Gerald M. Pinciss. Forbidden Matter: Religion in the
Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Newark: U of Delaware P,
2000. 138pp. ISBN: 0 87413 706 3.
Corinne S. Abate
Montclair State University
Abate, Corinne. "Review of Gerald M. Pinciss, Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 17.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/abaterev.htm>.
"It is hardly surprising that religion ranked with politics as an especially sensitive topic in post-Reformation England; they were hardly separable" (14). So says Gerald Pinciss in his well-written and provocative book, Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Yet despite the danger of writing on issues of religion, Shakespeare and his contemporaries continually did so. Pinciss claims that the reason is obvious: it would be a box-office draw. In other words, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Rowley, Heywood, Jonson, and Ford were giving the people what they wanted, while cleverly avoiding censure from the Office of the Master of the Revels.
Each chapter of this slim volume opens with the historical context of the religious debates current when the plays were written and performed. Pinciss has carefully selected plays that represent a variety of genres: Marlowe's Dr. Faustus for tragedy, Shakespeare's Measure For Measure for "problem play," Heywood's If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody and Rowley's When You See Me You Know Me for (quasi-)historical pageants, Jonson's Bartholomew Fair for comedy, and Ford's Perkin Warbeck for chronicle history. In each discussion, Pinciss thoughtfully demonstrates that, regardless of religious stance or message, these plays were not only successful in terms of box-office crowds or numbers of printings, but that this feat was accomplished all without landing the playwrights in jail.
This, in fact, is another theme to Pinciss's book. While he asks the reader to examine the inherent competing religious messages of each play, this means that, by extension, Pinciss is further asking for a reconsideration of the Master of the Revels Office. Perhaps they were not staunch antagonists to acting companies as is often thought. Instead, Pinciss suggests persuasively that the Offices did more for the defense or protection of freedom in the playwrights' works than has been previously acknowledged. This is why Pinciss has chosen these particular plays for study: not only do each of them reflect the various religious orthodoxies of the time, but each playwright accomplished this task without drawing the wrath of the Master of the Revels.
Through historical contextualizing of each play, Pinciss reminds the reader just how real, how important, and how life-threatening the issue of religion really was. Thus, by the time he turns to discussing each particular play, Pinciss has methodically provided the essential information of the religious climate in which these plays were written. Yet Pinciss does more than simply show how each playwright introduced and spoke about various matters of religion on stage; instead, he argues that each man complicated the existing debate with his dramatic contribution. For example, when discussing Faustus, Pinciss suggests that Marlowe was influenced by the preaching of Calvinist William Perkins who, according to Pinciss, was "among the most powerful voices at Cambridge during Marlowe's career there" (27). Pinciss finds that both Calvinist and Anti-Calvinist sentiments dominate Marlowe's play, which leads him to conclude that, though Marlowe himself does not seem to advocate one side over the other, the playwright was profoundly affected by the debate that raged while he was a student.
In his discussion of Measure For Measure, Pinciss echoes the thoughts of many current scholars who find it troubling to call this a comedy. Pinciss sees it as Shakespeare's contribution to the saint's life genre that was well-established by the time Shakespeare created Duke Vincentio, whose questionable actions and troubling mandates make sense in a Christian framework, Pinciss argues, only if the Duke is Protestant, as "Protestant theology in particular considered despair a necessary first step to attaining a state of grace" (52). But this is precisely the challenge of interpretation that Pinciss comes up against throughout the book: the Duke can only be considered a benign character if and only if he is read as Protestant. Otherwise, Pinciss's argument remains unpersuasive because the Duke carefully orchestrates a bed trick, head trick, and marriage proposal to a novitiate that many readers, myself included, find simply despicable. Pinciss himself concedes that such a favourable reading of the Duke's troubling behaviour only works if large parts of the Duke's actions are ignored. It is moments of such engagement with the material that make for careful, knowledgeable writing, as Pinciss is more devoted to investigating the larger themes of religious issues inherent in popular plays than privileging his own theories about them.
Rowley's When You See Me You Know Me is paired with Heywood's If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody. Pinciss claims that the former promotes staunch anti-Catholic Protestant beliefs, while the latter is a vehicle for Puritan propaganda that argues for the primacy of the English Bible. Pinciss shows how successful these two plays were in their time, as they were reissued countless times, and that those times coincided with "important moments in the conflict between Protestant and Catholic interests" (75). Yet, as he has done successfully throughout this well-researched book, Pinciss is quick to note that he is not making an insupportable causal argument that, for example, the death of Prince Henry and the government's sudden alliance with the German Protestant princes was the impetus for the reissuing of If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody in 1613. Instead, Pinciss simply adduces that "the continued reprinting of these two plays for more than twenty-five years clearly attests to their popularity with the London public" (76).
Of course, no book that maps the interrelation between the theatre and religion would be complete without a chapter on Jonson. Here Pinciss analyzes the historical significance of location; specifically, Harrow on the Hill, a site Jonson takes care to mention repeatedly throughout Bartholomew Fair. According to Pinciss, it was a well-known settlement for recusants. Pinciss points out that all three authority figures in the play--Overdo, Busy, and Wasp--are treated the same way at the fair. Thus, because no one character has the advantage, Pinciss suggests that Jonson is calling both for greater tolerance of religious beliefs despite a subject's religious affiliation, and for the recognition of the equality of all religious sects.
The final chapter is devoted to John Ford's puzzling but entertaining play Perkin Warbeck. Pinciss carefully details how he arrives at a composition date of 1632/33, as he argues that Ford wrote this play in response to the sudden death of Frederick of Bohemia in 1632. For Pinciss, Ford's late contribution to the chronicle history genre details Frederick's struggle to be recognized as the rightful heir of the Bohemian crown, and how at his death his wife Elizabeth--James's daughter and a popular public figure--became an exiled widow with twelve children to support. This is why Pinciss takes care to note that in Ford's treatment of Perkin Warbeck's failed aspirations to the British crown, the character of Katherine Gordon emerges as an important, central character, whose plight and declarations to remain a widow unmistakably resemble the trials of beloved Elizabeth of Bohemia.
- As Pinciss himself says in the conclusion, "By focusing on these six plays --identifying their particular way of communicating and placing them in their political context--we can appreciate how persuasively the drama was affected by matters of religion, until such matters closed down the theatres completely" (108). Pinciss succeeds in teasing out the religious implications of each play he talks about, which results in a thoroughly enjoyable, informative, and absorbing book.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).