extreme Puritan position on traditional recreations at court and in the countryside. This blanket denunciation of Caroline culture was probably a factor in Charles's decision to reissue James I's Book of Sports a few months later. Prynne strikes directly at King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria, who regularly danced in court masques (see NAEL 8, 1.1326), through his several stories of kings and magistrates who met untimely ends after encouraging or participating in theatrical productions. Some of the remarks, especially about "women actors, notorious whores" and "scurrilous amorous pastorals," were thought to refer directly to the queen, who produced as well as acted in several masques and pastorals.

[Click on image to enlarge] In consequence, Prynne was immediately imprisoned and a year later stripped of his academic degrees, ejected from the legal profession, and placed in the pillory at Westminster and Cheapside; his books were burned before him, his ears were partially cut off, and he was remanded to life imprisonment (though later released by Parliament). The severity of the sentence indicates the high stakes in these culture wars: according to one of Prynne's judges, his book would instigate "disobedience to the state, and a general dislike unto all governments."

[ON DANCING AS AN ACCOMPANIMENT OF PLAYS, COURT MASQUES, AND COUNTRY FESTIVALS]

Effeminate, lascivious, amorous dancing, (especially with beautiful women, or boys most exquisitely adorned in an infecting womanish dress on the open stage, where are swarms of lustful spectators, whose unchaste unruly lusts are apt to be enflamed with every wanton gesture, smile, or pace, much more with amorous dances) is utterly unlawful unto Christians, to chaste and sober persons; as sundry Councils, Fathers, modern Christians, with ancient Pagan authors and nations, have resolved.

* * *

Amorous, mixed, effeminate, lascivious, lust-exciting dancing, be it of men, or women, on the stage or elsewhere [is] a dangerous incendiary of lust; an ordinary occasion of, a preparative to much whoredom, adultery, wantonness, and such effeminate lewdness: a diabolical, at least a Pagan practice, misbeseeming all chaste, all sober Christians, especially in their Christian festivals and solemnities; * * * I would our English nation would now at last consider: who for their part spend the Christmas season, with other solemn festivals, in amorous, mixed, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not, Pagan dancing, to God's to Christ's dishonor, religion's scandal, chastity's shipwreck, sin's advantage, and the eternal ruin of many precious souls.

* * *

I would the dancing, wanton (that I say not whorish) Herodiasses, the effeminate, sinqua-pace, Caranto-frisking >> note 1 gallants of our age, together with our rustic, hobbling satyrs, nymphs, and dancing fairies, who spend their strength, their time (especially, the Easter, Whitsun, Midsummer, and Christmas season) in such lewd, lascivious dancing, would * * * not only abandon all such dancing themselves, but likewise withdraw their children, especially their daughters, from the dancing-school.

* * *

Witness their [the Pagans] * * * dancing priests, who on the solemn festival days of Cybele, Bacchus, Mars, and other pagan deities, danced about the streets and market place with cymbals in their hands, in nature of our Morris-dances (which were derived from them) the whole multitude accompanying these their dancing Morrises, with which they honored these their dancing-idols. Yea, witness the common practice of most idolatrous pagans, who never honored, saluted, or offered any public sacrifices to their idols but with music, songs, and dances; dancing about their temples and altars, to their honor;  * * * from which practice our dancing at Wakes (a name, an abuse, derived from the ancient vigils) or church-ales * * * have been originally derived. * * * Dancing, write they [a host of classical and Christian authorities], yea even in Queens themselves, and the very greatest persons, who are commonly most devoted to it, hath been always scandalous and or ill report, among the Saints of God; as the  * * * Councils, Fathers, and authors plentifully evidence, who have condemned dancing as a pomp, a vanity of this wicked world; an invention, yea a work of Satan which Christians have renounced in their Baptism, a recreation more fit for pagans, whores, and drunkards, then for Christians.

* * *

If we compare (I say) our Bacchanalian Christmases and New Year's tides, with these Saturnalia >> note 2 and feasts of Janus, we shall find such near affinity between them both in regard of time (they being both in the end of December, and on the first of the January) and in their manner of solemnizing (both of them being spent in reveling, epicurism, wantonness, idleness, dancing, drinking, stage-plays, masques, and carnal pomp and jollity * * *) which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.

* * *

It hath been always reputed dishonorable, shameful, infamous, for Emperors, Kings, or Princes to come upon a theater to dance, to masque, or act a part in any public or private Interludes, to delight themselves or others.

* * *

[If] Tilting Barriers, Jousts, and such like martial feats * * * with a hundred such like laudable exercises, favoring both royalty, valor, and activity * * * were now revived instead of effeminate, amorous, wanton dances, interludes, masques, and stage-plays, effeminacy, idleness, adultery, whoredom, ribaldry, and such other lewdness would not be so frequent in the world as now they are.

[ON STAGE-PLAYS]

Stage-Plays are thus odious, unseemly, pernicious, and unlawful unto Christians in the precedent respects [they were invented by idolatrous pagans and infidels for idolatrous worship] so likewise are they in regard of their ordinary style, and subject matter; which no Christian can or dares to patronize: if we survey the style, or subject matter of all our popular interludes; we shall discover them, to be either scurrilous, amorous and obscene; or barbarous, bloody, and tyrannical; or heathenish and profane; or fabulous and fictitious, or impious and blasphemous; or satirical and invective; or at the best frothy, vain and frivolous * * * [so] The plays themselves must needs be evil, unseemly, and unlawful unto Christians.

* * *

Our play haunters [are] * * * adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons.

* * *

What wantonness, what effeminacy parallel to that which our men-women actors, in all their feminine, (yea, sometimes in their masculine parts) express upon the theater? Was [any former unnatural behavior] * * * comparable unto that which our artificial stage-players (trained up to all lasciviousness from their cradles) continually practice on the stage without blush of face, or sorrow of heart, not only in the open view of men, but even of that all-eyed God, who will one day arraign them for this their gross effeminacy? And dare we men, we Christians yet applaud it? * * * Is this a light, a despicable effeminacy for men, for Christians, thus to adulterate, emasculate, metamorphose, and debase their noble sex? thus purposely, if I may so speak, and to make themselves, as it were, neither men nor women, but monsters.

* * *

If our English polled females (who may do well to make them beards of the hairs they have shorn from their locks and foretops)  * * * they may then seem bearded men in earnest, and fall to wearing breeches too (as they have lately taken up men's tonsure, locks, and doublets, if not more).

* * *

[Crossed-dressed actors] perverts one principal use of garments, to difference men from women: by confounding, interchanging, transforming these two sexes for the present, as long as the play or part doth last [exciting lust, sodomy, and masturbation]. * * * The transcendent badness of the one [male actors] doth neither expiate nor extenuate the sinfulness of the other [female actors, if there were any].

* * *

Let a man be * * * a diligent, upright Magistrate punishing drunkenness, drunkards, swearers, suppressing ale-houses, may-games, revels, dancing, and other unlawful pastimes on the Lord's day, according to his oath and duty. Let any of any profession be but a little holier or stricter than the major part of men and this his holiness, his forwardness in religion, is sufficient warrant for all profane ones * * * to brand and hate him for a Puritan.


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