A dark and malevolent aspect of the Puritans, which explains Shakespeare’s dark and malevolent portrayal of Malvolio, is the manner in which they were directly responsible for the persecution of England’s Catholics, including members of Shakespeare’s own family…


If Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a thinly-veiled Puritan (see my previous essay), so is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He is described explicitly as such by Maria in the play, and is ascribed as such by many critics. One particular critic, Leslie Hotson, even claimed that he was modeled on the Puritan, William Knollys, First Earl of Banbury, who was an object of ridicule in Elizabeth’s court for his besotted efforts to court a teenage girl, well under half his age. In a popular ballad at the time at which Shakespeare was writing the Twelfth Night, Knollys is derided as “Party Beard… the clown,” a reference to his multicolored beard, which was white at the roots, yellow in the middle and black at the ends. In the play, Maria refers to the color of Malvolio’s beard as something of which he is absurdly proud, and Malvolia is lampooned for his vainglorious and foolhardy efforts to woo a young lady in much the same way as the ballad lampooned Knollys.

There is, however, a dark side to the real-life Malvolio, which would have made him a perfect subject for Shakespeare’s ridicule and scorn. As a member of the Puritan party in Elizabeth’s court, Knollys would have been an enemy of England’s beleaguered Catholics and a staunch critic of the theatre, connecting the one with the other.

The fact that the Puritans considered the theatre to be a dangerous disseminator of papist ideas can be gleaned from a sermon by the Puritan preacher, William Crashaw, delivered at St Paul’s Cross in London in 1608: “The ungodly plays and interludes so rife in this nation: what are they but a bastard of Babylon [a euphemism for Rome in puritanical Biblespeak], a daughter of error and confusion; a hellish device—the devil’s own recreation to mock at holy things—by him delivered to the heathen and by them to the Papists, and from them to us?”[1] Astonishingly, this attack on “papist plays” by the puritanical Crashaw is noteworthy as being one of the pithiest putdowns of western civilization ever made. In one terse, bombastic sentence, the entire legacy of the west is dismissed as being a contagious disease, passed from the devil to the Greeks, and then to the Romans and the Catholics until finally, via Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights, it had contaminated modern England. Two years later, in February 1610, Crashaw was again equating Shakespeare and his ilk to the devil in a sermon he preached to the Lord Governor of Virginia. On this occasion he fulminated that the greatest threat to the newly-founded colony was to be found in Catholicism and the evils of the theatre: “We confess this action hath three great enemies: but who be they? even the Devil, Papists, and Players.”[2] Ironically, William Crashaw’s son, Richard, one of the greatest of the metaphysical poets, would become a Catholic and would die in lonely exile in Italy in 1649.

Responding to these puritanical attacks upon plays and players, Phillip Rosseter, a Catholic actor and lessee of the Whitefriars Theatre, retorted in December 1610 “that a man might learn more good at one of their plays or interludes than at twenty of our roguish sermons.”[3]

Not surprisingly, Catholics preferred the plays of Shakespeare to the “roguish sermons” of the Puritans. In 1610, a Yorkshire recusant gentleman was convicted for entertaining a group of players who performed anti-Protestant plays at his own and at other recusant houses. Intriguingly, King Lear and Pericles were among the plays performed at these secret recusant gatherings, indicating that recusant audiences readily deduced the cryptic Catholic meaning of the plays, and suggesting also that Shakespeare’s faith, however discretely practiced, was known to his fellow Catholics.

Further evidence of the disdain with which the Puritans held the theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, emerged in the History of Great Britain by the Protestant historian, John Speed, published in 1611. Discussing the Lollard leader, Sir John Oldcastle, who had suffered during the reign of Henry V and who was considered a proto-Protestant and as the “morning star of the Reformation,”[4] Speed was at pains to discredit attacks upon his reputation by papists and playwrights. Complaining that the Jesuit, Robert Persons, had described Oldcastle as “a ruffian, a robber and a rebel,” Speed riposted by suggesting that Persons was a liar, along with “his poet,” Shakespeare:

And his [Persons’] authority, taken from the stage-players, is more befitting the pen of his slanderous report than the credit of the judicious, being only grounded from this Papist [Persons] and his poet [Shakespeare], of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.[5]

This astonishing attack upon Shakespeare, calling him a falsifier of the truth and a sidekick of the Jesuits, demonstrates the general suspicion with which he was held by the Puritans. The specific connection between Persons and Shakespeare, upon which Speed was grounding his attack, is to be found in Persons’ account Of Three Conversions of England, published in 1603, and its connection with Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Persons’ work was effectively a piece of revisionist history in which he refutes John Foxe’s Protestant version of England’s religious history. In his discussion of Oldcastle, Persons dismisses him as “a ruffian knight, as all England knoweth, and commonly brought in by comedians on their stages.” This is seen by most scholars as an allusion to Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle, under the tactful alias of Sir John Falstaff, whom Prince Hal addresses as “that father ruffian, that vanity in years.”[6] The fact that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s alias for Oldcastle has been generally accepted by scholars ever since the connection between Oldcastle and Falstaff was made by James O. Halliwell-Phillips in 1841.[7] The connection is not only deduced from Oldcastle’s appearance in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which is generally thought to be Shakespeare’s source play, but also from Shakespeare’s punning reference to Falstaff, by Prince Hal, as “my old lad of the castle” in the play’s second scene.

Persons’ “ruffian knight” is clearly a reference to the “father ruffian” in Shakespeare’s play, and shows, equally clearly, that Shakespeare shared the Jesuit’s view of Oldcastle, as a heretic and a rogue, not Foxe’s and Speed’s view that he was a hero and a martyr. It is, therefore, of little wonder that Speed attacks Persons and Shakespeare as feigners and falsifiers of the truth, the former “feigning” the truth in his history of England and the latter “falsifying” it in his history plays. Nor is it any wonder that he should seek to shackle them together as “this Papist and his poet,” endeavoring to tar Shakespeare with the Jesuit brush. Unlike Shakespeare, who was presumably aware of Speed’s attack upon him, Robert Persons would never know of this latest controversy caused by his writings. He died the previous year, after thirty years of pamphleteering on behalf of the Catholic cause from the sanctuary of the continent, to which he had fled in 1580.

Another dark and malevolent aspect of the Puritans, which explains Shakespeare’s dark and malevolent portrayal of Malvolio, is the manner in which they were directly responsible for the persecution of England’s Catholics, including members of Shakespeare’s own family. In July 1586, Sir Frances Knollys, father of Sir William, urged the banishment of all recusant Catholics and the exclusion from public office of all who married recusants. Shakespeare’s father had been forced from public office for his recusancy in 1576 and was fined for his recusancy in 1592. Such malevolence on the part of England’s Puritans must have animated Shakespeare’s imagination as he depicted the malevolence of Shylock and poured ridicule on Malvolio, whose very name, it should be remembered, means ill-will, or wicked-will. It is for this reason that we make a major error in our reading of either The Merchant of Venice or Twelfth Night if we allow ourselves to sympathize with what we see as the harsh treatment of the plays’ villains. This is made clear by the Shakespeare scholar, Oscar James Campbell:

Malvolio is given the usual Elizabethan treatment for an insane man: he is bound and cast into a dark prison. This has seemed so brutal to many actors that they have often presented him as the pathetic victim of cruel horseplay. That was certainly not Shakespeare’s intention. When at the end of the play Malvolio frantically rushes offstage, shouting, “I’ll be revenged of the whole pack of you,” Shakespeare expected his audiences to follow him with the scornful laughter that he, taught by Jonson, thought it was the business of comical satire to arouse.[8]

It is, therefore, in the context of such comical satire that we need to see the play, at least if we have any desire to see it as Shakespeare and his audience saw it. We should see the malevolence of Malvolio and Shylock as we would see the malevolence of Hitler or Stalin. And this is not merely hyperbole. Shakespeare has not only seen the tyranny of the Puritans at work in his own life and in the lives of his family; he had not merely been the victim of their venomous attacks; he feared what would happen if they ever came to power as the dominant force in the state. In this fear he was justified and vindicated by history. Within fifty years of Shakespeare’s writing of Twelfth Night, Malvolio and his ilk had stormed to power, killing the King and closing the theatres, finally getting their revenge as Malvolio had promised.

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[1] Mutschmann & Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952, p. 102

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] From John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; quoted in Peter Milward, The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays, Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997, p. 103

[5] From John Speed, History of Great Britain; quoted in Ian Wilson, op. cit., p. 228

[6] Act 2, scene 4

[7] See James O. Halliwell-Phillips, An essay on the character of Falstaff and Shakesperiana (1841)

[8] Oscar James Campbell, ed., The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, New York: MJF Books, 1966, p. 903

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