A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Section from "The long bird's eye view of London," 1647.

• Censorship and the English Stage: A Brief Overview

Full-text of A Game at Chess Folger shelf mark: V.a. 231

    Censorship and the English Stage: A Brief Overview

What do we know about the role of censorship in seventeenth-century English drama? Official regulating agencies, such as the Office of the Master of Revels, ensured that theater companies and playwrights generally knew what they could and could not get away with. But what sorts of things constituted offensive material, and why? Were these standards consistent over time or did they vary from case to case? What sorts of punishments did a playwright face if he wrote or staged something later deemed offensive? Did such punishments ultimately hurt or help that playwright's career? How effectively did the risk of fine or imprisonment keep an individual from committing similar offenses in future? How effective were public acts of censure, such as shutting down a playhouse? Did such gestures suppress the offensive material in question, or simply make it more intriguing to the public eye?

Such questions have elicited a wide array of interpretations. It is important to note, however, that while censorship represented one of the many social pressures that helped forge the professional stage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, actual punishments were infrequent. A handful of plays did result in the author's arrest or a playhouse closure. These included, for instance, Ben Jonson's now lost play, The Isle of the Dogs (1597); the city comedy Eastward Ho! written by Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston (1605); and Richard Brome's The Courtly Beggar (1640). In these cases, punitive actions responded to specific passages that deliberately and personally mocked the monarch. Ironically, while Jonson repeatedly provoked official censure—he was found guilty of sedition following The Isle of the Dogs—he nevertheless maintained a good relationship with the court and even with King James himself.

By contrast with such regulatory action, it is worth noting the Crown's capacity for restraint towards, if not indifference to, potentially offensive material. In 1599, for instance, a group of disaffected gentlemen (associates of Robert Devereaux, Second Earl of Essex) sponsored William Shakespeare's company to stage a revival performance of a play depicting the fall of Richard II. If this performance was of Shakespeare's Richard II, as many scholars today suppose, the conspirators' interest probably lay in the scene that represented the king's abdication from the throne, as they themselves tried to force Queen Elizabeth from power the following day. The queen was furious about the Essex uprising, and the members of the faction were arrested. Some were tried and executed. As for the players, though, a different fate awaited: after a brief arrest and interrogation, they were performing again in a matter of days—including a special performance, before the queen, of none other than Richard II.

In the early decades of the seventeenth century, playwrights and audiences alike went about their business with little direct interference from government regulators. Plays did not seem to be regarded as significant instruments or threats in contemporary political affairs. In this context, Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624) stands out like a powder flash, challenging many of our assumptions about the relation between theater and political crisis. The play was an astonishing success. From 5 through 14 August, performances were staged at the Globe Theater each day, with many would-be patrons turned away at the gate. It was an unprecedented run; the typical new play would last for three days before another took its place. And yet we know that the Privy Council also took an interest in the play: "According to his Maiesties pleasure . . . touching the suppressing of a scandalous Commedie Acted by the Kings Players. . . . haue called before vs some of the principall Actors. . . . The Poett they tell vs is one Midleton, who shifting out of the way, and not attending the Board with the rest as was expected, Wee haue given warrant to a Messenger for the apprehending of him" (A Game at Chess, ed. Howard-Hill, 1993, 204).

Suggestions for further reading:

Auchter, Dorothy. Dictionary of Literary and Dramatic Censorship in Tudor and Stuart England. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Barroll, Leeds. "A New History for Shakespeare and His Time." Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4: 441-464.

Dutton, Richard. Licensing, Censorship, and Authorship in Early Modern England: Buggeswords. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Dutton, Richard. Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Hadfield, Andrew, ed. Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Middleton, Thomas. A Game at Chess. Edited by T.H. Howard-Hill. Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Patterson, Annabel M. Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

© 2004 Folger Institute