From tendency to feature: The development of anti-Catholicism in early modern English drama
“Intolerance of Catholics and Catholicism is one of the best-known features of seventeenth-century England” , but at the same time it is also “in some ways […] one of the least explored. In particular, little is known of the essential feature of this intolerance – the nature, extent and causes of th...
Anglistik und Amerikanistik
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|Summary:||“Intolerance of Catholics and Catholicism is one of the best-known features of seventeenth-century England” , but at the same time it is also “in some ways […] one of the least explored. In particular, little is known of the essential feature of this intolerance – the nature, extent and causes of the Protestant fear of Catholics.”
It was this quote which struck me the most while I was conducting research for my thesis. Robin Clifton made this statement in his study on “The popular fear of Catholics during the English Revolution” in the early 70’s and addressed a well-known phenomenon of early modern studies. We all know about the religious and political struggles of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. We know about the event which initiated the whole English Reformation, that is the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon and his second marriage to Anne Boleyn. And we know that “a vocabulary of anti-Catholicism or anti-Popery was developed and deployed for a wide variety of national and international circumstances” , but the reason why this, in essence, marital issue launched the prosecution of hundreds of English Catholics and converted a Catholic nation into a Protestant nation with fierce anti-Catholic sentiments has remained an under-investigated and intriguing phenomenon.
The aim of my thesis was to find a satisfying answer to these questions. The basis for this answer consists of political and historical facts, legal texts and a selection of dramatic texts of the early modern period. I chose dramatic texts for the simple reason that theatre was the only open medium and form of entertainment which was accessible for all social classes. Moreover, going to the theatre did not “demand literacy in an age when most of the population was illiterate” , and when books were reserved for the literate few, that is to say that even the uneducated ‘groundlings’ – as they were called – formed a welcome part of the audience. By choosing such a broad spectrum I hoped to have built an ideal foundation of historical and literary inquiry, which would offer sufficient information and leave as little questions as possible. The structure of my thesis therefore aims at providing all necessary facts and information at first and in a second step bringing all the information down to a common denominator and find an – in this case – philosophical explanation.
Therefore, the first part of my thesis offers a broad and extensive overview of the historical background of the early modern period by bringing together “a number of religiously coded events” like the excommunication of Elizabeth I, the execution of Mary Stuart, the victory over the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. These events are put into context with the governmental measurements – in the form of decrees and statutes – that were passed as a direct response and attempted to restrict and finally banish Catholic life from England. I limited the time span to nearly one hundred years, starting in 1534 and ending in 1625.
The second part offers a discussion of ten selected dramatic texts and subsequent literary analysis. To fulfill the requirements needed for such a literary analysis the dramas selected were chosen for different reasons. Firstly, it was essential that one or more Catholic characters be amongst the characters. Secondly, these Catholic characters had to be complex and in some way provoking the audience and/ or the other characters. Furthermore, they needed to be influential and in some position of power, so that the possible abuse of their office would be of major consequence. Considering the time these plays needed to cover, I kept close to the historical time span, so that the first play was produced in 1588 and the last in 1641.
Thus, the final selection included plays from the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline era, which fulfilled the aforementioned criteria. All plays contain one or more Catholic characters, who are in relatively powerful positions and either abuse their power or manipulate those around them to achieve higher political and personal aims. In the case of the Elizabethan plays, it is the Bishop of Winchester, later Cardinal Beaufort of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1+2, Cardinal Pandulph of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John and the Catholic league around Catherine de Medici and the Duke of Guise in Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Doctor Faustus, was chosen because of the open derision of Catholicism displayed on stage, and opens the chapter on Elizabethan drama.
In the first Jacobean play, Thomas Dekker’s allegory The Whore of Babylon, the plot centers on a Catholic league led by the Empress of Babylon – an allegorical figure, representing the pope and the Vatican. John Webster’s plays The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi both show a cardinal who considerably – and negatively – influences the strand of the plot, either by abusing his position or by manipulating other characters. The last Jacobean play, Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess, is another allegory, staging a game of chess in which the Black House is representative of a Catholic league, and the White House stands for the English Protestants. The last play discussed in this thesis is James Shirley’s The Cardinal.
After having provided this basis, which I found necessary to offer before the theoretical analysis, the third part of my thesis then merges history, law and drama and highlights the common features these three levels have in common. For example, techniques for isolating Catholics off the stage and Catholic characters on the stage; Protestant fears of being seduced by cunning missionary priests and the theatrical representation of these fears on stage; or, for example, the completely exaggerated image the English Protestants had of the pope, which also found its way to the stage.
Finally I searched for an explanation for all these elements which would illustrate that the processes on the stage were just a mirror of the processes off the stage. And which furthermore would support my thesis that early modern drama was just as influential in promoting the prosecution and banishment of Catholics in England as the legal and political measurements, or that politics and literature worked in a mutual and reciprocal cooperation, respectively. I attribute this explanation to the philosophical writings of the Lithuanian phenomenologist Emanuel Levinas. Levinas has worked out the idea of ‘the other’ based on his experiences during the Holocaust – he was held prisoner in a special camp at Hanover, while his Jewish relatives were being murdered in Lithuania by German National Socialists. Due to situational similarities, that is, life as a member of an alienated, demonized and persecuted minority, I thought his approach was the most suitable to apply to English Catholics 400 years before.|