In Act II of Twelfth Night, Maria says of Malvolio - that poker-faced enemy of cakes and ale, bear-baitings, and all 'uncivil rule' - that 'sometimes he is a kind of Puritan.' Cautious and qualified though this statement is, Maria retracts it almost at once: 'the devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass.' She insists that Malvolio's defects spring from his own hypocrisy and self-love. They are not, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek wants to believe, associated with a particular religious and political alignment in Elizabethan England. Maria's scrupulousness here about an easy misuse of the term 'Puritan' would seem to be Shakespeare's own. Although critics often permit themselves to describe the repressive Angelo in Measure for Measure as 'puritanical', no one in the comedy ever does so, nor is any connection implied between the 'outward-sainted' deputy and the party which, by 1604, had already begun to indicate its opposition to royal absolutism as well as to Popery in all its forms. As Shakespeare uses it (twice) in All's well that ends well, the word 'Puritan' signifies nothing more than 'anti-Papist'. In Pericles, it occurs as a straightforward synonym for 'virtuous' and even as late as The Winter's Tale the single 'puritan' among the sheep-shearers in Bohemia is no refuser of festivity. He contents himself with fitting psalms to the hornpipes he relishes as much as anyone else.
LRB 18 December 1980 | PDF Download