Skip to main content

Persecution, Plague, and Fire

Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

The theater of early modern England was a disastrous affair. The scant record of its performance demonstrates as much, for what we tend to remember today of the Shakespearean stage and its history are landmark moments of dissolution: the burning down of the Globe, the forced closure of playhouses during outbreaks of the plague, and the abolition of the theater by its Cromwellian opponents.


 Persecution, Plague, and Fire is a study of these catastrophes and the theory of performance they convey. Ellen MacKay argues that the various disasters that afflicted the English theater during its golden age were no accident but the promised end of a practice built on disappearance and erasure—a kind of fatal performance that left nothing behind but its self-effacing poetics. Bringing together dramatic theory, performance studies, and theatrical, religious, and cultural history, MacKay reveals the period’s radical take on the history and the future of the stage to show just how critical the relation was between early modern English theater and its public.

256 pages | 9 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2011

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, Dramatic Works


“[A]n engaging and rich exploration of drama’s unique relationship with history. Readers willing to indulge Mackay’s new historicist impulses will appreciate her relentless and enthusiastic engagement with the theoretical ‘stuff’ of early modern performance.”

Jennie Friedrich | Comitatus

“The book has much to recommend it as a new approach to old stories. Its bold analysis and focus on various forms of destruction remind us that catastrophe could be creatively harnessed and exploited. The suggestion that perilousness is the point of theatre, rather than a consequence of it, revivifies and repositions the anecdotes MacKay tells. . . . [A] book for those interested in theorizing the creative potential of theatrical disaster.”

Tiffany Stern | Times Literary Supplement

“A demanding yet rewarding eschatological reading of the early modern English theater. . . . Important and erudite.”

Colleen E. Kennedy, Ohio State University | Sixteenth Century Journal

“Theater practitioners have drawn crowds with catastrophe since the first ancient chorus swooned and fell to the ground, but Ellen MacKay shows how the Elizabethans added plague and perdition to their preoccupation with ‘soundrie slaughters and mayhemmings’ caused by the devilish engines of the stage, literal and figurative. Persecution, Plague, and Fire is written with pyrotechnics that rival the stage fires it witnesses.”

Joseph Roach, Yale University

“How did the Elizabethan theater manage to achieve its incomparable greatness—or even to survive—in a time of relentless plague, Puritan hostility, fires, and other vicissitudes of adverse fortune? Ellen MacKay’s brilliant insight is to narrate a story of theatrical enterprise based on disastrous accidents, erasure, and a taxonomy of fatal performance, leaving an undiscovered poetics in its wake. This book superbly captures the sense in which the Elizabethan theater is so quintessentially like all theater at its best and most evanescent: now you see it, now you don’t. The life of performance resides apocalyptically in its impermanence.”

David Bevington, University of Chicago

Persecution, Plague, and Fire is a provocative and important book, one of the few—in some senses, the only—to engage both pro- and antitheatrical discourse in early modern England. MacKay’s effort to track a kind of conceptual aporia in the early modern theater’s understanding of its historical position, and indeed of its effective means, is developed in great detail, and with significant interpretive flair and originality. It’s a very powerful book.”

W. B. Worthen, Barnard College, Columbia University

Table of Contents

List of Figures

Introduction: The Theater as a Loaded Gun
The Hurt That Comes of Fooling
Aeschylus’s Ballistic Stage


1. The Theater as Persecution
Tragedy’s Guilty Creatures
England’s Conscience-Catching Theater
Rome’s Fatal Charades
2. Tyrannical Drama
The Dream of Theatrical Justice
Hamlet’s Show Trial
The King’s Immunity
The Widow’s Foregone Confession
Gertrude’s Uncaught Conscience
Orestes Redux
The End of Rome


3. The Theater as Infection
The Toxic Middle Age
“The Theater and the Plague”
“The Sure Disease of Uncertaine Causes”
The Life of Performance
Not Quite Nothing
4. Stigmatical Drama
Some Symptoms of the Medieval Stage
“It is not words that shakes me thus”
The Plague in Art
“Look there, look there!”


5. The Theater as Conflagration
The Eschatology of the Tudor Stage
The Theater’s Propensity for Burning
Raising the “Cry of Sodom”
Wielding the Crime of Sodom
Sodomy’s False Origins
6. Sodomitical Drama
The Sought Apocalypse
Remembering Lot’s Wife
The Stage’s Hymeneal Contract
The Impossible History of Theater Fires
The Mare Mortuum’s Infinite Stage

Afterword: On the Uncertainty of What Comes After

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press