This article considers whether the activity that we recognize as criticism existed in the literary culture of early Tudor England. Before the appearance of formal poetic defenses and literary treatises in English (an Elizabethan phenomenon associated with Sir Philip Sidney and George Puttenham), English vernacular culture of the early sixteenth century seems to have been devoid of a fully fledged poetics or literary theory. Yet the composite evidence of printed prefaces, various endeavors to translate classical rhetorical terminology, and poetic practice itself in these early decades reveals a series of literary-critical interests that recur in the writing and intellectual history of this period. Literary theory in early Tudor England evolves as it addresses a set of preoccupations that cluster around questions of authorial inventiveness, models of style and vernacular eloquence, the domestication of imported critical terminology, and the agency of readers.
This article discusses the articulation of authority in London merchant hall drama in the early Tudor period. The Drapers’ Company records payments for plays performed, often by professional companies, at their August election feast for over a century, suggesting that their patronage of drama was not only the means to display company wealth and sophistication, but also bound up with the transferal of authority within the guild. Read in relation to London’s, with its increasingly fraught relation to the centralizing policies of the early Tudor monarchs, interludes such as John Skelton’s Magnificence and the John Rastell and John Heywood production, Gentleness and Nobility, emerge as explorations of issues urgent in the civic milieu: the theory and practice of governance and the ethics of oligarchy.