Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Religious Dissimulation and Early Modern Drama

Kilian Schindler

Religious liberty has long been considered as a foundational human right in modern liberal democracies. Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies that everybody has the ‘freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.[1] But how far does this liberty go, and to what extent may religious minorities organise themselves institutionally and make their presence felt in the public sphere? Driven by fears of terrorist attacks and, more recently, a resurgence of Christian nationalism, a number of Western states have passed legislation to restrict the presence of Islam in civic life, as exemplified by clothing restrictions targeting the burqa, niqab, or even ordinary headscarves, and other, highly symbolic acts of exclusion with little practical purpose. Paradoxically, this desire to exclude religious minorities from the public sphere has often gone hand in hand with fear of the hidden other, of “terrorist sleeper cells” and “lone wolves”, who are allegedly waiting in the wings to deal a devastating blow to the liberal societies to which they conform with such apparent ease.

The distinction between public and private dissent has a long and troubled prehistory in the religious conflicts and persecutions of the post-Reformation period, which is the subject of my book, Religious Dissimulation and Early Modern Drama: The Limits of Toleration. As the Established Church held a monopoly on religious worship in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, recalcitrant Catholics as well as radical Protestants were forced to worship in clandestine ways and to congregate under the radar of religious and political authorities. At the same time as they were driven underground, however, religious dissenters were feared as the secret enemy within, who might rise up to join a foreign, Catholic invasion or sow dissension within the Protestant camp, respectively, when the latter should stand firm in its opposition to the Catholic threat from the continent.

As a scholar of early modern drama, I am intrigued by the ways in which religious dissenters thus often resorted to role-playing to avoid discrimination and persecution: paying lip service to a creed which they inwardly rejected and going through the motions of the official liturgy while secretly wishing for its demise. Such dissimulation was by no means uncontroversial. Both Catholic and Protestant writers exhorted their fellow-believers to remain steadfast in the face of persecution and not to partake in idolatry and deny Christ, as the apostle Peter had done. And while Queen Elizabeth allegedly had no desire to make windows into men’s hearts, political and ecclesiastical officials often employed drastic measures, including espionage and torture, to access the inward selves of dissenters, when national security was perceived to be under threat.

At the same time as political paranoia about religious dissent came to a head in the second half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, English professional drama reached unprecedented commercial and artistic heights. However, the sudden growth of professional theatre was also accompanied by a steady stream of anti-theatrical pamphlets, which vociferously denounced its many abuses – and not least its fundamental reliance on dissimulation. These controversies on religious and theatrical dissimulation should not be seen and studied as isolated phenomena. They are manifestations of a larger cultural debate on the legitimacy and ramifications of pretending to be someone else in a society that by and large celebrated ideals of sincerity, constancy, and stable selfhood – even as many of its members were forced to dissemble their most cherished religious convictions, to the extent that historians such as Perez Zagorin have characterised the period as the ‘Age of Dissimulation’.[2] Arguments about dissimulation on stage and dissimulation in church often mirror one another and draw on the same Biblical and theological resources that have informed Christian debates on lying and dissimulation since antiquity. Bringing these controversies on different kinds of dissimulation into dialogue therefore also allows us to obtain a clearer picture of the religious and political stakes of theatricality as such, which relies on dissimulation as its raison d’être.

The long and inconclusive scholarly debates about the personal faith of numerous dramatists of the period, especially William Shakespeare, attest to the fact that religious identity was no straightforward matter for early modern practitioners of the theatre. While Christopher Marlowe or Anthony Munday, for instance, seem to have been involved in the Elizabethan underworld of espionage and to have traded in false identities beyond the stage, others such as Ben Jonson changed their faith repeatedly and under outward pressure – and therefore perhaps not always sincerely. For early modern dramatists, dissimulation was an integral part of their professional lives in the theatre, but it also profoundly touched their lives beyond the theatrical world of make-believe, with serious consequences that could either make or mar their careers. The potential link between these two kinds of dissimulation was not lost on anti-theatrical writers such as Philip Stubbes, who dismissed the theatres as ‘Schooles or Seminaries of pseudo christianitie’.[3] Dramatists, too, frequently represented religious dissimulation on stage in an often deeply metatheatrical register, be it in corrupt clergymen, hypocritical Puritans, or fake conversions, and thus offered countless opportunities to reflect on the political and religious significance of the theatre’s reliance on dissimulation.

A case in point is Shakespeare’s re-writing of the proto-Protestant Lollard martyr John Oldcastle, who was hanged and burned in 1417, as the notorious liar and braggart Falstaff (who still retained the name of his Lollard model in early performances) in Henry IV Part 1 and 2. Falstaff’s self-consciously theatrical habits of role-playing, which oscillate between good-humoured fun and entertainment on the one hand and cowardly, even ruthless mendacity on the other thus offer a poignant counterpoint to the exemplary constancy and sincerity of religious dissenters, which martyrs like Oldcastle embodied in the eyes of many pious early modern Protestants. Shakespeare’s radical transformation of a martyr, who heroically testifies to his faith with his own blood, into a silver-tongued bon vivant may bear some resemblance to the ways in which Catholic opponents tried to smear Oldcastle as a manipulative “counterfeit” martyr. However, Shakespeare is not engaging in blunt propaganda, and Falstaff’s ambivalence certainly cannot be reduced to mere confessional polemics. Faking his own death in battle to save his skin and always on the verge of turning his own life into ‘a play extempore’,[4] Falstaff is also a life-affirming embodiment of theatricality that privileges the ‘better part of valour’[5] over the death cult of honour and martyrdom. Rather than taking sides in a confessional conflict, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the Lollard martyr amounts to a reflection on the merits and evils of dissimulation and the theatre’s stake in it.

In Religious Dissimulation and Early Modern Drama, I chart the different ways in which links between religious and theatrical dissimulation could be conceptualised in early modern drama from c. 1590-1614. As recent scholarship has shown, the early modern stage was more confessionally diverse and heterogeneous than previous critics assumed. This also applies to the ways in which its practitioners positioned themselves vis-à-vis contemporary debates on religious dissimulation. While Shakespeare seems to have taken a comparatively generous stance on dissimulation as an indispensable thread in the fabric of life, others forcefully repudiated any suggestion that the theatre might encourage compromise when it came to the duty to proclaim one’s faith clearly and sincerely. The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle (1599), for instance, restores the Lollard hero to his rightful place of honour as a martyr for the Protestant cause avant la lettre and reserves its most metatheatrical moments for the nefarious self-fashioning of its hypocritical Catholic villains. Rather than promoting acceptance for religious dissimulation, the play thus claims to detect and condemn dissimulation with a self-referential ethos of exposure. The collaboratively written Sir Thomas More, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, or Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall and Bartholomew Fair further serve to illustrate how plays from a wide generic spectrum and with different confessional orientations tried to make sense of their own medium in their representation of religious dissimulation. This book thus aims to show how the theatre navigated the ideological pressures and contradictions of its fundamental dependence on dissimulation in a society that, in the absence of comprehensive religious toleration, practised dissimulation as much as it condemned it.

Religious Dissimulation and Early Modern Drama: The Limits of Toleration is available in hardback and online in open access, thanks to the generous financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

[1] United Nations General Assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948, www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights, accessed 7 August 2023.

[2] Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990, 330.

[3] Philip Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses in England in Shakspere’s Youth, A.D. 1583, ed.Frederick J. Furnivall, 2 vols, London: Trübner, 1877–82, 1:145.

[4] William Shakespeare, King Henry IV Part 1, 2.4.271 (ed. David Scott Kastan, The Arden Shakespeare, London: Bloomsbury, 2002).

[5] Ibid. 5.4.118–19

Religious Dissimulation and Early Modern Drama by Kilian Schindler

About The Author

Kilian Schindler

Kilian Schindler teaches early modern English Literature at the University of Fribourg. His dissertation on religious dissimulation in early modern drama (2019) was awarded the Mar...

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