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Issue 1 (2009) - The Idea of North

Jesuits and Philosophasters: Robert Burton’s Response to the Gunpowder Plot

Kathryn Murphy

[1]  Robert Burton’s Latin play Philosophaster, performed in the hall at Christ Church, Oxford, on 16 February 1618, [1] has received more attention than most of the other surviving examples of university drama. [2] Since the mid-nineteenth century, Philosophaster has been published four times, once in Latin, twice with facing-page English translation, and once as a facsimile of a manuscript; it has even been performed. [3] Yet the same circumstances which have prompted sustained attention to the play have paradoxically hampered readings of the text on its own terms. Interest has been raised almost entirely by the later activities of its author: by the hope that Philosophaster’s satire on university life and false philosophy might inform the reader further about The Anatomy of Melancholy. As a result the play’s own circumstances and satirical targets have been imperfectly understood. Its topicality has been ignored, and its importance for our understanding of Burton’s writing thus paradoxically underestimated.[4] This essay hopes to put some of these omissions right.

[2]  The title-page declares that Philosophaster is a ‘Comoedia Nova’ or new comedy, in the tradition of Plautus and Terence.[5] It includes extensive borrowings from the texts of their plays, as well as various generic elements of the tradition: the clever servant, a prostitute, the theft of property, a concluding restitution and marriage among them. Philosophaster also stands in a venerable comedic tradition of mocking false philosophy and pedagogy, and fraudulent claims to learning, inaugurated by Aristophanes’ Clouds and alive in contemporary university drama and on the London stage in plays such as Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Jonson’s Alchemist or Poetaster. In Philosophaster, Desiderius, Duke of Osuna in Andalusia, has established a university in the town. Hoping to receive the benefits offered by the Duke to attract scholars to his new institution, a crowd of pseudo-philosophers, quacks, and mountebanks arrives, with a train of pimps and whores. Through disguise and trickery, they fool the Duke and the locals into taking them for scholars. Most of the play consists of a series of scenes in which the philosophasters con or flummox the townsfolk and local gentry with their pseudo-philosophy and jargon. The central narrative follows the fleecing of the noblemen Stephanio and Polupistos (whose name means ‘gullible one’) by Polupragmaticus, the ringleader of the philosophasters and his servant Aequivocus. Stephanio’s son Antonio, a new student at the university, is seduced from his studies by Aequivocus and falls in love with Camaena, apparently a prostitute. Into this chaos, Polumathes and Philobiblos, two true scholars, arrive, and expose the philosophasters. The Duke, beset by complaints and petitions from townsfolk and gentry, realises the corruption of the university and threatens to disband it; he is persuaded by Polumathes to brand and banish the worst offenders instead, and restore the university to true scholarship. In the comic resolution, the stolen money is restored to its owners, Camaena is revealed to be the daughter of Polupistos, and she and Antonio marry. The play ends with the remaining characters singing a ‘hymn in praise of philosophy’, ‘to the tune of Bonny Nell’ (197).

Oxford and Osuna
[3] The assumption that Burton’s satiric spleen must, in Philosophaster, be directed at the same targets which exercise him in the Anatomy has led to a universal assumption that Osuna is a ‘thinly disguised Oxford’ (Gowland 2006: 7), since only ‘[i]n this way Burton could indulge an academic taste for self-satire without fear of touching things too close to home’ (O’Connell 1986: 12). It is certainly true that in presenting a play about pseudo-philosophers and the corruption of learning in a university, with a cast of students, before an audience mostly consisting of their teachers and peers, Burton exploited immediate context as a source of humour. [6] Alternating scenes contrast town and gown; the prostitutes discuss whether students or townsfolk are better lovers, and come down firmly in favour of the former. ‘[D]ear old Oxford’ receives direct mention in Polumathes’s account of his travels in England, and he reports his experience of the Bodleian, finding in it ‘many dead [men], badly held by chains’; he complains however that he ‘saw no living wise men there’ (61).[7] The characters of Theanus, an aged college functionary who no longer knows his subject but grows rich by tutoring the sons of gentry, and Pedanus, who obtains two benefices through ‘meddling in politics and criticism’ (29), must have seemed to the audience familiar types, if not identifiable caricatures. Burton himself acknowledges the potential contextual piquancy in the epilogue: ‘If any here thinks himself too harshly inveighed | Let him know that the wicked, not the good, are attacked’ (199).

[4] To argue on this basis that Philosophaster’s ‘main satiric thrust, that pseudolearned charlatans find a ready haven in a university, is meant to find its general target in Oxford’ (O’Connell 1986: 93) is however to ignore some very pointed differences between the two universities. Though it has been suggested that Osuna was chosen by Burton for its phonetic similarity to Oxford (Burton 1931: 7), it is not an imaginary place, and Burton repeatedly reminds his audience exactly where it is: a small town near Seville in Andalusia, where a university had been founded in 1548. Pedro Girón, third Duke of Osuna as Burton was writing and revising his play, would have been a familiar figure to the audience: he was internationally famous for his military exploits in the Spanish Netherlands, in particular his role in the siege of Ostend. He is rumoured to have visited James VI and I, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in 1604, two years before the composition of Philosophaster, though his most recent biographer finds no evidence to support the tradition (Linde 2005: 53).

[5] On arriving in Osuna, Philobiblos asks Polumathes what he makes of the town, since he has visited ‘the distinguished universities in all parts of the world’. Polumathes is full of praise, which Philobiblos finds strange. After all, he asks, ‘is this not the region where once so many Arabs flourished?’ Polumathes agrees: ‘The very same. For while barbarism was raging through Europe, philosophy took refuge here’ (59). Polumathes points out that it was the Arabic scholars of Andalusia who preserved the heritage of Aristotle in Western Europe until the twelfth century. On the one hand, Polumathes rebukes Philobiblos’s narrow-mindedness, by suggesting that true philosophy is not sectarian, and was preserved in Muslim Spain while forgotten in Christian Europe. Yet this refusal of bigotry is ironically overlaid with a more complicated and topical reading of the religious politics of knowledge. It was through engagement with Latin translations of the Arabic writings of Averroës, a native of Andalusia, that Aristotle came to dominate the philosophy of the Medieval Latin West, particularly in the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas. Osuna is thus also associated with the scholastic philosophy dominant in Iberian universities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

[6] That Burton wished to impress upon his readers the cultural significance of Osuna as a Spanish university is clear from the patriotic declaration of Sordidus, a native of the town: ‘I don’t doubt that within ten years we’ll see our little village much like Seville, Salamanca or Cordova’ (55): all Andalusian towns with large universities and centres of scholastic scholarship.[8] Salamanca in particular had been a centre of scholastic responses to humanism and the Reformation, supporting scholars such as Domingo de Soto (Dominicus Sotus), Martín de Azpilcueta (more commonly, and to Burton, known as Martinus Navarrus) and Francisco Suárez, all of whom Burton cites in the Anatomy (at III.411, 413, 425, 445; I.157; I.249, II.94, respectively). The Andalusian universities were associated not just with anti-humanism, but with Catholic resistance theory and support of the Pope against Protestant monarchs, particularly in the works of Navarrus, discussed later in this essay, and Suárez, who in 1613 published Defensio fidei Catholicae & Apostolicae adversus Anglicanae sectae errores, a defense of the Pope’s right to depose heretical monarchs, directed against James. In this context, Polumathes’s statement that ‘while barbarism was raging through Europe, philosophy took refuge here’ takes on a different valence. The deictic ‘here’, uttered in Christ Church, operates simultaneously in two contexts. Just as Osuna and southern Spain had preserved the Aristotelian tradition while the rest of Europe was barren of philosophy, Oxford must currently provide refuge from the barbarism of Catholic Europe. And if Europe is to be understood as barbaric in the present, then Polumathes’s open-minded attitude to Islamic learning becomes a bigoted attitude to Catholic universities. While a matter of patriotic pride for Sordidus, for the audience in Christ Church, the idea of another grand Iberian university cannot have been so welcome. Osuna is not simply an alibi for Oxford: it also provides a sharp foil and contrast.

The ‘dissociable society’: the genres of Jesuitism
[7]  The political and religious implications of Osuna are carried through in the characters of the philosophasters. The central pseudo-scholar is Polupragmaticus, who has a smattering of all the arts, while being master of none. We meet him in the first scene, organising the impostures of the other philosophasters, and throwing out bamboozling strings of technical terms from geometry, music, and metaphysics. Superficial polymathy is his particular offence against learning:

Let each one of you take care of his own duties. I’ll take care of mine. As bilingual, ambidexterous, and omniscient, I’ll boast of whatever I wish. […] I know every language, art, science, and consider it stupid either not to know or to hesitate. In a word, I’ll pretend to be a Jesuit.[9]

Though Polupragmaticus claims he is ‘pretending’ to be a Jesuit, in Burton’s ‘Argumentum’ he is identified straightforwardly as ‘Jesuita’ (26). This is repeated in the second scene, when Polupragmaticus is asked by Eubulus, the Duke’s aide, what his ‘special branch of learning’ is: ‘what school do you come from, the Peripatetic or Stoic? Are you a follower of Plato or Aristotle? Are you a Scotist, a Thomist, Realist, Nominalist, or something else?’ (47). In response, Polupragmaticus declares himself ‘a grammarian, a rhetorician, a geometrician, a painter, a wrestling coach, augur, rope walker, physician, magician. I know it all. Or if you prefer, I am a Jesuit. That sums it up’ (47).[10] This is not Burton’s most subtle writing, and its point is clear. Though Mordechai Feingold has suggested that Polupragmaticus may be a satire on the followers of Petrus Ramus (Feingold 2001: 151-2, 159), it seems highly unlikely that Burton would conceal a Huguenot martyr within the Society of Jesus. Just as Osuna is a university in the heartland of anti-Protestant scholasticism, so the central pseudo-philosopher is a Jesuit: not a character with whom any member of the audience in Christ Church could identify, certainly not openly.

[8]  So far, so comic: Burton’s stage Jesuit is a mountebank and trickster in the tradition of new comedy, crossed with common tropes of anti-Jesuit invective.[11] Submerged in Polupragmaticus’s role as magician is the anti-Catholic attack on priests as conjurors presiding over the hocus-pocus of transubstantiation.[12] When Simon Acutus asks why Polupragmaticus calls himself ‘Jesuit’, the response emphasises the rapaciousness of the stock-type: ‘What will this sort of man not dare? Do they not hasten to royal halls or to a woman’s chambers? What crimes remain untried? I’ll play the ruffin [‘Ruffinos’: ‘fiend, devil’], and I’ll play it to the hilt’ (45). Polupragmaticus is a threat both to comic resolution and to the integrity and morals of the state, to the chambers of both women and monarchs. Anti-Catholic propaganda often laid charges of sexual misconduct and lasciviousness at the doors of priests, which Burton repeats in the Anatomy. The typical Jesuit is ‘a notorious Bawd, & famous Fornicator, lascivum pecus, a very goat’ (AM 1.40), and the Jesuits play many ‘pranks’:

sometimes in their owne habits, sometimes in others, like souldiers, courtiers, cittizens, Schollers, Gallants, and women themselves. Proteus-like in all formes, and disguises, that goe abroad in the night, to inescate and beguile young women, or to have their pleasure of other mens wives: And if we may beleeve some relations, they have wardropes of severall suits in their Colledges for that purpose. Howsoever in publike they pretend much zeale, seeme to be very holy men, and bitterly preach against adultery, fornication; there are no verier Bawds or whoremasters in a country. (AM 3.135)

Burton here reuses elements of Aequivocus’s account of his master in Philosophaster:

Where does he not go? Here, there, everywhere he wanders at night, through every neighborhood of the city. And at all hours of the night, now dressed as a man, now as a woman, putting on all sorts of disguises — those of a bawd, a midwife, sometimes even a soldier. I think Proteus is not more mutable than he nor a fox more cunning or clever. (143)

Polupragmaticus in fact never appears as a bawd, midwife or soldier, but we are encouraged to think he might, and that the night is stalked by threatening figures any or all of whom might turn out to be a Jesuit in disguise.

[9] Simon Acutus is also characterised by this standard slander.[13] He closes the third act with a song in rhyming Latin which clearly recalls the form of medieval liturgies, associating him with a monastic environment:

Personatus ego,
Sic meipsum tego,
Vosque meae vestes,
Este mihi testes,

Esse merum pecus,
Et qui credit secus.
Fallitur hiho, hiho,
Fallaturque semper, io. (126, 128)

(I am in disguise| Thus I conceal myself. | And you, my clothes, | Be my witnesses, | He’s a mere sheep | Who believes otherwise. | He is mistaken hiho, hiho, | May he always be mistaken, io.’ Translation my own.)

The opening line may submerge a pun on the opening line of the hymn ‘Personent hodie’, sung during the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December). If so, Simon Acutus’s relish in his disguise parodies a hymn of praise for the incarnation, Christ clothing himself in human flesh and form. His song links the features of the stage mountebank and the Jesuit.[14]

[10]  The political and religious significance detected in Osuna as a site of Spanish scholasticism is thus underlined by the infiltration of the stage by Jesuits. In the Anatomy, Jesuits are ‘Monkes by profession’ and yet ‘a Machiavilian rout interested in all matters of state […] traitors, assasinats’ (AM 1.40-1). The Society of Jesus is a ‘dissociable society’ (AM 3.350), dedicated to undermining civic order (AM 3.37; 3.352). Though the reflex anti-Catholicism in passages of the Anatomy has been recognised (Mueller 1952: 65-75), its genealogical relation to Burton’s play has been ignored. Burton’s representation of the political threat of Jesuitism in the Anatomy shows the same generic hybrid we find in Philosophaster:

That scoffing Lucian conducts his Menippus to hell by the directions of that Chaldean Mithrobarzanes, but after long fasting, & such like idle preparation. Which the Jesuits right well perceiving, of what force this fasting and solitary meditation is, to alter mens mindes when they would make a man mad, ravish him, improve him beyond himselfe, to undertake some great businesse of moment, to kill a King or the like, they bring him into a melancholy darke chamber, where he shall see no light for many dayes together, no company, little meat, gastly pictures of Divels all about him, and leave him to lie as he will himselfe, on the bare floar in this chamber of meditation as they call it, on his backe, side, belly, till by his strange usage they make him quite mad & beside himselfe. And then after some ten daies, as they find him animated and resolved, they make use of him. The divell hath many such factors, many such engins. (AM 3.363)

A scene of such brainwashing is included in Richard Carpenter’s chamber comedy The Pragmatical Jesuit New-leven’d, which explicitly equates a ‘Mountebank with all his packs, and his knacks’ with ‘the Benedictine-Jesuite’ (Carpenter 1665: 20-1, 26-8, 59). As in John Donne’s Conclave Ignati (1611), which Burton owned, the devilish ploys of the Jesuits mimic Lucianic satire. Burton’s Jesuits are a generic amalgam, mingling the devils of such satire, the scoundrels of Roman New Comedy, the lascivious priests of revenge tragedy, and the stage mountebank.

‘To kill a King or the like’: Philosophaster’s occasion
[11] The editor of the first print edition of Philosophaster assumed that its spleen was directed against alchemy, and justified Burton’s careful dating of the stages of its composition—written in 1606, ‘alterata, renovata, perfecta’ in 1615, performed 16 February 1618—as a defence against comparison with Ben Jonson’s Alchemist (1610) (Burton 1862: xi-xii). The anxiety of Jonson’s influence has become a critical commonplace (Burton 1931: xii-xiv; Babb 1959: 64n.8; Burton 1984: 7; O’Connell 1986: 93-4; Burton 1993: 1-2). As some readers have recognised, however, alchemy plays only a minor role in Philosophaster’s satire (Bentley 1956: 100; Nochimson 1974: 98), and the more obvious target of Burton’s mockery—Jesuitism—provides a better reason for the ostentatious triple dating.

[12] Burton places the composition of Philosophaster in 1606, the year following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (5 November 1605), when the trial and execution of the conspirators and their Jesuit confessors took place. The theatricality of the Jesuit in the popular imagination was emphasised in the propaganda response to the Plot, and at the trial of Henry Garnet S.J. for treason in 1606. The lewdness which Burton ascribes to Polupragmaticus echoes that levelled against Garnet at his trial: he was accused of drunkenness and lechery, and fornication with Anne Vaux, who had harboured him. The royal proclamation of 15 January 1606 drew attention to the Jesuits’ ‘tendency to wear showy clothes “after the Italian fashion”’: the practical necessity of disguise for the Jesuits confirmed the caricature (Fraser 2002: 237, 287-90; 255, 344). Sir Edward Coke, the prosecutor at Garnet’s trial, used the tag ‘plus peccat Author quam Actor’ (‘the author sins more than the actor’) to emphasise his guilt, though he had taken no active part in the plot.  During Coke’s prosecution of the Gunpowder Plotters themselves, he had claimed the event as ‘a sine exemplo, beyond all examples, whether in fact or fiction, even of the tragick poets, who did beat their wits to represent the most fearful and horrible murders’. Coke’s imagery passed into the first commemorative sermon delivered on 5 November 1606 by Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Chichester, who claimed that ‘[Heathen men’s] Stories; nay, their Tragoedies can show none neer it. Their Poëts could never feigne any so prodigiously impious’ (Anon. 1679: 79; Andrewes 2005: 151; McCullough 2005: 395). Philosophaster, however, is not from the pen of a ‘tragick poet’; instead, it is an unusual comic response to the Gunpowder Plot and Garnet’s trial.

[13] Some clear signals of the contextual relevance appear in the final scene, in which the philosophasters are discovered, branded, and banished. Before judgement is passed, they are searched, and certain damning objects are found on them. Some, like cards and dice, give them away as fairground mountebanks. Others, however, expose their religion: a ‘pecten’ (used to comb the priest’s hair before Mass), ‘unguentum’ (‘ointment’, or the chrism used in various sacraments), ‘cantilenae’ (‘songs’—specifically various forms of medieval plainsong), and ‘pocula’ (‘cups’, or the chalices used in the Eucharist) (193). These are accoutrements of the Roman Catholic Mass, like the paraphernalia discovered in priest-holes during searches for co-conspirators after the Plot (Fraser 2002: 258). That the plotters’ Jesuit confessors had celebrated Mass with them before their attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament was condemned at their trials and in subsequent Gunpowder sermons (Andrewes 2005: 153; McCullough 2005: 397-8; Wills 1995: 36-7). Branding was a standard punishment inflicted on perjurers or thieves in the period. But the philosophasters are punished not just for their behaviour within the play, but also as their analogues.[15] They are branded on the cheeks with marks ‘in the shape of a wolf or an ape’ (193). The wolf was a standard symbol for Catholic priests, and especially for Jesuits, as in the ‘grim wolf with privy paw’ of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (Shell 1992: 125; Milton 2007: 252); the arms of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits’ founder, were flanked by two grey wolves (Le Comte 1950: 606). Thomas Dekker’s ‘The Picture of a Iesuite’ provides a further parallel, describing a figure ‘Mouth’d like an Ape, his innate spite | Being to mock Those hee cannot bite’ (Dekker 1606: sig. A3r). The branding includes further scope for allegory. Some of the Gunpowder Plotters had been injured in their flight by the accidental explosion of gunpowder at Holbeach House, where they had taken refuge (Fraser 2002: 222-3). Subsequent sermons took pleasure in the poetic justice of the firing of those who would have blown up Parliament, Andrewes observing that ‘God cast their owne powder in their faces, powdered them, and disfigured them with it’ (Andrewes 2005: 155; McCullough 2005: 400). Symbolic branding had also been meted out in a play performed on the Christ Church stage three days before Philosophaster. In Barton Holyday’s Technogamia, the false fortune-tellers Physiognomas and Cheiromantes are punished in ways appropriate to their fraudulent activities: the interpreter of men’s fates from their faces is burned in the face, from their hands in the hand (Holyday 1942: 104). Burton’s branding of the philosophasters more sinisterly mimics the providential and ironic revenge on the Gunpowder Plotters.

[14] Even Polupragmaticus’s name carries unmistakable signals of seditious Catholicism. The notion of ‘polupragmosunē’, or ‘being a busybody’, as a negative political or moral behaviour, and especially as the butt of comic opprobrium, was venerable (Ehrenberg 1947; Atkins 1976).[16] By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, ‘polypragmatic’ had taken on connotations of Catholic and especially Jesuit sedition, and was particularly associated with Robert Persons (sometimes Parsons), who had been attacked by both anti-Jesuit English Catholics and Protestants for his attempted influence in political affairs (Bagshaw 1601: sig. [A4]r; Persons 1602: ff.55v-56r; Morton 1610: 27; Persons 1612: sig. (n)1r; Mason 1613: 13; Crakanthorpe 1621: 190; Burton 1627: n.p.). Later in the century, the ‘pragmatical Jesuit’ was a stock figure, as the titles of Carpenter’s Pragmatical Jesuit, and Henry Care’s Character of a Turbulent, Pragmatical Jesuit and factious Romish priest (1678), testify. William Prynne could describe William Laud in 1640 as ‘this Polypragmatick [who] began to stirre and stickle both in Church and State’, relying on the Catholic connotations of the word to do their polemical work (Prynne 1640: sig. C4v).

[15] James himself associated the term specifically with refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance, which was a direct response to the Plot and made compulsory for all subjects by an Act of Parliament in 1606. The oath incorporated a denial of the Pope’s supremacy over the monarchy. In a speech delivered on 20 June 1616 in Star Chamber, he expressed his satisfaction with Roman Catholics who took the Oath, and reserved his enmity for ‘Polypragmaticke Papists’:

I would you would studie out some seuere punishment for them: for they keepe not infection in their owne hearts onely, but also infect others our good Subiects. And that which I say for Recusants [sc. those who refused to take the Oath of Allegiance], the same I say for Priests: I confesse I am loath to hang a Priest onely for Religion sake, and saying Masse; but if he refuse the Oath of Allegiance (which, let the Pope and all the deuils in hell say what they will) yet […] those that so refuse the Oath, and are Polypragmaticke Recusants; I leaue them to the Law; it is no persecution, but good Iustice. (James VI & I 1994: 223-4)

A ‘List of Persons Taking the Oath of Allegiance at Christ Church’ preserved in the Oxford University Archives and not, as far as I know, previously known to Burton scholars, shows that he took the oath of allegiance when it was imposed on the university in the summer of 1610 (OUA SP/E/6/1). The oath prompted an international debate throughout the remainder of James’s life: Burton owned several of the printed contributions to it, including Cardinal Bellarmine’s Apologia Matthaei Torti (1618), John Donne’s Conclave Ignati (1611), and the anonymous Deus et Rex, usually attributed to Richard Mocket (Kiessling 1988). The controversies were reflected in other academic plays: Risus Anglicanus, a Cambridge comedy dated after 1614 and ascribed to Samuel Collins, includes Bellarmine and Suárez as characters, while John Hacket’s Loiola, performed in Cambridge before James on 28 February 1622 and not printed until 1644, includes characters called Loiola, Pseudo-miraculum, and Aequivocatio, and testifies to the continued interest and use of explicitly anti-Jesuit tropes for royal entertainment throughout his reign (Brennan 1988).

[16] Burton’s revision and revival of Philosophaster in the 1610s is similarly fuelled by the heat of the continued polemic over the oath. He had already contributed to Alba, an earlier play, now lost, which was performed before James at Christ Church in 1605 (Nochimson 1970).[17] There is some evidence that Burton revised Philosophaster in expectation of a similar occasion, since Holyday’s Technogamia, performed three days before Philosophaster, brings before its Christ Church audience ‘What he prepared for our Platonique King: | Deeming Your iudgements able to supply | The absence of So Great a Maiesty’ (Holyday 1942: xxix, 4, 118). Though that hope was disappointed, it amplifies the importance of the later contexts of controversial response to the oath for Philosophaster. Burton’s loyalty to James is recorded in various passages in the Anatomy, retained in editions published after his death (AM I.75, I.320; Gowland 2006: 236, 268). Kenneth Fincham has observed that the king ‘expected Oxford scholars to defend [his] claims, for example against Rome over the oath of allegiance controversy’. Philosophaster’s use of anti-Catholic imagery and tropes shows Burton a willing defender of James’s ‘citadel of orthodoxy’ (Fincham 1997: 179, 188).

‘Faith, here’s an equivocator!’
[17] Even Polupragmaticus’s name is however not the most obvious signal in the play to Philosophaster’s topical concerns. His servant is called Aequivocus, in an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of equivocation, brought to prominence immediately before the composition of Philosophaster by Garnet’s trial, which prompted an ‘absolute obsession with the subject of equivocation in the minds of the public’ (Fraser 2002: 315). Garnet had not been directly involved in the Plot — indeed had tried to circumvent it — but was nonetheless tried for treason in March and April 1606, and hanged, drawn and quartered on 3 May. Much use was made in the trial of the discovery of a manuscript ‘Treatise of Equivocation’ in the rooms of Sir Thomas Tresham in Westminster, whose son was involved in the conspiracy (Fraser 2002: 290-5). The manuscript used at the trial and annotated by Coke survives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Laud MS misc. 655). A second copy in the English College at Rome is reported missing by Fraser (2002: 291). Like Coke, the nineteenth-century editor of the ‘Treatise’, David Jardine, thought the author anonymous, and identified Garnet’s hand only in corrections. On the basis of Garnet’s correspondence, however, his authorship was established by A.F. Allison (1951: 8-10, 14-15), and the attribution is generally accepted (Caraman 1964; McCoog 2004).

[18] The doctrine of equivocation taught that though lying was a sin, deliberately misleading interrogators, even under oath, was permissible, so long as the vocalised lie was accompanied by a ‘mental reservation’ which, in completing a statement, made it true. The doctrine had initially been established by Martinus Navarrus, and had been an issue at the trial of the Jesuit Robert Southwell in 1595 (Zagorin 1990: 153-85). The ‘Treatise’ supplied a thorough theoretical basis, with casuistic examples, and supporting quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers. The theory laid out in Garnet’s manuscript derived from Aristotle’s account of propositions in the De interpretatione 16a1-8: in addition to the three obvious kinds of propositions or sentences, mental, verbal, and written, there existed a fourth kind, the mixed proposition, which combined two of the three other modes (Garnet 1851: 8-10). Thus, for example, in answer to the question whether or not one had attended Mass, it was permissible to say ‘no’, so long as the statement was accompanied by a mental reservation or ‘restrictio mentalis’ to the effect ‘not in London’, or ‘not yesterday’, etc. (Garnet 1851: 15-18). In a scandalous example, a Father Ward had sworn that he was ‘no priest’, with the mental reservation ‘of Apollo at Delphi’ (Fraser 2002: 293). Pace Frank Huntley, the ‘mixed proposition’ does not derive directly from Aristotle (Huntley 1964: 391n.11), but via later scholastic commentary (Malloch 1966). Garnet alerts his reader to his source in his margin, as ‘Navar. in cap. Humanae aures’: his exposition derives from Navarrus, one of the Andalusian scholars whom Burton read.

[19] Philosophaster is not the only play composed in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot to make thematic reference to equivocation. The most familiar case is Macbeth, in which direct references to Garnet have been used to date the play (Rogers 1965; Wills 1995: 93-105 and 151-7). The Porter, responding to the knocking at the castle gates, declares ‘[h]ere’s a farmer that hanged himself on th’expectation of plenty’ (II.3.3-4) — ‘Farmer’ was one of Garnet’s pseudonyms — and ‘Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator’ (II.3.9-13) (Shakespeare 1997: 148). A further example survives in a dramatic fragment published anonymously at Cambridge, which, like Philosophaster, combines Roman new comedy and vilification of Jesuits. Entitled Aequivocationis tenebrae pugnant cum rationis lumine — ‘the shadows of equivocation do battle with the light of reason’ — it survives in various collections as a single printed broadsheet. The scene presents a dialogue between ‘Pseudolus, or Aequivocator’, and ‘Simia’. The names are drawn from Plautus’s Pseudolus, in which Pseudolus (‘deceitful’), is the stock clever slave, and Simia (‘ape’) — a convenient opportunity for the anti-Jesuit imagery also used by Burton — another slave with whom he plots. Here they become two Jesuit priests in England, in disguise. Simia begs Pseudolus to tell him how to avoid the persecution to which the Jesuits are particularly subject. Pseudolus responds by explaining equivocation: how to use ‘lucifugam sermonem, & versicoloria dicta’ (‘light-fleeing speech, and words of changing colour’) without lying. The deceptive verbal gymnastics recommended in this fragment are elaborated more intricately in Philosophaster.

[20] Burton’s Aequivocus is, paradoxically, straightforward in declaring his deceit: ‘When I speak, I dissemble. I learned to equivocate long ago from both parents. My mother Amphibologia was both a whore and a bawd, my father Agyrta, a magician and unparalleled imposter’ (45). Amphibology or amphiboly is a figure of speech technically distinct from equivocation: it describes ambiguity which arises through syntax, though the words themselves remain unequivocal, while in equivocation, the double sense of particular words is at issue. They are however frequently associated, appearing as a doublet in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, for example (Browne 1646: 13), and carry the same connotation of quibbling and deceiving through ambiguity. The earliest meaning of ‘Agyrta’ in Greek is ‘a begging priest’, coming to mean in drama a ‘beggar, mountebank, vagabond, juggler’ (LSJ s.v. ‘ἀγύρτης’. Agyrta, the conjuring priest, is thus a Classical forebear for the impostor Jesuits of Burton’s imagination. Aequivocus—like equivocation—is born from a combination of the ambiguities of language and the deceptions of priests.

[21] The use of equivocation in Macbeth expands from its limited topical reference to a thematic and structural device at the heart of the tragedy (Rogers 1964; Kałuża 1990; Kerrigan 1999: 32-9). In the comedy of Philosophaster, equivocation becomes part of the academic satire. Act II opens, for example, with a parody of scholastic logic and metaphysics. In a punning exchange between Polupistos and Simon Acutus, the sophist, Burton shows equivocation in action:

POLUPISTOS:         Do you know a certain master, Polupragmaticus, where he lives?
SIMON ACUTUS:    Your question can be taken two ways. First, if it is asked in this sense, whether I know a master, I say yes. If in the sense whether I know this master, I say that I do not know. (69)

Polupistos echoes the questions put to those suspected of harbouring priests or attending masses, and Simon Acutus’s response is equivocation. Since Simon Acutus does in fact know Polupragmaticus, to claim outright that he does not know him would be a lie. His quibble however offers two different answers to the question, opposite in significance, but equally true depending on the speaker’s mental construction of the situation: the fundamental condition for successful equivocation. One of Garnet’s examples in the ‘Treatise’ turns on precisely this distinction: asked whether one had attended mass, or harboured a priest, a Roman Catholic could legitimately answer ‘no’, even under oath, so long as he thought of a particular priest other than he who had in fact been harboured, or an occasion other than that on which the Mass had been celebrated (Garnet 1851: 17-18, 31). Of course, if mental reservations are to be represented on the stage, they must cease to be mental. Thus Simon Acutus explains what he means by ‘I say that I do not know’. He accepts that he knows a master; he refuses to admit, however, that he knows Polupragmaticus, the master about whom he has been asked. The audience, party both to Simon Acutus’s acquaintance with Polupragmaticus and the operations of his mental reservation, understands his equivocation.

[22] A further layer of complication is added by the fact that Polupragmaticus is in any case no academic ‘magister’, which Simon Acutus highlights with an ‘explanation’ in convoluted scholastic jargon:

I will explain it as follows. […] I know formally to the extent that being as being has in our mind one concept common to all, just as Scotus holds in the Metaphysics. But not quidditatively to the extent that the principle of individuation has its own essence or is particularized through accidents, according to St. Thomas, adding something and individuating its own subject not according to a known being, but according to an actual representative thing. And thus I do not know his Masterness. (69)

This may seem deliberate nonsense: an example of the scholastic ‘laborious webbes of learning’ and ‘vermiculate questions’ condemned by Francis Bacon (Bacon 2000: 24). Lurking behind the obfuscation, however, is equivocation performed through the Aristotelian commentary tradition which Burton associates with the Roman Catholic universities of Andalusia throughout Philosophaster. Simon Acutus accepts that he ‘formally’ knows the abstract universal ‘magistralitas’, or ‘Masterness’; he does not know, however, how abstract universals are individuated or particularised. Moreover, since Polupragmaticus is not an academic master in any case, as Simon Acutus and the audience know,  and thus not an instanciation of ‘Masterness’, he can in all honesty answer that he does not know Polupragmaticus’s ‘magistralitas’ as an ‘actual representative thing’. He can understand the question ‘do you know a certain master, Polupragmaticus’ to refer to a non-existent case of ‘Masterness’ and in good conscience answer ‘no’. The contortions of his answer lay bear the mechanisms of equivocation drawn to an extreme, a parody of the cases Garnet presents in the ‘Treatise’. The political and academic aspects of Burton’s satire come together: the caricature of scholasticism’s periphrastic abuses of language is seen to be of a piece with the dangerous and seditious doctrine of equivocation.

[23] This is only one of many examples. Burton stages equivocation differently in II.7, when Aequivocus augments Polupragmaticus’s lies to Polupistos with asides, revealing to the audience Polupragmaticus’s mental reservations. Simon Acutus’s denial of Polupragmaticus is echoed late in the play, by which point Aequivocus has proved his falsity even to his master:

POLUPRAGMATICUS: Do you know my Aequivocus?
SIMON ACUTUS:         As I know you.
POLUPRAGMATICUS: Then you know a jester and a thief.
PANTOMAGUS:            He has stolen my money chest and fled. Indeed he left not a penny.
SIMON ACUTUS:         To deceive a deceiver is not deceit. (159)

Simon Acutus recalls another precept of equivocation: if your interrogator is a heretic, your obligation not to mislead him evaporates (Garnet 1851: 17-18, 68-70). With Aequivocus’s theft of the spoils of his co-conspirators, equivocation is endemic, and saturnalian chaos reigns, only to be restored to order by the final scene with its disclosures, marriage, and restitutions. Equivocation and Jesuitism thus function, in Philosophaster, as the generically necessary forces of disorder which threaten to turn the world upside down. Banishment of those threats constitutes the comedic resolution, purging the sick academy of its disorders, and restores the university to order and balance as a ‘renouata Academia’ (198).

[24] It has not been my intent in this essay to recuperate Philosophaster as comic literature. I do want to suggest, however, that it is not merely ‘an obvious and elementary string of transparent sketches’ (Burton 1984: 6), and that as a result of the failure to consider Philosophaster’s occasion attentively, even ‘obvious’ and ‘elementary’ anti-Catholicism, and its topical implications, have been missed. Reading Philosophaster in the light of the Anatomy has minimised its engagement with the Gunpowder Plot and the anti-Catholic attacks, verbal and political, which it prompted. Seen in connection with the blatant satires and caricatures of Jesuitism, and the central device of equivocation, Burton’s academic satire in the play becomes political: philosophy is corrupted in Philosophaster not just by generic mountebanks and quacksalvers, but by representatives of Roman Catholic scholarship and scholasticism. It is these, Burton implies, that ought to be purged from the academy.

[25] Angus Gowland has recently drawn attention to recusancy in Burton’s mother’s family, and in particular to the potential influence of his uncle, Arthur Faunt, a Jesuit controversialist who was vice-rector at the Jesuit College in PoznaÅ„, and professor of dogmatic theology at the Jesuit Academy in Vilna in Lithuania, where he died (Murphy 2004). Faunt was thus a representative of the Jesuit scholars satirised and vilified in Philosophaster. There is nonetheless evidence that he was esteemed in the Burton family. William Burton, Robert’s brother, praised Faunt in his Description of Leicestershire (Burton 1622: 105-6), and Robert Burton wrote a brief biography of his uncle in the flyleaf of his copy of Faunt’s De invocatione ac veneratione Sanctorum, adding ‘cuius ego su[m] e sorore nepos’ [I am his nephew through his sister] (Faunt 1589). But if, as Gowland argues, we are to take into account this biographical information as a ‘significant background factor in shaping the spiritual sympathies’ of the Anatomy, we must temper it with the caricatures and satire on Roman Catholicism and Jesuits in Philosophaster (Gowland 2006: 5).

[26] Philosophaster has sometimes been read as a pastiche or imitation of Jonson. Once its topicality is better understood, however, different parallels and contrasts emerge. The play has more in common with Donne’s Conclave Ignati, or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Dekker’s anti-Catholic pamphleteering, than with The Alchemist or Poestaster. Garry Wills, in studying Macbeth, established a set of criteria for a ‘Gunpowder play’: there must be references to the Plot; the attempted destruction of a kingdom; ‘convulsions’ brought about by ‘plots, and equivocation’; the intervention of witches (Wills 1995: 9). Since Wills’s net brings back only four plays—Macbeth, John Marston’s Sophonisba, Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon, and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter—it is worth taking the definition loosely. If we allow the University of Osuna to represent a ‘kingdom’, and replace ‘witches’ with the alchemists and Paracelsians of Philosophaster, Burton’s comedy can be added to the list. Burton’s foregrounding of the composition of the play in 1606 is not a claim of primogeniture against Jonson’s Alchemist; instead, it asks the reader to remember the fifth of November.

Jesus College, Oxford


[1] The date is given as 16 February 1617 old style on the two extant manuscripts of the complete play, Harvard Theatre Collection MS Thr.10, and Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.315. The part of Polupragmaticus has been preserved as Harvard MS Thr.10.1. Burton also supplies the date in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1989-2000, I.325). References to the Anatomy will be supplied in text throughout, prefixed by the letters AM. [back to text]

[2] I would like to thank Mary Ann Lund, Victoria Moul, and Oliver Thomas for their suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. [back to text]

[3] See Burton 1862, 1931, 1993; the facsimile Burton 1984. The translation in Burton 1993 is used throughout unless otherwise indicated, with page references in the text. Philosophaster received a performance at the University of California, Los Angeles, in January 1930 (Babb 1959: 31n.7). [back to text]

[4] The honourable exception is John Dewey’s account of the Oxford contexts (1968: 131-91). While recognising salient aspects of the play’s topical references, however, he does not pursue their allegorical presentation or Burton’s staging of them, and ignores the connection between confessional politics and philosophical and academic tradition which is my main concern here. [back to text]

[5] McQuillen’s notes also identify substantial borrowings from Juvenal, Erasmus and Giovanni Pontano, among others. [back to text]

[6] Academic plays were attended by women and townsfolk, as well as students and scholars (Binns 1990: 138-9). [back to text]

[7] McQuillen notes (61, n.5) that this is practically a verbatim transcription of a section of Pontano’s ‘Antonius dialogus’, substituting ‘Oxford’ for ‘Bologna’. The dead men are the books chained to the library desks and shelves. Oxford is also mentioned on 163. [back to text]

[8] Burton may also have intended a reference to Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century bishop and encyclopaedist whose Etymologiae preserved what little of Aristotle had survived in western Europe in the early middle ages. Burton refers to Isidore at AM 3.429. I am grateful to Mary Ann Lund for this suggestion. [back to text]

[9] The translation here mixes McQuillen (43) and Jordan-Smith (29). Philosophaster’s anti-Jesuit satire is briefly observed in Gossett 1982: 34. [back to text]

[10] The list and ‘I know it all’ are taken from Juvenal’s Satire 3.76-77 (Burton 1931: 230). [back to text]

[11] For some tropes of anti-Catholicism in Jacobean England, see Shell 1999, especially chapter 1. [back to text]

[12] The OED denies that ‘hocus-pocus’ derives from ‘hoc est corpus [meum]’, said by the priest in consecrating the wafer in the Mass. The folk etymology is however traced to a sermon by John Tillotson, delivered in 1694, which states ‘In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of transubstantiation’, which exemplifies the stock figure of the conjuring priest, even if Tillotson goropizes. [back to text]

[13] On the representation of Jesuit disguise, see Shell 1992: 132-3; on the association between the Jesuit and the stage mountebank, 134-44. [back to text]

[14] On the rarity of stage Jesuits, despite the frequency of clearly related mountebanks, see Shell 1992: 131-3. [back to text]

[15] It is not clear from the text who is to be branded, but the persistent anti-Catholicism would suggest the Jesuit Polupragmaticus, Aequivocus, and Simon Acutus, with the addition of Theanus, who repeatedly reveals himself an unthinking, uncurious follower of the Catholic Church (see e.g. 85, 89). [back to text]

[16] Plutarch’s essay in the Moralia “Περὶ Πολυπραγμοσύνης” was translated into Latin as ‘De curiositate’; on this semantic shift see Walsh 1988. The Athenian poet Timocles was said to have written a lost comedy entitled Polypragmon (Philips 1675: 385). [back to text]

[17] A list of the apparel and furniture required for the performance of Alba survives in the Oxford University Archives and has been printed (Boas and Greg 1909). Expenses are detailed in Alton 1959/60. [back to text]


Manuscripts and annotated printed books

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud MS misc. 655

Oxford University Archives, SP/E/6/1

Faunt, Laurence Arthur. 1589. Apologia libri svi de invocatione, ac veneratione sanctorum, contra falsas Danielis Tossani […] criminationes (Cologne), Oxford, Bodleian Library, 8o A71 Th.

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