How did the Puritans' view of theater impact Elizabethan society?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As their name implies, the Puritans were a religious group which, during the sixteenth century in England, wanted to purify the Church of England. They wanted church leaders to have less power and the laity to be more directly involved in the affairs of the Church. Above all, the Puritans wanted the Anglican services and rituals to be simplified and less ornate. Eventually they defied the authority of the Church leadership and demanded that every congregation should have the right to manage itself with lay leaders. They were persecuted for their beliefs and eventually fled first to Holland and then to America. 

The Elizabethan theater, for most of the sixteenth century, consisted of traveling troupes who would perform wherever they could. The themes of their plays histories, like the Faustian Chapbook, and comedies or tragedies emmulating Greek and Roman to add legitimacy (until Henry VIII's break with the Pope, all plays had been religios ones). For the Elizabethans, these entertainments were part of the hub of their social lives. When Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre made a more permanent home for drama in England, both literally and figuratively, the theater became accessible to virtually everyone--and it was often a raucous affair.

Because it was a gathering place, the theater became a place of questionable pursuits (such as gambling), at least in the eyes of the Puritans. In addition, the Puritans were not generally in favor of any entertainment, but particularly that which was not religious in nature.

The Puritans succeeded in closing the Globe for several years, though their cause was helped significantly by Cromwell and the war. 

On the 6th of September, 1642, the theaters were closed by ordinance, it being considered not seemly to indulge in any kind of diversions or amusements in such troublous times. In 1647 another and more imperative order was issued, in consequence of certain infractions of the previous one, threatening to imprison and punish as rogues all who broke its enactments. Close upon the heels of this second came a third, which declared all players to be rogues and vagabonds, and authorized the justices of the peace to demolish all stage galleries and seats; any actor discovered in the exercise of his vocation should for the first offense be whipped, for the second be treated as an incorrigible rogue, and every person found witnessing the performance of a stage play should be fined five shillings.

After the political crisis passed and the Puritans' power began waning, the theaters were reopened. 

In truth, the theaters were places which provided hearty and sometimes immoral entertainment, but they were also at the centers of social life for the Elizabethans. Attendance was affordable for nearly everyone, and theater-goers would bring their meals and enjoy a great time of social interaction along with whatever play was being performed. When the theaters were closed because of the Puritans or because of an outbreak of the plague (which also happened), social life changed significantly for the Elizabethans. 

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