Antitheatricalism in Light of Ben Jonson's Volpone
Commentary by Joel Culpepper
Crossdressing in England was mostly opposed by the Fundamentalist branch of the Protestant Church known as the Puritans. The Puritan dogma, much like the concept of transvestism, was constantly challenged. Puritans found resistance in the religious authorities of the Church of England and the English government. Before 1536, the Roman Catholic Church was unimpeded and always won over Puritan proposals regarding legislation. Without a cooperative political ear, the Puritans resorted to experimental spiritual expression by changing their social behavior and structuring. Due to these changes, a formidable way of attacking the theater's use of crossdressing was developed- public preaching and pamphlets. Other individuals and groups (like the Juvenalians) supported the moral and social reform movement by speaking and writing essays and books on the subject. Due to the nature the actor's role in Ben Jonson's Volpone, the play was also implicated in this moral battle. The ideology behind the Puritan protest was based on biblical sentiment and the patristic literary tradition of Roman writers like Tertullian and St. Augustine. The Puritan's religious banner for combatting gender transgression was Deuteronomy 22:5- 'The woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment' (Tiffany 58). In general, pagan myths were also associated with crossdressing. Puritans like William Pryne labeled these actors as "beastly male monsters" that "degenerate into women" (Tiffany 59). Further, the Puritans feared that men dressing as women caused the men in the audience to lust for real females and to form homoerotic desires for the male actors (the reverse was also true for women). The Puritan fear also opposed androgynous Renaissance clothing and women's "male" hairstyles, as documented in Phillip Stubbes' 1583 Anatomy of Abuses. Jonson was more than aware of...
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