Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge (1633)

Written by: Andrew Lundeen

Primary Source : Special Collections Provenance Project at MSU, July 23, 2015.

Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge (1633)

This ponderous work by Puritan author William Prynne is essentially an extended argument against the perceived sins of the theater.  For over 1,000 pages, the work viciously rails against the immorality of acting, dancing, and other such pursuits.

A handwritten note in the front of our copy quotes Prynne’s infamous complaint that Shakespeare’s First Folio was printed on higher quality paper than most bibles of the day:

“Some Play-books since I first undertook this subject, are growne from Quarto into Folio; which yet beare so good a price and sale, that I cannot but with griefe relate it, they are now new printed in farre better paper than most Octavo or Quarto Bibles.

Shackspeer’s Plaies are printed in the best Crowne paper far better than most Bibles.”

In a few places, however, it seems that Prynne went too far with his criticisms. Our note continues, explaining what happened to Prynne after he published the Histriomastix:

For writing this book Prynne was sentenced by the Star Chamber to pay a fine of £5,000, to be disbarred & to lose his ears in the pillory. 

Apparently, Prynne was punished largely because of his comments on female stage actors.  Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, was quite a patroness of the arts, and had herself recently performed in a pastoral masque play when Histriomastix was published.  It’s no wonder, then, that she didn’t take kindly to Prynne calling women actors “notorious whores” (!) or claiming that women “ought not to resort to Playes or Play-houses, which either finde or quickly make them Whores.”

Our anonymous annotator was similarly displeased with Prynne’s tedious tome.  The handwritten note goes on to offer up this criticism:

After reading this most tiresome book nearly half through, I am convinced that the punishment inflicted upon the author for writing it was entirely inadequate.

Considering that the work is basically 1,000 pages of Prynne arguing against any kind of fun, I can understand the annotator’s frustration.  Even the full title of the book is joyless and long:

Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge, or, Actors Tragædie, Divided into Two Parts. Wherein it is largely evidenced, by divers Arguments, by the concurring Authorities and Resolutions of sundry texts of Scripture; of the whole Primitive Church, both under the Law and Gospell; of 55 Synodes and Councels; of 71 Fathers and Christian Writers, before the yeare of our Lord 1200; of above 150 foraigne and domestique Protestant and Popish Authors, since; of 40 Heathen Philosophers, Historians, Poets; of many Heathen, many Christian Nations, Republiques, Emperors, Princes, Magistrates; of sundry Apostolicall, Canonicall, Imperiall Constitutions; and of our owne English Statutes, Magistrates, Universities, Writers, Preachers. That popular Stage-playes (the very Pompes of the Divell which we renounce in Baptisme, if we beleeve the Fathers) are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly Spectacles, and most pernicious Corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable Mischiefes to Churches, to Republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men.  And that the Prosession of Play-poets, of Stage-playes, are unlawfull, infamous and misbeseeming Christians. All pretences to the contrary are here likewise fully answered; and the unlawfulnes of acting, of beholding Academicall Enterludes, briefly discussed; besides sundry other particulars concerning Dancing, Dicing, Health-drinking, &c. of which the Table will informe you.


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Andrew Lundeen
Andrew Lundeen, a Special Collections Librarian at MSU, is a recent master’s graduate in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (‘14). Since September 2013, Andrew has spearheaded the MSU Provenance Project, an effort to document marks of ownership and marks of use in rare books at MSU.
Andrew Lundeen

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