Scholars typically characterize the theatre of Shakespeare’s England as a secular stage, and they have good reasons for doing so. By the time Shakespeare began to write plays, the biblical drama of medieval England had all but died, from causes not entirely natural. It had been censored by Protestant officials concerned with its Catholic provenance, and censorship appears to have hampered the depiction of religious material in the new public theatres as well. Moralists such as Phillip Stubbes (1583) warned England that players allowed to dramatize the word of God would inevitably contaminate ‘divinity’ with their ‘bawdy, wanton shows & uncomely gestures’. Following a brief period (1588–9) in which church and state encouraged the theatres to vilify the radical puritan ‘Martin Marprelate’ for his attacks on bishops, the authorities did indeed recoil from the spectacle of ‘divinity’ handled, in their view, ‘without judgement or decorum’; by a 1606 act of Parliament, moreover, players were forbidden to ‘speak or use the holy Name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity’ profanely. Whether or not these official strictures had any chilling effect, players in Shakespeare’s day showed little interest in replacing the ‘old Church-plays’ with a biblical drama of their own.
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