When Elizabeth made it compulsory to attend Protestant church services, Catholics weren’t the only religious group to refuse. A small but influential group known as the Puritans believed that the Church of England was not Protestant enough. Discontent began to simmer soon after Elizabeth’s restoration of Protestantism in 1559. In 1563 Puritan reformers sought to abolish all religious symbols from the churches, but Parliament narrowly defeated their bill, and frustrations quickly grew. Puritan voices grew louder in the 1570s, when Dr. Thomas Cartwright, a professor of divinity, preached that the Church of England’s administrative system had no basis in scripture, and that archbishops, archdeacons, and other clergy positions should be dissolved. Although Elizabeth gave some ground to Puritan demands, she strove to maintain the original terms she established for the Church of England back in 1559. Thus, it wasn’t until the reign of King James I that Puritanism found greater favor. The new translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1609, partly responded to Puritan complaints. Though the King James Bible was not explicitly Puritan in its outlook, several Puritans contributed to the translation.
The Puritans disapproved of many things in Elizabethan society, and one of the things they hated most was the theater. Their chief complaint was that secular entertainments distracted people from worshipping God, though they also felt that the theater’s increasing popularity symbolized the moral iniquity of city life. For instance, they regarded the convention of boy actors playing women’s roles as immoral, and some Puritan preachers even felt that the sinfulness of play-acting either contributed to or else directly caused London’s frequent outbreaks of plague. Unsurprisingly, Elizabethan playwrights frequently made fun of Puritans. Shakespeare’s most famous Puritan character is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare portrays Malvolio as a killjoy and a hypocrite with social ambitions. However, Shakespeare also shows sympathy for Malvolio’s point of view. Throughout the play, Malvolio stands in conflict with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Shakespeare portrays these characters as drunken, selfish, and irresponsible. Although we enjoy watching the latter three men, we can also understand why Malvolio wants to put an end to their fun. In this way, Shakespeare indicates his willingness to entertain the Puritan perspective while simultaneously criticizing that perspective’s extremism.