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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a savage theatre critic

a theatrical stage viewed from the upper circle

Late on Monday night (or early on Tuesday morning, depending on where you’re reading this…) a brilliant word quietly crept onto the HH Twitter feed:

…and we thought you might like to know a bit more about it.

A histriomastix is indeed a theatre critic (or a “severe critic of playwrights” as this dictionary defines it), but that’s putting it lightly: the word histriomastix literally means “scourge of actors”, and the suffix –mastix derives from an Ancient Greek word for a horsewhip.

There’s a reason why this word has such abrasive connotations, however: it was invented by someone who really, really, hated actors.

portrait of william prynne

His name was William Prynne, a seventeenth century English lawyer, pamphleteer, and notoriously hard-nosed Puritan. Born in Somerset in 1600 and educated at Oxford, it’s thought that Prynne was first introduced to Puritanism during his training to become a barrister at London’s Lincoln Inn in the mid-1620s; he published his first Puritanical literature the year before he was called to the Bar in 1628.

Over the next four decades, Prynne published more than 200 books and pamphlets, the majority of which outlined his stringent views on everything from Christian redemption (some people were predestined never to be redeemed by Christ’s atonement on the Cross, he believed) to the length of a person’s hair (men’s hair should be kept short, women’s should be kept long, and anything in between was “unseemly and unlawful to Christians”).

Like all Puritans, he railed against any form of celebration or revelry, and so out went singing, dancing, music, and Christmas, which was dismissed as derivative of the Roman Bacchanalia, a fact that “should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate [it]”. But as unpopular and uncompromising as Prynne’s opinions were, none landed him in as much trouble as when he turned his reproachful attention to one group in particular: actors.

Prynne saw acting and masquerading as no different from any other kind of revelry, and in 1632 published a rambling 1,000-page essay of sheer vitriolic condemnation to explain his stance. Entitled Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge, or Actor’s Tragedy, in it Prynne attacked almost every facet of the theatre, from the actors themselves (“sinful, heathenish, lewd, ungodly spectacles”, “pernicious corruptions”, “intolerable mischiefs to churches, to republics, to the manners, minds, and souls of men”) to their costumes (“a confluence of all whorish, immodest, lust-provoking attires … sufficient to excite a very hell of noisome lusts in the most mortified actors’ and spectators’ bowels”).

Shakespeare’s trick of having men and boys dressing as women to play female characters—“representing the persons of lewd notorious strumpets”, according to Prynne—was “undoubtedly sinful, yea, utterly unlawful to Christians”. The plays themselves were written off as “deceitful fictions, which would quickly teach men to cheat, to steal, to play hypocrites and dissemblers”. And the “obscene, lascivious lust-provoking songs and poems” performed in them were “abominable unto Christians” as they risked “enflaming the outrageous lusts” of the audience, who are “transported by them to a Mahometan paradise or ecstasy of uncleanness”. Well, quite.

portrait of King Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria

Each to their own, of course, but in this instance there was one small problem with Prynne’s vitriol: alongside her duties as queen consort, the reigning King Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria liked nothing better than donning something from her confluence of all whorish attires and performing in a good old deceitful fiction. Put another way, she was an actress.

As a consequence, Prynne’s Histriomastix soon attracted the attention of the royal household, and his outspoken opinions on the theatre were soon being spun as a less-than-subtle slight on Queen Henrietta herself. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, and the Attorney-General, William Noy, had Prynne arrested and thrown in the Tower of London, and on 17 February 1634 he was sentenced to life imprisonment, fined an eye-watering £5,000 (equivalent to £400,000 today), stripped of his Oxford degree, and, just when things could scarcely get any worse, ordered to be pilloried and have both his ears cut off. The case understandably caused a sensation—and amid all the brouhaha, the English language earned a new word for a harsh and uncompromising theatrical critic.

But not even that insane catalogue of punishments was enough to stop Prynne. Thrown back into the Tower, he continued his writing, this time turning his attention away from the theatre and towards the moderate anti-Puritan clergy who had landed him in jail. In 1637, he found himself again in hot water after publishing an attack on the Bishop of Norwich. For a second time he was handed a life sentence, fined another £5,000, pilloried and, for what it was worth, sentenced to have what little remained of his ears again cut off. This time around he was also branded on both sides of his face with the letters “SL”, which according to the courts was to show everyone that he was “seditious libeller” —but Prynne preferred to tell people that it stood for stigmata laudus, or “the marks of praise”.

Remarkably, Prynne’s luck suddenly changed in 1640, when the Long Parliament—convened by King Charles to fund his on-going battles against rebellion in Scotland—overturned his conviction, released him from the Tower, and reinstated all his legal qualifications (which he soon put to good work prosecuting Archbishop Laud when he was later arrested and tried for treason; Laud was eventually executed in 1645). Prynne also continued his pamphleteering, but as Charles I’s monarchy collapsed and England was thrown into Civil War, his condemnatory attention soon turned to Oliver Cromwell.

Although Cromwell himself was a Puritan, Prynne took exception to his and his supporters’ interpretation of radical Puritanism. He despised those championing the king’s execution, was suspicious of Cromwell’s republican army, and ultimately found himself supporting the Royalist cause. After Cromwell’s downfall and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Prynne’s stance was rewarded by Charles II with a seat in Parliament—and, ironically, the position of Keeper of the Records of the Tower of London.

He died in 1669, his hatred of actors and his invention of the word histriomastix earning him a place in the dictionary.

It’s quite a life story—and would undoubtedly make a great play. Kickstarter, anyone?

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