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Henry Fielding and the Licensing Act

The historical register, for the year 1736. As it is acted at the New Theatre in the Hay-market. To which is added a very merry tragedy, called Eurydice hiss'd, or, A word to the wise. Both written by the author of Pasquin. To these are prefixed a long dedication to the publick, and a preface to that dedication

The title page of The Historical Register and Eurydice Hiss'd, from the Axson Archive

By 1737, Fielding was considered one of the preeminent playwrights of England. As he became increasingly popular within the theatrical sphere, garnering both positive and negative critical responses, his writings grew more brazen in their explicit anti-ministerial jabs.

Moving away from the largely good-natured, self-conscious humor of his earlier works such as The Author’s Farce, Fielding’s later works exhibited bold, direct attacks on the ministry of Robert Walpole--not merely social commentary, Fielding’s plays began to adopt a tone of bitter resentment towards contemporary politics as well as the hegemonic structures that pervaded the theater world.

In 1737, Fielding released The Historical Register for the Year 1736, a scathing collection of satirical scenes mocking a group of politicians who appear to lack any rational basis in their decision-making. Directed by the character Medley, the play follows the structure of a series of rehearsals for a theater production. The play was clearly a rebuke of the political follies of the ministry at the time, in addition to the power politics of theatrical management. One month after its release, Fielding attached Eurydice Hiss’d as an addendum piece to supplement The Historical Register; the companion work only further illuminated and elaborated on the satirical aims of the former (DLB).

Portrait of Robert Walpole (1676-1745)

Robert Walpole, First Earl of Orford

The political atmosphere during the release of Fielding’s last few plays had simultaneously teetered into a state of irreparable instability.

In 1734, the year of the general election, Walpole made dramatic changes to tax policy, and the combination of these factors heightened England’s political volatility (Cleary 54). The following years brought about accusatory statements from Whigs and Tories alike, and the air of mistrust pervaded Fielding’s London and further broadened the distance between the general public and the ministry (Cleary 54).

The course of Fielding’s promising career as a playwright was irrevocably altered with the passage of the Licensing Act in 1737.

Enacted by prime minister Sir Robert Walpole in response to the growing tide of political satire in this period, the law allowed for the censorship of any piece of a work deemed inappropriate for the London stage and provided the means for the suppression of satire directed towards the king or other government officials (DNB). In addition, the Act also closed all but two theaters in London, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, thereby eliminating the incentive of competition among theaters. The flourish of new plays and genres that had characterized the 1720s and early 1730s came to a halt.

Contemporary conventions, and even some modern considerations, hold Fielding and his satire responsible for the passage of this law (Hume 249). While this assumption is overstated and incorrect, Fielding did contribute considerably to the creation and passage of the Act. With works such as The Historical Register and Eurydice Hiss'd, Fielding directly satirized and caricaturized some of the most influential members of Walpole’s government, establishing the threat of the author by which the Licensing Act was created. In fact, the major impetus to the passage of the Act, a play called The Golden Rump, a biting, offensive satire with an unknown author, is often attributed to Fielding, though no major evidence to support this claim exists (Hume 249).