Excerpt from Phillip Stubbes’ The Anatomie of Abuses (1583)


The multifaceted society of Shakespeare’s England contained both avid playgoers and venomous critics of theatrical entertainment. One outspoken anti-theatricalist was the Puritan Phillip Stubbes, who published his The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) to lament the “corruption, wickedness, and sin” he saw in his “unhappy age.” Among his targets were fashion, football, gambling, and, of course, the theater. Here is a portion of his discussion “Of Stage Plays and Interludes, with Their Wickedness.”

Excerpt from The Anatomie of Abuses:

All Stage Plays, Interludes, and Comedies are either of divine or profane matter: If they be of divine matter, then are they most intolerable, or rather sacrilegious; for that the blessed word of God is to be handled reverently, gravely, and sagely, with veneration to the glorious Majesty of God, which shineth therein, and not scoffingly, floutingly, and jibingly, as it is upon stages in Plays and Interludes, without any reverence, worship, or veneration to the same. . . .


Upon the other side, if their plays be of profane matter, then tend they to the dishonor of God, and nourishing of vice, both which are damnable. . . .

Do not they maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof, but mark the flocking and running to theaters and curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see Plays and Interludes; where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like, is used, as is wonderful to behold. . . . And whereas you say there are good Examples to be learned in them, Truly so there are: if you will learn falsehood; if you will learn cozenage; if you will learn to play the Hypocrite, to cog, lie, and falsify; if you will learn to jest, laugh, and fleer, to grin, to nod, and mow; if you will learn to play the vice, to swear, tear, and blaspheme both Heaven and Earth; If you will learn to become a bawd, unclean, and to devirginate Maids, to devour honest Wives: if you will learn to murder, slay, kill, pick, steal, rob, and rove: If you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit treasons, to consume treasures, to practice idleness, to sing and talk of bawdy love and venery: if you will learn to deride, scoff, mock and flout, to flatter and smooth: If you will learn to play the whore-master, the glutton, Drunkard, or incestuous person: if you will learn to become proud, haughty, and arrogant; and, finally if you will learn to condemn God and all his laws, to care neither for heaven nor hell, and to commit all kinds of sin and mischief, you need to go to no other school, for all these good Examples may you see painted before your eyes in interludes and plays. Source: Phillip Stubbes, Anatomy of the Abuses of England (1583)), 140-44.

Stubbes on “all the wildheads of the parish” from C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959) Chapter Two: Holiday Custom and Entertainment 

In the Sunday pastimes of villages during the summer, a Lord of Misrule would be set up by  "all the wildheads  of  the parish," as Stubbes calls them in a pleasant and indignant description of the mock-king and his morris-dancing retinue. This could be a very different sort of role from that of the Lord of a gentlemen's feast. Stubbes recognizes explicitly a connection of such games with drama; he speaks of them just after denouncing the theaters, and calls them "the other kind of plays, which you call Lords of Misrule."  We shall consider in detail in the next chapter  an instance in Lincolnshire of the kind of thing he describes in general terms:


First, all the wildheads of the parish, conventing together, choose them a grand captain (of  all mischief)  whom they ennoble with the  title  of  "my Lord of Misrule,"  and  him they  crown withgreat  solemnity,  and  adopt  for  their  king.  This  king  anointedchooseth  forth  twenty,  forty, threescore or a hundred  lusty guts, like to  himself,  to wait  upon  his  lordly  majesty  and  to  guard his noble person. Then every one of  these his men, he investeth with  his  liveries  of  green, yellow,  or  some  other  light  wanton colour. And  as though  that  were  not  (bawdy)  gaudy  enough,  I should  say,  they bedeck  themselves  with  scarves,  ribbons  and laces hanged all over with gold rings, precious stones, and other jewels.   This  done,  they  tie  about  either  leg  twenty  or forty bells, with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across  over their  shoulders  and  necks,  borrowed  for  the  most part of their pretty Mopsies and loving Besses, for bussing them in the dark.


17  Table  Talk, ed.  Frederick  Pollock  (London,  1927), p.  28.

Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby-horses, dragons and other antiques [i.e. antics?] together with their bawdy pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil's dance withal. Then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobbyhorses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the rout. And in this sort they go to the church (I say) and into the church (though the minister be at prayer or preaching) dancing and swinging their handkerchiefs over their heads in the church, like devils incarnate, with such a confused noise, that no man can hear his own voice.  Then the foolish people they look, they stare, they laugh, they fleer, and mount upon forms and pews to see these goodly pageants solemnized in this sort.

Then, after this, about the church they go again and again, and so forth into the churchyard, where they have commonly their summer halls, their bowers, arbors and banqueting houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet and dance all that day and (peradventure) all the night too. And thus these terrestrial furies spend the Sabbath day.

They have also certain papers, wherein is painted some babblery or other of imagery work, and these they call "my Lord of Misrule's badges." These they give to everyone that will give money for them to maintain them in their heathenry, devilry, whoredom, drunkenness, pride and what not. And who will not be buxom to them and give them money for these their devilish cognizances, they are mocked and flouted at not a little. And so as sotted are some, that they not only give them money to maintain their abomination withal, but also wear their badges and cognizances in their hats or caps openly." Stubbes, Anatomie, pp. 147-148 


 1. Stubbes accuses the theater of exhibiting—and therefore teaching—a vast number of reprehensible behaviors. What are some of the actions in Hamlet that Stubbes would object to seeing on the stage?

2. Do you think that audience members are encouraged to perpetuate any of the reprehensible behaviors that Stubbes would see in Hamlet? Is there a message in the play to behave as the characters do, or to avoid their behaviors?