History Turned Upside Down

Criticism and Compliment: The politics of literature in the England of Charles I

by Kevin Sharpe
Cambridge University Press, 309 pp., $49.50

Feminist Milton

by Joseph Wittreich
Cornell University Press, 173 pp., $29.95

Puritan Legacies: Paradise Lost and the New England Tradition, 1630–1890

by Keith W.F. Stavely
Cornell University Press, 294 pp., $29.95

The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740

by Michael McKeon
Johns Hopkins University Press, 529 pp., $29.95

The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution

by Margaret C. Jacob
Knopf, 274 pp., $8.00 (paper)

Here are five books about seventeenth-century England that cut across several disciplines, linking history with literature, literature with economic and social history and with feminist studies, the novel and science with social and cultural history. Things are looking up.

Kevin Sharpe had bad luck with Criticism and Compliment. In 1984 Martin Butler published Theatre and Crisis, 1632–1642, which established brilliantly that the drama of the 1630s, even the plays put on at the court of Charles I, have wrongly been neglected as being decadent and sycophantic. The court was not monolithic: all great aristocrats had a right and a duty to be there, just as gentlemen had a duty to take on the office of justice of the peace. The court was the principal source of the patronage that was essential if one was to succeed as a poet; we can hardly blame those who sought it. The once fashionable dichotomy of “court” and “country” began to look rather different after Butler’s work. Butler worked out in detail the way in which nuances of opinion at court were discreetly aired in plays, in particular criticisms of Charles I’s pro-Spanish foreign policy originating from a group around Queen Henrietta Maria.

Butler’s book, instantly recognized as authoritative, succeeded in changing attitudes toward the drama of the 1630s. Kevin Sharpe tells us that he was working along similar lines when Butler’s book appeared. So what was there left for him to do? He has studied in detail court masques, about which Butler had little to say, and has concentrated on three poets—Sir William Davenant, Thomas Carew, and Aurelian Townshend. “Historians,” Sharpe complains, “have scorned the masque as a distraction from the reality of governing. To Charles I it was rather a duty, a ritual no less than his participation in the services of the Anglican church.” “In 1637 he practised for Britannia Triumphans daily.” We need not impugn the king’s sincerity by querying his scale of preferences, of values.

Kevin Sharpe confirms Martin Butler’s analysis. Some masques convey veiled political criticisms and suggestions of different policies: the divergent political outlooks of the king and his queen made this possible. Yet Sharpe’s thesis contains contradictions. He dismisses “the old familiar charge” that the masque fostered the illusion that because “disagreements, doubts and disorder could be transcended by the king on the stage, they could be as easily dispelled from the commonweal.” He wants us to take seriously the dramatists’ argument that “through the poetry of love, nature and innocence, men, society and government might…regain the immortality of their first perfection.” “Charles…hoped through his personal example to lead the realm back to order and virtue.”

Yet Sharpe also wants to show that the poets were not sycophantic, that they retained their critical independence. He quotes passages from their work that undermine the ideology that he attributes to them. “The court has corrupted love,” Townshend declared. He was the least successful of Sharpe’s three writers, who all suggest in their work a “disenchantment with masque,”…

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