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The Collation

Of Actors, Playwrights, and Porcupines

A side view drawing of a porcupine with a large bunch of fur or quills sticking from its head and many black and white quills protruding from its body.
Woodcut showing a porcupine. Edward Topsell, The historie of foure-footed beastes, 1607. Folger STC 24123 copy 2.

Actors are porcupines, suggests John Northbrooke in one of the earliest anti-theatrical texts published in English. How so? Because players, histriones, are also called histrices, porcupines.1 Next to this erroneous but intriguing etymological explanation we find a marginal note about the fearsome little animal in question: “Histrix is a little beast vvith speckled prickles on his back, vvhich he vvil cast off, and hurt menne vvith them, vvhich is, as Plinie sayth, a Porkepine.” Once again Northbrooke takes his liberties because Pliny only describes how the porcupine defends itself against dogs, not against the human species.2 Yet, a slight twist to Pliny’s argument allows the conflation of porcupines and actors to work. Stay clear! Imminent danger! the text suggests. But how exactly does it come to pass that actors “hurt menne,” and what is the human analogy to the porcupine’s ”speckled prickles” in the world of theatre?

In Troilus and Cressida (II,1:25) Ajax calls the sharp-tongued Thersites “porpentine,” and in 1598 Joseph Hall demands in his book on Byting Satires that all good satires be like porcupines. This, we might say, is not the most cogent argument, since porcupines are not generally feared for their bite. But maybe readers will have forgotten about the title of the book once they have arrived at its key passage:

The Satyre should be like the Porcupine,
That shoots sharp quills out in each angry line,
And woundst the blushing cheeke, and fiery eye,
Of him that heares and readeth guiltily;3

Wounded cheeks and cut-off ears were the fate of the man who in 1633 published the most (in)famous treatise condemning the theatre written in English, Histrio-mastix, which weighed in at 1006 pages. William Prynnewho subsequently had the letters “S L” (for seditious libeler) branded on his cheekswas feared and punished as an aggressive pamphleteer, and yet saw the fault of aggression located mostly on the side of his opponents.

A woodcut image showing a group of six men in various kinds of dress surrounding a table with some food on it.
Satirical illustration of a play showing William Prynne’s ears being served on a plate to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. A New play called Canterburie his change of diot (London: s.n., 1641). Image reproduced by courtesy of British Library.

In Histrio-mastix, Prynne frequently admonishes the “Satyricall invectivenesse of Stageplayes,” in particular the one directed against men like himself, i.e. “all zealous practicall professors of Religion, who seldome scape the Players lash.4.

A printed title page with the entire page covered in text.
Title page of William Prynne, Histrio-mastix (1633). Folger STC 20464a Copy 3.
The printed title page of a book.
Title page of Dutch translation of William Prynne, Histrio-mastix (1639)

The claim that their opponents use “sharp quills in each angry line” is an accusation put forth by all sides in the polemical exchanges about the morality of the theatre in Early Modern Europe. Far from being isolated outbursts that only took place within the confines of national contexts, anti-theatrical texts actually were propagated across Europe, as were texts written in defense of the theatre. If Prynne’s Histrio-mastix circulated more widely in continental Europe than other anti-theatrical pamphlets from England, this was thanks to the work of the Dutch printer Willem Christiaens van der Boxe from Leiden who printed, and sometimes also translated, several radical English works in the 1630s. In its Dutch translation, Histrio-mastix is slimmed down to 15% of the original page count, and while the translator decided to include the condemnation of gendered cross-dressing, passages about human-animal cross-dressing are mostly missing. This is certainly a pity, because Prynne’s text gets particularly colorful when describing how, in public spectacles, the boundaries between the human and animal realms are willfully destroyed: “For doe not all Actors, Mummers, Masquers [put on] the portraitures and formes of Lyons, Beares, Apes, Asses, Horses, Fishes, Foules, which in outward appearance metamorphose them into Idols, Devils, Monsters, Beasts, whose parts they represent? and can these disguises bee lawfull, be tolerable among Christians? No verily.”5

Histrio-mastix and countless other anti-theatrical treatises published in Early Modern Europe condemn the wearing of animal masks, and more generally, any human behavior that can be seen as ‘beastly.’ In return, we see a very prolific use of animal fables, abusive animal epithets, etc. in satirical replies to the enemies of the theatre – almost as if to spite them. During the so-called Collier controversy in late-seventeenth century England, the bishop and vocal enemy of theatre Jeremy Collier finds himself being compared to a range of animals: the playwright Thomas D’Urfey likens him to an unfaithful otter, who, in contrast to the loyal dog, is a “dubious Creature,” with a “faith too as amphibious as [his] nature.6 John Vanbrugh, meanwhile, prefers the comparison of the bishop to a wild boar looking for his preferred truffles – hidden, lewd passages in stage plays:

“I refer my self to the Reader here again, whether this gentleman [Collier] does not give us another Instance of his having a very quick Nose, when some certain things are in the wind. I believe, had the Obscenity he has routed up here, been buried as deep in his Church-yard, the Yarest boar in his Parish wou’d have hardly tost up his Snout at it.”7

An illustration of a golden-brown boar standing on a green terrain.
Woodcut showing a wild boar. Edward Topsell, The historie of foure-footed beastes (1607). Folger STC 24123 Copy 2.

Early Modern writers knew that comparisons with animals were a source of pleasure for readers, and thus poets and playwrights would use them abundantly when denouncing the authors of anti-theatrical pamphlets, sermons, and treatises. Some authors had the good fortune of carrying an animal surname, or one that sounded like one, for example Johannes Beer. Beer – whose surname is pronounced [bɛːr], that is, exactly like the German word for bear, Bär – was a writer, composer, and musician at the small court of Weissenfels in Saxony. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Beer published two short, hilarious treatises in defense of music, opera, and theater in a rebuke to the condemnation of these arts by a Pietist school director from the city of Gotha. In both texts, he plays with his surname, starting with their title: Ursus murmurat (‘The Bear Growls’)8, followed by Ursus vulpinatur – List wider List. Oder Eine musicalische Fuchs-Jagdt (‘The Bear Turned Fox – Ruse against Ruse. Or A Musical Fox Hunt’).9

Using the bear-fox enmity from the widely popular Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox) stories, Beer changes their plotline and casts himself in the role of the bear who will use the fox’s ruse against him. He does so by driving the Pietist’s arguments against the arts to such extremes that it becomes impossible for readers not to find them laughable.

Printed title page of a book.
Title page of Johann Beer, Ursus vulpinatur – List wider List. Oder Eine musicalische Fuchs-Jagdt, [1697].
An elaborate woodcut of a bear and a fox near a log with another fox leaping in the background sits between stanzas of a poem.
Woodcut illustration showing a fox and a bear. Von Reinecke Fuchß, 1650. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, P.o.germ. 1139

Whether it is bears outsmarting foxes, boars unearthing truffles, or porcupines shooting sharp quills: the use of beastly imagery in polemics about the theatre plays with the anxiety that theatre may unleash the beast within.

  1. “Those are called Histriones, or rather Histrices, which play vpon Scaffoldes and Stages, Enterludes and Comedies or otherwise with gestures &c.” John Northbrooke, Spiritus est vicarius Christi in terra. (London: H. Bynneman, 1577), 58. Accessed through EEBO.
  2. Pliny the Elder, The historie of the world. Translated by Philemon Holland (London: Adam Oslip,1601), 215. Accessed through EEBO.
  3. Joseph Hall, Virgidemiarum. The three last bookes. Of byting Satyres (London, Richard Bradocke, 1598), Liber 5, Satire 3, 70. Accessed through EEBO.
  4. William Prynne, Histrio-mastix The players scourge, or, actors tragædie, divided into two parts. (London: Thomas Gosson, [1582]), F.C8r. Folger STC 12095. Accessed through EEBO.
  5. Prynne, 877.
  6. Thomas D’Urfey, The campaigners, or, The pleasant adventures at Brussels a comedy. (London: Baldwin, 1698), 30, Folger Wing D2705.
  7. John Vanbrugh, A short vindication of The relapse and the provok’d wife from immorality and prophaneness (London: N. Walwyn, [1698], 26-27. V59 Bd.w. F905A c.2.  Accessed through EEBO.
  8. Johann Beer, Ursus Murmurat. (Weimar: Müller, [1697]). Accessed through Deutsche Digitalbibliothek.
  9. Johann Beer, Ursus Vulpinatur. List wieder List, Oder Musicalische Fuchs-Jagdt. (Weissenfels: [s.n], [1597]). Accessed through Deutsche Digitalbibliothek.

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