Lines in Defence of the Stage

Good people of high and low degree,
I pray ye all be advised by me,
And don’t believe what the clergy doth say,
That by going to the theatre you will be led astray.

No, in the theatre we see vice punished and virtue rewarded,
The villain either hanged or shot, and his career retarded;
Therefore the theatre is useful in every way,
And has no inducement to lead the people astray.

Because therein we see the end of the bad men,
Which must appall the audience – deny it who can
Which will help to retard them from going astray,
While witnessing in a theatre a moral play.

The theatre ought to be encouraged in every respect,
Because example is better than precept,
And is bound to have a greater effect
On the minds of theatre-goers in every respect.

Sometimes in theatres, guilty creatures there have been
Struck to the soul by the cunning of the scene;
By witnessing a play wherein murder is enacted,
They were proven to be murderers, they felt so distracted,

And left the theatre, they felt so much fear,
Such has been the case, so says Shakespeare.
And such is my opinion, I will venture to say,
That murderers will quake with fear on seeing murder in a play.

Hamlet discovered his father’s murderer by a play
That he composed for the purpose, without dismay,
And the king, his uncle, couldn’t endure to see that play,
And he withdrew from the scene without delay.

And by that play the murder was found out,
And clearly proven, without any doubt;
Therefore, stage representation has a greater effect
On the minds of the people than religious precept.

We see in Shakespeare’s tragedy of Othello, which is sublime,
Cassio losing his lieutenancy through drinking wine;
And, in delirium and grief, he exclaims –
“Oh, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!”

A young man in London went to the theatre one night
To see the play of George Barnwell, and he got a great fright;
He saw George Barnwell murder his uncle in the play,
And he had resolved to murder his uncle, but was stricken with dismay.

But when he saw George Barnwell was to be hung
The dread of murdering his uncle tenaciously to him clung,
That he couldn’t murder and rob his uncle dear,
Because the play he saw enacted filled his heart with fear.

And, in conclusion, I will say without dismay,
Visit the theatre without delay,
Because the theatre is a school of morality,
And hasn’t the least tendency to lead to prodigality.


The use of a play in Hamlet to determine Claudius’ guilt should need no further explanation; nor should Othello, though only the temperance-obsessed McGonagall could construe abstinence from alcohol as being its main theme.

Modern readers are less likely to have heard of George Barnwell, a morality play intended to serve the very purpose the McGonagall designates for the theatre. Written by George Lillo (1693-1739), it tells the tale of Barnwell, an apprentice who is seduced by the courtesan Sarah Millwood into stealing from his employer and murdering his uncle. By the end of the play, Barnwell and Millwood have both been sentenced to death. This play was still performed in McGonagall’s day and was often put on for apprentices on their holidays to deter them from stealing from their masters. McGonagall probably attended such performances in his youth.

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Comments (2) »

  1. In the year 2014, on the 4th day of December at 8:14 am

    […] also led me to the wonderful McGonagall poem Lines in Defence of the Stage, the sole purpose of which, in McGonagall’s sage view, is to strike at the conscience of […]

  2. Martin
    In the year 2018, on the 30th day of September at 1:07 pm

    A man truly ahead of his time. A visionary.

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