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date: 11 August 2020

Abstract and Keywords

In the 1980s, New Historicist critics suggested that Renaissance theater was marked by the Reformation; specifically, that it expressed the vanishing of ritual and sacrament from ordinary people’s lives. More recently, critics like Sarah Beckwith have shown how pre-Reformation theater worked as ritual and sacrament by revealing the extent to which it was implicated in the jurisdiction of confession, penance and absolution for sin. This article revisits the question of how the Reformation abolition of annual mandatory confession affected theater. It qualifies both the New Historicist view of Renaissance theater as evacuated ritual and Beckwith’s view of the Protestant abolition of confession as an exteriorization of penance. Reading the first English Renaissance neoclassical comedy in English, Gammer Gurton’s Needle (c.1553-60), the article shows how profoundly its neoclassical concern with proof and evidence is tied in with a rejection of priestly confession and an invitation to parishioners and neighbors to be more skeptical and less credulous in believing the worst of one another.

Keywords: Renaissance, theater, drama, sin, sacrament, penance, ritual, Reformation, neoclassicism, proof

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