Kristen Poole. Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton: Figures of Nonconformity in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. xiii+272 pp. ISBN 0 521 64104 7 Cloth.

Andrew McRae
University of Exeter

McRae, Andrew. "Review of Kristen Poole, Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 13.1-7 <URL:>.

  1. In Elizabethan England, "puritan" was a term of abuse. The very category of "puritanism" was constructed by the forces of religious orthodoxy as a way of consolidating English Protestantism by delineating the boundaries of nonconformity. Moreover, as Patrick Collinson has suggested, the category was in part a product of a wealth of literary texts of the 1580s and 1590s, a period when writers were exploiting the resources of satire as a genre of discrimination and stigmatization. While life may not exactly have been imitating art, the resources of art were at least lending shape and clarity to ecclesiastical struggles.

  2. In Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton, Kristen Poole embraces the logic of such arguments, yet sets out to challenge preconceptions about early modern constructions of the puritan. Indeed she argues that recent criticism has misinterpreted the dominant stereotypes of nonconformity. While generations of scholars have seized upon Shakespeare's Malvolio as "the puritan posterboy", typical of a "somber, ascetic persona", Poole argues that this is merely one side of a binary structure that juxtaposes purity with impurity, restraint with excess (9). "If modern and postmodern critics have tended to emphasize the puritans' retention at the expense of their indulgence," she argues, "early modern authors were most likely to highlight quite the reverse; if contemporary culture has come to identify as `puritanical' those opposed to the transgressive, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture often used `puritan' to signify transgression" (12). As a consequence, the figure of Sir John Falstaff is proffered as a fresh and arresting image of the puritan, and Bakhtinian theory is deployed to account for representations of excessive corporeality and transgressive religious gatherings. Poole argues that the image of the puritan is overloaded with associations of difference and disorder, as religious dissension itself is stitched into a complex and interwoven network of cultural anxieties.

  3. Although Poole loosely covers the years between the working lives of Shakespeare and Milton, the book falls into two groups of three chapters, and begins with a central focus on the theatre of Shakespeare's era. The first chapter sets the Martin Marprelate controversy alongside Shakespeare's history plays, rehearsing familiar arguments that the character of Falstaff was originally intended as a representation of the Lollard Sir John Oldcastle, yet arguing innovatively on this basis that Falstaff "both catalyzed and epitomized the early modern representation of the stage puritan" (21). She makes the simple yet subtle point that Falstaff, like the speakers in many contemporary verse satires, may play "the role of satirist even as he is the object of satire" (39). The second chapter considers a text more familiar in studies of puritanism, Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair; her argument, however, confronts traditional interpretations of the Banbury puritans as "hypocrites", and focuses interestingly on Zeal-of-the-Land Busy as a character who rather "embodies competing desires", conforming in part with contemporary images of "a puritan bellygod" (55). The excellent third chapter concentrates on the Family of Love, a minor Elizabethan sect kept alive in alarmist tracts (and translated onto the stage by Thomas Middleton), partly because of anxiety surrounding their alleged endorsement of "verbal perversions" such as equivocation and lying under oath. The subtle attention devoted by Poole to the relation between linguistic disorder and broader anxieties surrounding other forms of disorder - political, religious, sexual - is indeed one of the most impressive and enlightening aspects of this book.

  4. In the second half, Poole turns to the Interregnum and Restoration: years roughly spanning the career of Milton. The fourth chapter leaps into the fervid milieu of the 1640s to examine Thomas Edwards's efforts to categorize nonconformity in Gangr‘na, while the subsequent chapter considers Milton's arguments for liberty of conscience in his antiprelatical tracts. A fascinating final chapter moves forward again to discuss the significations of physical and discursive nakedness in Paradise Lost, setting Milton's poem alongside representations of the Adamites: a presumably mythical sect, related in the orthodox imagination to the Ranters. While the Adamites were alleged to have conducted their sectarian meetings in the nude as a way of signifying spiritual truth, numerous (respectable and clothed) intellectuals of the time were equally concerned with identifying the pure language spoken by Adam before the fall. Turning to Paradise Lost, however, Poole argues that Milton acknowledges yet methodically frustrates assumptions among his contemporary readers that nakedness might be equated with purity of language, or vice versa. This, she argues, produces a fundamentally challenging text: "While Milton entertains the concept of a pure world exemplified by its nakedness, such a world - and even the very concept of prelapsarian nakedness - remain unachievable through human means" (181).

  5. While Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton is provocative throughout, it will inevitably meet with some resistance, especially from readers concerned closely with religious history. The chapters on Falstaff and Bartholomew Fair are perhaps the most engaging, yet also the most contentious in the way that they deal with the relation between history and literature. In relation to the former, for instance, readers might well question the way in which Poole rather easily aligns Lollardy with puritanism, at a time when many were claiming it as a signal precursor of orthodox Protestantism. While she acknowledges contemporary debate over Oldcastle, she does not consider at any length how this tension might inform Shakepseare's plays, but instead seizes only on the identification of Falstaff/Oldcastle as a stigmatized "puritan". And in relation to the latter, while she valuably sets the bloated body of Busy alongside the more familiar instances of grotesque corporeality in the play, her dismissal of the label of "hypocrite" for the puritan may seem overly casual. The argument is not unconvincing, yet it overlooks not only centuries of literary criticism but also the discourse of Jonson's own time, within which "hypocrite" was accepted as a synonym for "puritan".

  6. More fundamentally, this book is at times reckless in its disregard for the subtle changes in the representation of religious differences across the period from Shakespeare to Milton. Poole commonly reads pamphlets of the 1640s alongside drama of the 1600s and 1610s, in a manner that tends to efface the very possibility of change. Moreover, she pays remarkably little attention to the 1620s and 1630s, and as a result overlooks the critical period within which people began to identify themselves as "puritans": asking, with the young George Wither, "Who are so much tearm'd Puritans as they / That feare God most?" (Norbrook 210). Pamphleteers such as Alexander Leighton, William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton pursued the logic underlying Wither's question, forthrightly situating puritans in a position of rectitude, opposed to the corruption of the Laudian Church and the Caroline court. As numerous scholars have argued, this is a moment at which the religious and political confrontations of the revolutionary years first take shape, and a time when the uncertain relationship between "puritanism" and "nonconformity" becomes especially murky. While it would be unfair to argue that Poole should have immersed herself fully in such developments, it is inevitable that her chronological leap causes problems when she reaches Edwards's Gangr‘na and Milton's pamphlets. Here are writers who might well accept the label "puritan" for themselves, but who stigmatize other "puritans" in an effort to situate themselves in a position of orthodoxy. And this is, to say the least, a very different environment to that of Marprelate and Shakespeare.

  7. Yet this book never claims to be comprehensive in its coverage, and although it may leave some unanswered questions and incomplete answers, it still has much to offer. Its original interpretations of the three dramatic texts are challenging and important, and it makes a relatively small yet nonetheless significant contribution to our appreciation of Paradise Lost. Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton is unquestionably a stimulating and elegant book, which will demand the attention of scholars with an interest in the relation between religion and literature in early modern England.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).