Sunday, January 29, 2012


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FROM THE VERY earliest moments of their emergence in the late 1570s, Englands popular stages prompted fears that they were multiplying out of control. This was the case not only insofar as some people--including at one point Queen Elizabeth and her privy councilors--worried that the structures were growing too numerous and consequently that most should be tom down;(1) it was also the case insofar as the theaters most vocal opponents understood the institution to be capable of producing unruly hordes of dissolute persons. The anti-theatricalists argued that the theater did more than simply provide a venue for threatening multitudes to gather and recreate themselves.() More pointedly, to their minds Englands stages possessed a kind of monstrous fecundity, and thus were responsible for creating numbers of libertines and rogues, idle, disordered and hence dangerous persons who would violate Englands laws, or would treasonously betray their monarch, or would give themselves over to sensual abominations, and thereby bring down the wrath of God upon a reprobate nation. By investigating these arguments in relation to Shakespeares Henry the Eighth, this essay seeks to accomplish two things. First, it works to show how this play acknowledges and explores the limits of the cultural logic informing the above anxieties about the stage--a pedagogic dynamic in which imitative practices effect what is taken to be a kind of reproduction. Second, this essay describes how Shakespeares attention to these issues represents an effort to consolidate the cultural authority of the popular theater. Engaging and reworking anti-theatrical fears, Henry the Eighth attempts to transform the stages capacity for ungoverned generation from a deeply troubling threat into a source of pleasure and approval.

Anti-theatricalist Henry Crosse offers a place to begin elaborating this analysis to the extent that his efforts to stigmatize playgoing enable a more detailed specification of the account of the stage as dangerously generative. Those who attend plays, he argues, are the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, theeves, cut-purses, shifters, cousoners() According to Crosse, these are nothing other than an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers, a broode of hell-bred creatures (Ql);(4) this genealogical identification situates theater-going as one act among many that transparently registers an unholy descent. As if such a critique were not trenchant enough, Crosse provides an even more damning analysis of the effects of frequenting playhouses, asserting that proximity to the wicked does not simply confirm ones reptilian lineage but itself causes a genealogical reconfiguration. By attending a play, patrons risk becoming demonic offspring; retrospectively as it were, the theater realigns lineages in a way that numbers playgoers among the multitudinous progeny of Hell. Here is his account of what he insists is typical conduct at the playhouse doth it not daily fall out in common experience, he asks, that there is either fighting, whereof ensueth murther? robbing and theevering, whereof commeth hanging? or spotting the soule with wickednesse, that he becommeth the very sonne of Beliall? ([Ql.sup.r-v]). The self-evidence of the causal link Crosse posits between brawling and murder and between theft and execution seeks to lend an obvious inevitability to the idea that the hex who perhaps innocently wandered into the theater will be transformed into the offspring of a demon, the very sonne of Beliall. Recent criticism has drawn important attention to the way the anti-theatrical polemic puts in play fears about inherently unstable or groundless selves, expressing the worry that playgoers would mimetically deform into what they saw.(5) Crosses brief description elaborates such concerns into a generative politics of the stage insofar as the retrospective logic underpinning the assertion that the theater makes its viewers demonic offspring effectively invests the theater with a generational capacity, a source for the unsettling multitudes pestering England.(6) Stephen Gosson advances just such a claim by suggesting that the popular stage serves as the locus of a demonic maternity Plays are, he argues, milk suckt from the Devilles teate.(7) Philip Stubbes confirms Gossons point. Whether or not the plays on stage are sacred or profane, they are quite contrarie to the word of grace, and [are] sucked out of the Devills teates, to nourish us in ydolatrie hethenrie, and sinne(8) Thomas White, preaching at Pauls Cross, offered to list the sins carried out at the stage, the monstrous birds that brede in this nest. At the same time he identified the audience as a multitude that flocketh to plays.() Whites avian metaphorics, consistent with the vitriol of Gosson, Stubbes, and Crosse, implies that the stage reproduces, that it generates both sins and sinners, spawns them and spews them out into the commonwealth to work their satanic designs.

The claim that the English theater possessed a capacity to produce disruptively violent and wicked multitudes did not go unchallenged. Thomas Heywood, one of the few who bothered to intervene in print on behalf of the stage, answered these charges not by denying the theaters fertility, but rather by insisting upon the salutary effects of stage generation.(10) Indeed, according to Heywood, the public stage at its origin was integrally linked to a project of generating numbers. As evidence of the benefits of the theater to the polity, Heywood points to the tactics of Romulus, founder of Rome. Once he had located a suitable place to build so famous a Citty, he was faced with the dilemma of how to people the same, his traine wholly consisting of Souldiers, who without company of women (they not having any in their Army) could not multiply; but so were likely that their immortall fames should dye issueless with their mortall bodies. Thus therefore Romulus devised; After a parle and attonement made with the neighbor Nations, hee built a Theater, plaine, according to the time; yet large, fit for the entertainement of so great an Assembly, and these were they whose famous issue peopled the Cittie of Rome, which in after ages grew to such a height ... to which all the discovered kingdomes of the earth after became tributaries.(11)

According to Heywood, the theater solved a major problem for the Romans, how to extend into the future the accomplishments of the warriors who founded the city. Heywoods narrative transforms the rape of the Sabine women into a policy of national generation of issue, and aligns the stage with a program of biological reproduction. The theater makes up for the incapacities of the mortall bodies of the military men, and thereby enables Rome to flourish into an empire.(1)

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The implication that Elizabeth possesses a disruptive fecundity receives further elaboration in the lines immediately following the Porters question, in an exclamation mentioned briefly at this essays outset. Exasperated by the crowds muscling their way into a view of the queen to be, the Porter exclaims, Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at door! On my Christian conscience this one christening will beget a thousand (5.4.-5). The Porters analysis advances the idea that the people pressing their way into a view of Elizabeth are of illicit descent, that they are spawned of sin. It also suggests that they themselves will reproduce--the sanctification of the birth of Elizabeth will put in play actions that will result in the generation of a thousand more. Finally, and most relevant to the understanding advanced within the anti-theatrical polemic, the Porters locution formulates the christening itself as the agent of generation. Such an account figures this piece of royal theater as capable of producing numbers of people, more births to be celebrated or more fry to augment the disordered rabble. Presented as a theatrical spectacle, Elizabeth stands not only as a girl [who] Promises boys hereafter, but also one whose christening will beget a thousand, an excessively fertile generator of unstable multitudes that threaten to overrun the royal household.

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