Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England
Renaissance England is endlessly fascinating and it is no surprise that historians become ever more specialised in their research into the period. Such specialisation, however, can sometimes have its limitations, as this book demonstrates. The result of a colloquium, “Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England,” held at Greynog Hall, Newtown, Wales, on July 18-19, 1999, this collection of essays reflects the enthusiasms of its contributors, who no doubt spent an enjoyable and profitable couple of days together, but whose research may not be of sufficient general interest to justify publication in a format designed for a much wider audience.
The division of the book into three sections, although useful, does not improve matters, mainly because of the way they are ordered. The first section, on theatrical censorship, contains three essays, all of which largely discuss the same material. Indeed, the introduction to the book informs us that “[a]ll agree on the key cases and pieces of evidence: the calling in of John Stubbs’ The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf (1579); the censorship of key passages in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577, 1587); the Marprelate Crisis (1588-9); the bishops’ Ban of satire and epigrams (1599); the calling in of Dr. John Hayward’s The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie the III (1599); and the scandal over Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624)” [p. 1]. The three contributors differ, however, in their interpretation of events: Janet Clare argues that “the government authorities launched a coherent account and systematic attack on the freedom of expression of its citizens” [p. 1], Cyndia Clegg contends that “there was no grand plan of censorship,” merely an “unplanned reaction to specific incidents that threatened to cause the government political problems or embarrassment” [p. 2], while Richard Dutton suggests that the censor was “an intermediary between the court and playwrights and performers” whose “role was to arbitrate between factions” [p.3]. I have to say that I found the summary provided by Andrew Hadfield in the Introduction quite sufficient to satisfy my interest in the matter. The reading of the three essays became something of a chore, partly because of repetitiveness, partly because, by the time I had finished, I was left with the impression that the argument was rather futile anyway, and partly because the prose style of the first contributor, Janet Clare, was stodgily academic—to my taste, at any rate.
However, as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly interesting. The second section, on religious censorship, consists of four essays by Richard McCabe, Alison Shell, David Loades and Arnold Hunt on the role of the Church in censorship, Catholic poems, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments and the mechanics of censorship, respectively. The final essay of the section, Arnold Hunt’s “Licensing and Religious Censorship in Early Modern England” provides an informative examination of “the system of licensing books for the press” [p.127] which, had it been the first essay in the collection rather than the seventh, would have made the first section on theatrical censorship much more accessible.
Richard McCabe’s essay “'Right Puisante and Terrible Priests’: the role of the Anglican Church in Elizabethan State Censorship” makes an important point about censorship: it was rarely a moral question, but a political one. The Privy Council’s order, in 1599, that theatres be demolished and professional acting banned in London was not made in response to “the moral complaints of the city fathers for over a decade” [p. 86], but because public theatre was increasingly perceived as seditious by the government. McCabe goes on to remind us that, in fact, the theatres were not demolished, and performances resumed within a few months. Obscenity, which may well fall within the bounds of moral censure, was also rarely subject to prohibition. Even Caltha Poetarum, an “overtly salacious work” [p. 87] satirizing the figure of Elizabeth herself was confiscated rather than burned perhaps, McCabe argues, because “it was judged to be merely obscene rather than libellous or seditious” [p. 87].
Alison Shell asks the interesting question “What is a Catholic Poem?” and concludes that the answer is far more difficult and complicated than might first appear. One of the conclusions that she reaches is that both Protestant and Catholic poetry has more in common than not. It is for this reason that the Protestant or Anglican poet might feel the greater need for self-censorship—for fear of inadvertently appearing to defend popery—than the Catholic, who may well have no intention of submitting the work for official approval anyway. The possible influence of such fears sheds an interesting light on traditional interpretations of George Herbert’s poetry. Herbert has long been seen as a moderate, searching out the middle ground of Anglicanism between Roman Catholicism on the one hand, and dissent on the other. Yet might this not be due to a “pronounced fear of recklessness in devotional poetry” [p. 106] rather than to any specific mission with regard to Anglican doctrine? As Alison Shell rather flowerily concludes: “If Catholic poetry was pruned by external constraints and the necessity to justify, Protestant poetry had some of its buds pinched out in the mind” [p. 107].
The final section of the book, on political censorship, begins with “Censoring Ireland in Elizabethan England, 1580-1600.” Although great quantities of material on Ireland were produced in this period, very little of it was published for general consumption. Most notoriously, Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland, which was ready for publication in 1598, was not published until 1633, 34 years after its author’s death. The reason for this wholesale censorship was quite simply that things were going badly in Ireland and the government preferred it not to be known. Copies of Spenser's text did, however, circulate in manuscript form, and it is possible that its aim—to report on the state of Ireland to the appropriate authorities—was achieved. Rather more serious for Spenser was the publication of the second edition of The Fairie Queene, in 1596. Not only did he manage to anger James VI of Scotland (“had Spenser survived James’s accession [to the throne of England] he would have had much to fear.” [p. 159]) but also made “an explicit attack on Elizabeth as a fickle and foolish ruler who put her own caprices and vacillations before the long-term needs of her subjects” [pp. 159-160]. Spenser seemed to have reached the conclusion that the problems of Ireland, which most likely led to his death, were brought about by Elizabeth’s failure to deal with the situation, and more specifically that similar problems would envelop England once the Stuarts had succeeded to the throne.
Cyndia Clegg’s essay, “Burning Books as Propaganda in Jacobean England,” might be described as forming part of a fairly general reassessment of the reign of James I (and VI). Once he was universally derided for his attachment to favourites such as Buckingham, and for penning the provocative “On the Divine Right of Kings;” recent historians, however, seem to be portraying a more well-meaning figure. Cyndia Clegg describes a monarch bent on dialogue and tolerance rather than conflict and tyranny. His great ambition was to obtain peace in religion throughout Europe, and at home, he “offered tolerance” [p. 169] to moderate English Catholics and Puritans alike. He personally attended to the question of censorship, and organised public burnings of banned books; yet, “he did so,” claims Cyndia Clegg, “not to control public access to the ideas censored writers expressed, but to attract attention to how distant their ideas were from his own” [p. 183]. Such a relatively enlightened motive suggests that King James placed great confidence in his subjects’ respect for him, as does his refusal to suppress a publication which outrageously libelled him “so as not to give it importance or cause it to be sought” [p. 183].
In the final essay on political censorship, “Andrew Marvell: Living with Censorship,” by Annabel Patterson, we are reminded that writers could frequently get away with virtually anything, despite the ever increasing severity of the law and its application. Marvell, of course, enjoyed some degree of protection as a Member of Parliament, but the suggestion is made that censorship “was the kind of shade in which he peculiarly flourished” [p. 187]. The case of Marvell is typical of this book, which throws up some rather contradictory, or even paradoxical examples with regard to censorship. On the one hand Jonson and Chapman were imprisoned for their work on Eastward Ho, and their “collaborator Marston fled the city” [p. 19], on the other hand we learn that Daniel Featley, a censor working under the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1617 to 1625, considered his duties “to include informal advice to prospective authors as well as the formal process of correcting and licensing manuscripts” [p. 132]. It seems extraordinary that writers were prepared to run the risk of imprisonment—or worse, and their audacity in persisting in their profession seems, from a twenty-first century viewpoint, quite awesome. Meanwhile, authority figures such as Daniel Featley are portrayed as collaborators in the task of publication, anxious to smooth out difficulties and ease the way for even the most potentially controversial works. Part of the problem for the authorities was the amount of work censorship required. In theory, for much of the period under discussion, censorship was carried out by the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chaplains they appointed to the task. There was far too much being written and presented for publication for them to deal with, and however systematic censorship might or might not have been, in practice much that was objectionable must have slipped through. Perhaps the one area that all of the authors of this collection would agree on is that political or subversive material was most likely to lead to trouble. Religious, personal, libellous or obscene works was less so.
In conclusion, there is much in this collection which is interesting and informative. Its presentation, however, is unhelpful. The addition of a first chapter clearly explaining how and why censorship worked in Renaissance England would be of great use to the less specialist reader and the first three essays on theatrical censorship could be converted quite happily into a single chapter. Since this is not the case, I would advise anyone interested in reading this book to leave the first section to last.