Groves ( Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592-1604 (Oxford English Monographs) , 15-6) notes that Protestants had an early and strong tradition of theater:

“Foxe even classed the theatre with sermons and books as a didactic tool, writing that ‘plaiers, Printers, Preachers’ were ‘a triple bulwarke against the triple crowne of the Pope.’ Protestants such as Martin Bucer, John Bale, and Foxe embraced the didactic potential of theatre. Early in the English Reformation Bucer, writing for the young Edward VI, described how Scripture could be used as a source for the stage: The Scriptures everywhere offer an abundant supply of material for tragedies, in almost all the stories of the holy patriarchs, kings, prophets, apostles, from the time of Adam, the first parent of mankind. For these stories are filled with divine and heroic personages, emotions, customs, actions and also events which turned out contrary to what was expected, which Aristotle calls a reversal. Theodore de Beze himself dramatized the sacrifice of Isaac and his play was a phenomenal success, going into ten editions in the sixteenth century and translated into Italian, Latin, and English. In the early Reformation period there were new plays written in England on New Testament subjects such as Grimald’s Christus Redivivus (1543) and Foxe’s Christus Triumphans (1556). In the 1530s John Bale set to work to write a series of biblical plays which were presumably meant to be a purified form of the mystery cycles, although the plays that survive show how differently the same stories could be dramatized by a Protestant playwright.”

Elizabeth censored some biblical dramas, but they continued well into her reign.

“After the 1560s biblical drama became less common, but four biblical plays printed between the opening of the Theatre and the end of Elizabeth’s reign are extant: Theodore de Beze’s Abraham’s Sacrifice (1577), Thomas Garter’s T he Most Virtuous and Godly Susanna (1578), Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene’s A Looking-Glasse for London and England (1594), and George Peele’s The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (entered 1594, published 1599). However, there is evidence that many similar plays have been lost. Henslowe’s diary, for example, records performances for numerous biblical plays including Abraham and Lot (1594), Hester and Asseuerus (1594), Nebuchadnezzer (1596–7), William Haughton, William Birde, and Samuel Rowley’s Judas (1602), Pontius Pilate (1602), Anthony Munday and Thomas Dekker’s Jephthah (1602), Henry Chettle’s Tobias (1602), Samson (1602), and Samuel Rowley’s Joshua (1602)” (17).

Yet the crackdown on plays that “jestingly or prophanely speake or use the hold name of God” forced playwrights into other avenues. Instead of abandoning religious themes, though, they hid biblical themes under pagan religious practices and terminology: “The exploitation of pagan rites, so common in Shakespeare’s late plays, is only one example of the way in which censorship, through outlawing openly Christian drama, unintentionally promoted a subtle and sophisticated engagement with biblical language and Christian ideas in ostensibly secular plays” (21).

Three quick points: First, Elizabethans expected to hear about the Bible at the theater, and this strengthens the case for highlighting the role the Bible plays in Shakespeare’s plays. Second, it throws light on the sometimes odd interactions of pagan and Christian themes in Shakespeare. Finally, it no doubt gives some background for the Puritan opposition to, and sometimes endorsement of, the theater.

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