Music and Religious Compromise in John Bale's Plays


Most critics of Tudor drama find early Protestant playwright John Bale an unwavering polemicist. A closer examination of his plays Three Laws, King Johan and God’s Promises reveals that despite a fanatical stance in some of his prose work, his position towards the reformation of church music is surprisingly compromised. In his dramas, written soon after his conversion to Protestantism and performed for decades, Bale calls upon his musical and dramatic training as a Carmelite friar to reproduce Catholic music in a variety of theatrical contexts, from profane parody to sincere liturgical performances. The morality play Three Laws lambasts Catholic ceremonial music throughout, figuring the lead Vice as a singing Catholic trickster who intersperses profane peddler’s ballads and drinking songs with bawdy perversions of Roman rite. But despite its anti-music vitriol (which is consistent with early Protestant anti-ceremonialism), the play ends with a liturgical musical restoration of God’s Law, suggesting Bale’s inability to imagine the sort of music-less church idealized by some of his fellow reformers. The history play King Johan again refigures Catholic liturgical music as a vain and devilish source of corruption, while also railing against auricular confession. Nonetheless, Bale’s more widely printed Biblical and antiphonal God’s Promises re-contextualizes sacred music in a new liturgical framework. Ultimately, Bale’s irresolution reveals the complexities of Tudor debates about church auralities, and his continued theatrical performances of traditional music suggest the sort of attachments that led to the Anglican compromise.

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