No one likes to be called a puritan. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the word began with a capital letter and denoted not merely a temperament but also a religious affiliation, it was a term of abuse, disowned by those at whom it was thrown. Playwrights drew on, and perhaps even helped to create, images of sullenness, unsociability and hypocrisy. In Twelfth Night, where Malvolio is said to be ‘a kind of Puritan’, Sir Toby famously asks him, ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Puritans were allegedly identifiable by their nasal whines and the lifting of their eyes to heaven. For Ben Jonson, who lampooned ‘the holy brethren’ in the characters of Tribulation Wholesome and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, to ‘turn Puritan’ was to ‘learn to speak in the nose’.
The animus of dramatists was stiffened by the Puritan antipathy to the theatre, but the derisive deployment of the term extended far beyond literature. David Hall, whose long and learned book traces the ‘Puritan movement’ in England, Scotland and New England, quotes a complaint by a Scottish minister in