A history of seventeenth-century English literature - Thomas N. Corns 2014
From the Defenestration of Prague to the Personal Rule: May 1618 to March 1629
At the start of this period, England was governed by a Stuart monarch of generally autocratic inclination committed to an irenic foreign policy and deeply disinclined to call and consult with parliaments; at the end, the same principal features characterized the regime. But the years between were marked by major disruptions of the patronage system, by political and fiscal crises which redefined the relationship between government and the governed and radically shifted the discourse of power, by an epidemic of plague on a scale comparable with those of 1603 and 1665, and by the disastrous prosecution of wars with two of the major powers of continental Europe. Against this background, the most innovative new drama achieved an unprecedentedly close mimesis of social distinction and interaction and of psychological and particularly sexual impulse; everyday life, especially of a Londoner, was depicted with a new vividness; poems of state and the earliest English newspapers, somewhat falteringly, made their first appearance; the formal sermon reached the acme of eloquence; and a new idiom developed for the celebration of a new court with new values.
Bohemia, separated by some 700 miles (as the crow flies) from London and for the most part in what is now the Czech Republic, seemed an improbable flashpoint for the chaos that descended on James I’s foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, so unfamiliar and remote was that country that Shakespeare less than ten years earlier had attributed to it a coastline (The Winter’s Tale, III.iii). Unlike most of the states of early modern Europe, it followed a tolerationist religious policy, and its population contained Catholics as well as Lutherans, Calvinists, and members of other Protestant groups. However, this anomaly proved a source of conflict, rather than stability. Bohemia was a constituent element of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Counter Reformation, newly animating Hapsburg ambitions for a closer control of their territories, led to confrontation between Vienna and Prague. In May 1618 a stormy meeting of Protestant activists and Catholic deputies appointed to govern in the name of Ferdinand, the newly appointed Hapsburg king of Bohemia (and future Holy Roman Emperor), culminated in the deputies’ forcible ejection from a first-floor window. A modern historian sardonically notes: ’The drop was a considerable one, but only [one deputy] was injured. Catholic witnesses saw the falling Regents supported by angels, but Protestant writers attributed their escape from death to the heap of paper and rubbish in the basement into which they fell’ (Ogg 1965: 117). Those alternative narratives point to the immediate incorporation of the event into a rapid widening of the conflict among the major faith communities of Europe, a process in which the Protestant grouping most ably established the image of Bohemia as in the frontline against a sustained assault on the Reformation by a revived Catholicism driven on by ignorance, cruelty and superstition (Polisensky 1974: 104).
Although parts of northern England still had a significant Catholic population, anti-Catholic sentiment generally predominated among the English propertied classes (and indeed more widely), and so their instinctive sympathies lay with the Bohemian Protestants. But a crucial development transformed a vague support for co-religionists in a remote country into an obsessive fervour. The Bohemian rebels deposed Ferdinand, and installed in his stead Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, whose marriage to James’s daughter Elizabeth had been so elaborately celebrated in 1612. Frederick’s actions, while staunch to international Protestantism, connived at subjects’ deposition of a legitimate monarch and ran counter to key principles in James’s theory of kingship, however well they may have been perceived by others in England. But James’s problems were compounded by his long-standing ambition to secure a marriage alliance with a major power of Catholic Europe, preferably Spain, which was ruled by another branch of the house of Hapsburg, and by the military disasters that befell his son-in-law. By 1620, Bohemia was overrun by Imperial forces; a bloody persecution of Protestants followed, to the virtual extirpation of the religion. An English expeditionary force, commanded by Sir Horace Vere and supported by public subscription, assisted in the defence of the Palatinate, taking a severe mauling as the three cities it defended fell to siege or assault. By 1623 the Palatinate was in the hands of the Imperial forces; Frederick’s lands were given in trust to the ruler of Bavaria, who had actively supported the Emperor; the Elector and his English queen were in exile and his Protestant subjects were powerless against sustained persecution (Ogg 1965: 128—9, 133). Moreover, there was a widely current ’domino theory’, in which ’the fall of Prague and Heidelberg represented the first major pieces in a chain that led inexorably to the United Provinces and England’ (Cogswell 1989: 70).
Political opinion in England, in so far as it can be judged, favoured an active support for the Protestant cause in continental Europe and feared and loathed a rampant Catholicism, which ’exercised a powerful grip on the imaginations of many Englishmen’: ’The English crown’s personal link with the suffering Protestants of the Palatinate … brought the conflicts of the Thirty Years War into every English parish church, where prayers for the Elector and his family were regularly read’ (A. Milton 1995: 42—3). The Marquis of Buckingham, James’s chief minister and soon to be created a duke, explained to Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador to London, that to deprive James’s grandchildren of their legitimate right to the Palatinate was intolerable (Cogswell 1989: 18—19). Some sort of English support for the continental Protestants was inevitable. Yet simultaneously, and no doubt bewilderingly for politically conscious Englishmen outside the royal circle, James pursued ’the Spanish Match’ through the years of the disaster in the Palatinate; the arcana imperii, the secrets of rule that James assiduously invoked and guarded, can never have seemed more arcane. In February 1623 Charles, Prince of Wales, and Buckingham made a sudden and clandestine journey to Madrid to press the prince’s suit for the Infanta, in circumstances that remain uncertain and perplexing (Cogswell 1989: 36). Their failure to secure a marriage contract on terms that would not have been humiliating to a Protestant prince and outrageous to his subjects inadvertently occasioned the greatest public relations success of the early Stuart period. Pandemonium greeted the empty-handed return of prince and duke in October: fireworks, bonfires, peals of bells and much inebriation characterized the festivities across the country (Cogswell 1989: 6—9).
The failure of the Spanish strategy led to a French match and to war with Spain. The former seemed wise to the royal circle at the time. Louis XIII was minded to support Frederick, not least out of anxieties about the balance of power in the areas immediately adjacent to his own borders (Cogswell 1989: 121). But Charles’s betrothal to Henrietta Maria, the king’s youngest sister, carried some disadvantages. She, too, was a Catholic princess, and proved to be devout and resolute in the observation of her religion, and her religion remained central to negative representations of her; John Milton still thought the point worth making in 1660 (Milton 1953—82: VII; rev. edn: 425). A sense that the Spanish royal family had shown them too little respect probably catalysed the royal circle’s increased enthusiasm for armed conflict with the Hapsburg axis, which led in due course to a sea-borne campaign designed to inflict damage on Spanish port cities and perhaps to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet, which was essential for financing both Spanish and Imperial military activity.
In the event, neither objective was achieved, but the necessity to fund the project and to raise revenue to support proxy armies in continental Europe initiated a series of fairly short-lived parliaments. Those financial exigencies were soon to be exacerbated. Despite the French marriage, Charles, shortly after his accession in 1625, found himself drawn into a second sea-borne campaign, against his new brother-in-law in defence of the Protestant Huguenots concentrated around La Rochelle. In this campaign, as in that against Spain, Buckingham played the leading role, taking personal command of the desperate and inept venture to relieve La Rochelle using the Isle of Re as a bridgehead. Such activity had three immensely significant effects on the political consciousness of propertied Englishmen. The frequently convoked and dismissed parliaments functioned as a forum for a more searching critique of government policy, both domestic and foreign. As the campaigns foundered, the demonization of Buckingham gathered pace, and, in the longer term more significantly, a new discourse of anti-court constitutionalism emerged. Finally, repeated parliamentary elections, like the general anxiety about the threat to Protestantism, sharpened propertied Englishmen’s sense of the need to know what was happening, a process arguably keener still in the hiatus between parliaments, especially when the monarch resorted to dubious methods of raising revenue unsanctioned by parliament. Hence arose a new hunger for news and a closer engagement with the political process. As James recognized, and Charles and Buckingham did not, working through parliaments had made ’a rod for their own backs’ (Sharpe 1992: 7).
Three Funerals and a Wedding
Anne of Denmark died in March 1619, predeceasing by less than a year Samuel Daniel, who had been among the earliest beneficiaries of her literary patronage in England (Barroll 2001: 66). Her funeral, a contemporary noted, ’was better than Prince Henry’s, but fell short of Queen Elizabeth’s’ (quoted in DNB 1975), though the former’s was impaired by lack of royal funds after the excesses of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V. Anne’s position in the patronage system had declined over the previous decade. Barroll has demonstrated her role in shaping the late Prince Henry’s cultural milieu, but he had died seven years before, and while she had been central to the promotion of the early Stuart masque, she had last danced in 1611; Charles (and Buckingham) had superseded her in that court ritual. However, her death did leave the Queen’s Men in want of a protector, which can scarcely have helped them in what proved to be a difficult and probably terminal phase for the company. By the end of the year, its players seem to have been dispersed among other companies (Bentley 1941—68: I, 165).
The theatres were closed for the ten weeks between her death and her funeral, the delay proving a ’great hindrance of our players, which are forbidden to play so long as her body is above ground’ (quoted in Bentley 1941—68: I, 6). Despite her contribution to producing a ’rich and hospitable climate’ for the arts in Jacobean England (Barroll 2001: 161), the literary response to her death was relatively muted and notably learned. The universities produced similar collections of predominately Latin elegies, with a sprinkling of Greek and the occasional Hebrew composition (Academiæ Oxoniensis Funebria 1619; Lacrymæ Cantabrigienses 1619). One James Anne-son (sic), ’Antiquarie and Maister of Arts’, produced a commemorative volume in which the ’poeme in honour’ is much overshadowed by an elaborate and ultimately implausible genealogy of the late queen (Anne-son: n.d.). Perhaps most impressive is Threnodia by her quondam chaplain William Slatier, again in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but predominately made up of English acrostics, mostly on Anne’s name, though sometimes on his own, together with poems shaped like columns, pyramids, and the dial of a compass, which are doggedly ingenious though not otherwise distinguished:
her Royall Grace,
In heaven doth shine.
Where a Cherubs place,
Or a Seraphique height
Exceeds the thoughts of Men,
As far as heavenly towers fraile sight.
Wisely, the collection opens with a poem to James and ends with one to Charles: dead patrons are of dubious value compared to living ones (Slatier 1619: sig. C4r, B1r, D3r). Slatier, already a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, and holder of a decent living, prospered through the 1620s, receiving a further benefice, which he held pluralistically (DNB 1975). I am unaware of commemorative verse of a more abiding significance to the late queen.
James I died in March 1625, and was buried early in May. Buckingham and Charles walked in the funeral procession. The literary response broadly followed that to the death of the queen, though on a grander scale. There were collections of learned Latin and Greek verse from the universities, pious sermons and the tributes of minor poets. As in the case of Anne, the most distinguished writers remained surprisingly silent. From Jonson, who had frequently praised him living, both in poems and masques, and who would write poems to the new king, his queen and his burgeoning family, no elegy survives.
Panegyrists, in general, had three problems to negotiate. First, James’s death had occasioned rumour and gossip that it had been caused or hastened by Buckingham, perhaps aided by Charles (Ashton 1969: 271—5; Lockyer 1981: 233—5). Second, since 1603 James had been figured in English panegyric as the blessed peacemaker, but his reign ended with England locked in a Spanish war of uncertain outcome. And finally, he was replaced by a ruler whose own larger agenda was decidedly uncertain, as the would-be wooer of the Infanta became the would-be hammer of Spain. John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, Privy Councillor and a politically astute cleric, preached the funeral sermon. His influence at that time was at its height, and he could scarcely have anticipated his imminent eclipse by William Laud in the favours of the new king, though belatedly his own ecclesiastical fortunes revived with his appointment to the Archbishopric of York in 1642. Williams’s sermon, twice printed as Great Britains Salomon, negotiated the first two difficulties with considerable dexterity. The sermon, while scarcely matching Donne in eloquence, is a masterpiece of tact, though the issues it foregrounds indicate the anxieties of the new court. It develops an extended comparison of James and Solomon. Their ’wisdom’ provides the primary point of the analogy, but so, too, does their death. The notion of a ’good death’ as indicator of spiritual health and confidence in personal salvation pervades early modern thinking (Houlbrooke 2000: esp. 147—219), but in this case Williams risks protesting too much. Solomon has died a good death: ’his Death is resembled to slumbring and sleeping. And Solomon slept’ (Williams 1625: 30). James’s closing hours are described in detail, and the duke and prince, far from hurrying him on with poison, stand by him to hear his last words of piety. Again, like Solomon, James followed the nobler course of the peacemaker, though he showed himself heroic when constrained to do so, as in resisting internal rebellion in Scotland. Yet that part of the account ends celebrating the benefits England enjoyed through avoiding war: ’all kinde of learning improved, manufactures at home daily invented, Trading abroad exceedingly multiplied’, and so on (ibid.: 57—8).
However, not even the agile Williams could confidently characterize the new king. In a delicate if evasive trope he offers him as a replica of James, a ’breathing Statue of all his Vertues’ (ibid.: 75—6), not really yet distinctive from his predecessor. That uncertainty, in contrast with the long-established image of James, found expression in the title of the Cambridge collection of elegies, Cantabrigiensium Dolor et Solamen: seu Decessio Beatissimi Regis Jacobi Pacifici: et Successio Augustissimi Regis Caroli (1625). While James is ’the most blessed peacemaker’, Charles has the much vaguer epithet ’most august’ or ’majestic, venerable, worthy of honour’ (L&S: s.v. ’augustus’). It was the least panegyrists could have said of a new king.
Charles’s own coronation and his marriage to Henrietta Maria could have provided the occasion for a more definitive enunciation of the values and priorities of his government, though in the event neither afforded the platform James had enjoyed in his entry of 1604. Circumstances combined to maim those rites of state by which a new monarch could present himself to a broader gaze. Cautiously, perhaps, the marriage was effected by proxy: the new queen’s Catholicism would no doubt have been otherwise so publicly expressed as to stimulate a wave of anti-popery reminiscent of the Spanish Match. The couple effected an entry into London in some state. But a major outbreak of plague contributed to the postponement until 1626 of the coronation. When it occurred, the event was deeply unsatisfactory as a display of power and unanimity. The queen declined to attend on the grounds that she would only be crowned by a Catholic clergyman. Buckingham turned the procession to Westminster Abbey into an exercise in factional feuding. Charles gave to William Laud the major clerical role in the proceedings, which, while it marked to any knowing observer the rise of both that individual and Arminian ceremonialism, ensured that the ceremony itself was the manifestation of division within the Church rather than of confessional unity. Civic celebrations were cancelled out of fear of plague (Corns 1999b: 14—15; Lockyer 1981: 308; Carlton 1995: 76—8).
Odes for the coronation displayed the uncertainties which gripped even those well disposed to Charles: does he bring peace or war? stability or adventurism? defence of the faith or a rapprochement with Catholicism? Hence, probably, arose the evasive emptiness of odes like Sir John Beaumont’s ’Panagyrick at the Coronation of our Soveraigne Lord King Charles’:
Shine forth great Charles, accept our loyall words,
Throw from your pleasing eies those conqu’ring swords,
That when upon your Name our voyces call,
The Birds may feele our thund’ring noise, and fall …
(Beaumont 1629: 117)
The poem continues with aspirations that he may enjoy ’large Honour, happy Conquest, boundless Wealth / Long Life, sweete Children, unafflicted Health’ — a comprehensive if significantly contradictory wish-list; in the English context, conquest and wealth usually proved to be alternatives (Corns 1999b: 17—19).
As with the death of Anne, James’s demise caused some disruption of the major cultural patronage systems. Donne and Jonson, the towering figures of the late Jacobean age, continued to enjoy royal favour. Thomas Carew was already in royal employ as a court officer, and remained so to become a defining voice of court poetry in the 1630s. But Caroline culture was to give to literary achievement a secondary role. Since his earliest days as Prince of Wales, Charles, an accomplished performer himself, had established a considerable ensemble as part of his household, with a particular emphasis on string consort music. On the death of his father, he simply added this group to the already considerable ensemble, the King’s Music, that he inherited, retaining all but a handful of performers (Wainwright 1999: 162—3). However, his patronage of the stage showed no such commitment. On his accession, the evidence suggests that the company he formerly patronized broke up as the new king took over his father’s role as patron of the King’s Men, though plague no doubt played a part in the ensemble’s disbandment. However, a new company formed under the patronage of Henrietta Maria and played from the reopening of the theatres in late 1625, achieving considerable success in the early and mid-1630s (Bentley 1941—68: I, 209—10, 218—39; see below, chapter 4).
Buckingham died at the hand of John Felton, an army officer and solitary malcontent disappointed by his lack of promotion, in late August 1628. So great was his odium, that the funeral was without elaborate ceremony and care was taken to limit the public demonstration of hostility. The event severed Charles’s last considerable tie to the Jacobean age. Buckingham had danced with him when first he performed the role of principal masquer. He had been his comrade in the wild and strange adventure of the Spanish Match, and had negotiated his marriage to his French princess. There were few poems of commemoration, though Edmund Waller’s ’Of his Majesties receiving the newes of the Duke of Buckinghams death’ is precise, tender and tactful, diverting the reader’s gaze from the problematic life of Villiers to the pious image of the king. Charles was at a divine service when the news arrived. According to the Earl of Clarendon’s much later account,
[the king] continued unmoved, and without the least change in his
countenance, till prayers were ended; when he suddenly departed to
his chamber, and threw himself upon his bed, lamenting with much passion and with abundance of tears the loss he had of an excellent servant and the horrid manner in which he had been deprived of him. (Quoted in Lockyer 1981: 454)
Waller is drawn to his peculiar public behaviour and silent on his later, more conventional grief once he had withdrawn:
So earnest with thy God, can no new care,
No sense of danger interrupt thy prayer?
The sacred Wrestler till a blessing given
Quits not his hold, but halting conquers heaven:
Nor was the stream of thy devotion stopp’d
When from the body such a limb was lopp’d
(Waller 1645: sig. B1r).
Waller perhaps discloses some uncertainty about quite how the king is best to be represented — the poem is a list of what his conduct was not like: not like Hector’s over Patroclus, or Apollo’s over Hyacinthus or David’s for Absalom. But it reflects a sense that here is a different kind of kingship, marked by a piety, restraint and a curious interiority — ’God-like unmov’d, and yet like woman kinde’ (ibid.: 2). Waller, still in his early twenties, anticipated sooner than others the subtle fashioning of that royal sensibility in the years of the personal rule of Charles I.
But Buckingham’s status outside the immediate circle of the court, the evident hatred felt for him across the political nation and more widely, found full and frequent expression in satirical or more straightforwardly critical verse, usually anonymous, rarely accomplished, that constituted an important phase in the development of what we may term ’poems of state’. (Hammond 1990: 57—66 discusses them well, with generous quotation.)
Buckingham’s ability to dominate English public life for a decade depended largely on the vast network of patronage which depended on him. It extended to the judiciary, to court offices, to financial favouritism and to the operations of the church. Though the promotion of the interests of contemporary creative writers probably figured as a low priority, he was widely perceived as a patron worth seeking. Most certainly he secured the immediate ecclesiastical advancement of John Donne to the deanery of St Paul’s (Lockyer 1981: 115). Robert Herrick, a chaplain on the Isle of Re expedition, took up his living in Dean Prior in the month after the duke’s funeral. The post was in the gift of the king, and may well have been an act of posthumous patronage arranged earlier by his dead benefactor (Moorman 1910: 87). Francis Bacon, too, owed immediate debts to his patronage (ibid.: 70—1). At the duke’s death, the king himself appeared much more straightforwardly as the ultimate source of influence and advancement. More subtly, too, the duke’s massive pre-eminence among the grandees of the 1620s produced a climate in which the ambitious looked to the royal court for preferment. Already, by 1629, the key figures of the court culture of the personal rule — Carew, Waller, Davenant, Townshend — were in varying degrees attached to the royal sphere. Whatever the considerable justice of the popular strictures he attracted, Buckingham left as his cultural legacy the foundation of that glittering age.
Masques and Pageants
Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618), written by Ben Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones, marked the maturation of Prince Charles as focus of court masque and heir to the tradition his mother had so enthusiastically established. All the extant masques of the late Jacobean period show the political centrality of Charles and Buckingham and the continuing creative domination of Jonson and Jones. News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1620) offered in its antimasque a portrayal of gossiping purveyors of ’news’. The next in the series, Pan’s Anniversary, or the Shepherds’ Holiday, danced as a birthday gift to James at the more rural palace of Greenwich in June 1620, had a less abrasive antimasque of nymphs and shepherds. James was celebrated in the figure of great Pan:
Pan is our all, by him we breathe, we live,
We move, we are; ’tis he our lambs doth rear,
The warm and finer fleeces that we wear.
The rites are due to him, who doth all right for us
(Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 318)
This is a landscape of pastoral plenty and stability, the product of a benign and pacific regime. The theme was rehearsed more explicitly in The Masque of Augurs, again written by Jonson, designed by Jones and performed by Charles and attendant lords as the Twelfth Night’s masque of 1622. Apollo leads the masquers to James with the song,
Behold the love and ease of all the gods,
King of the ocean and the happy isles,
That whilst the world about him is at odds,
Sits crowned lord here of himself, and smiles.
The Chorus immediately adds,
To see the erring mazes of mankind,
Who seek for that doth punish them to find.
(Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 337)
’Dulce bellum inexpertis’, ’war is sweet to those who haven’t tried it’, James’s old dictum, is echoed in this explicit rebuke to advocates of a belligerent foreign policy, whereas the blessings of peace are material and evident; the literary culture of the court is establishing a repertoire of responses that will serve through much of the 1630s.
James’s horror of public scrutiny recurred as a theme in Time Vindicated to Himself and to His Honours, the Twelfth Night’s masque for 1623, danced by Charles ’and the Lords’, designed by Jones and scripted by Jonson. The organs of sense depicted in the antimasque represent the intrusive and inappropriate probing of a wider public into the king’s business:
EYES … I had now a fancy
We might have talked o’ the King.
EARS Or state.
NOSE Or all the world.
Fame chides them, ’They that censure those / They ought to reverence, meet they that old curse, / To beg their bread and feel eternal winter’, adding, ’There’s difference ’twixt liberty and license’ (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 351). The masque ends with a choric endorsement of James’s irenic alternative to war, the blood sports he had so eagerly pursued: ’Hunting it is the noblest exercise, / Makes men laborious, active, wise.’ The noble pastime of the chase serves the ends of peace: ’Men should not hunt mankind to death’ (I, 354). Though the audience for masque was severely limited and controlled, it included among its most significant members ambassadors of major nations. The message, that James sought peaceful coexistence, not familial revenge nor regional conflict, was explicitly articulated in the scripts Jonson wrote in the early 1620s.
Sadly, James’s hunting days and his irenic policies were drawing to a close. The masque written for Twelfth Night, 1624, was not performed ’because of a dispute over ambassadorial precedence’ (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 363). The last extant masque of his reign, The Fortunate Isles, and Their Union (Jonson and Jones, Twelfth Night, 1625) contained in its title a poignant misrepresentation. The union of England and Scotland, an objective of James from the earliest years of his reign, had not been achieved except in the sense that one king ruled both kingdoms. The masque marked a transition from the celebration of peace to the prosecution of war, the attack on Spain which ended in the inept assault on Cadiz in late 1625 (Lockyer 1981: 281—5). Jonson’s script, though it ends once more with a panegyric to James’s ’golden gifts of peace’, knowingly stresses Britain’s insularity and the importance of ’Neptune’s strength’: Buckingham’s and Charles’s enrolment in Hispanophobic populism pointed inexorably to naval adventures for the island race.
Masquing thereafter fell into desuetude through the mid-and late 1620s as political and financial crises occasioned by the Spanish and French campaign disrupted government, as James and Buckingham expired, and as the family life of Charles and Henrietta Maria staggered through early years of apparent incompatibility. Records, but not scripts, survive for some kind of court entertainment, and indeed the new queen presented and performed in an elaborately staged pastoral play, Artenice (1626), contemporaneously misperceived as ’of her own composition’ (Orgel and Strong 1973: I, 384). But not till 1631 did a new and assured masquing idiom emerge.
Thomas Middleton replaced Anthony Munday as the favourite pageant writer from 1619 onwards, at a time when the genre achieved a singular significance in English literary history. He wrote the scripts for the mayoral inaugurations of 1619, 1620, 1621, 1622, 1623 and 1626. There was no pageant in the plague year of 1625, ’Tryumph was not in season (Deaths Pageants being onely advanc’st uppon the shoulders of man)’ (Middleton 1626: sig. B2r). In 1624, in the aftermath of A Game at Chess and Middleton’s own flight, possible imprisonment and certain notoriety, the commission went to John Webster
Middleton’s contribution to the event focused on the mayor’s triumphant return from Westminster. Munday evidently retained responsibility for the opening component, the water pageant that took the new mayor upriver, when ’squibs and volleys of ordnance combined with jostling for priority among the company barges to produce a scene so chaotic that Middleton usually declined to lay his hand to [it]’ (Manley 1995: 283). But Middleton substantially followed the formula Munday had perfected for the rest of the event, including his characteristic obsessions with the antiquity of London, of the guilds and of the patronage extended by the crown to the city and its institutions. In 1619 the history of royal and aristocratic support for the Skinners’ Company from 1329 was patiently rehearsed (Middleton 1619: sig. C2r-v). In 1622, the Grocers’ turn, he writes a speech for ’Antiquitie a grave and reverend Personage, with a golden Register-boke in his hand’ (Middleton 1622: sig. B3v): famous Grocer Lord Mayors were duly listed (sig. B4r-v). In 1623, ’the Never-dying Names of many memorable and remarkable’ Drapers got a hearing (Middleton 1623: sig. B1r). In 1626, the medieval figure of Sir Henry Fitz-Alwin, a favourite in Munday’s Draper pageants, made another appearance, together with Sir Francis Drake, evidently also a member of the Drapers’ Company, though more famous in other capacities (Middleton 1626: sig. A4v-B1v).
The inclusion of Drake, icon of Elizabethan maritime adventurism, marked the restrained but knowing ideological shifts Middleton introduced into the pageants. It is no coincidence that Philip Nichols published in the same year Sir Francis Drake Revived Calling on this dull and effeminate age, to follow his noble steps (Nichols 1626). The Lord Mayor was the King’s Lieutenant, ’his Majesties great substitute’ in the City of London (Middleton 1626: sig. A3r). The pageant writer was paid by the incumbent’s guild, and a continuity of employment was both desirable and achievable. What Middleton had his pageant actors say reflected close control by patrons fully aware that London had a surfeit of indigent playwrights should he prove unsatisfactory. Royal panegyric was central to the form, and Middleton rehearsed James’s merits in terms not radically different from the 1604 royal entry (see above, chapter 2). London remains the camera regia, the royal chamber of a wise and pacific king, who reigns ’with Salomons brest’ (Middleton 1622: sig. B3v), while ’Neighbouring Kingdoms grone’ (Middleton 1621: sig. B3r). In 1623, at Wood Street, a tableau represented the beatitude ’Beati Pacifici, being the Kings word or Motto … set in faire great Letters … . so is it comely and requisite … that some remembrance of Honour should reflect upon his Majesty, by whose peacefull Government under Heaven we enjoy the Solemnity’ (Middleton 1623: sig. B4v). But the pageant reflected, too, the Hispanophobic euphoria occasioned by the collapse of the Spanish Match: ’we have the Crowne of Britttaines Hope agen, / Illustrious Charles our Prince,) which all will say, / Addes the chiefe Ioy and Honor to this Day’ (sig. C1r). Middleton picked up and perhaps promoted the evident mood of the City. In similar fashion, his pageant for the inauguration of Sir William Cokayne, his first since the commencement of continental hostilities, had a martial patina, incorporating a parade of the City militia and ’Gentlemen of the Artillery Garden’ (Middleton 1619: sig. C1v).
Plays and Players
The King’s Men, Shakespeare’s old colleagues, dominated the 1620s even more emphatically than they did the 1610s (see above, chapter 2). Theirs was the only troupe to survive the eight-month closure in the plague year of 1625, though even they needed a direct cash subsidy from the new king to keep them going (Bentley 1941—68: I, 20; Wickham et al. 2000: 639). Their most illustrious actor, Richard Burbage, who had created many Shakespearian roles, died in 1619. But the strength both of their repertoire and of the new plays they commissioned ensured their continuing domination. They continued to perform the plays of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakespeare, and most of Middleton’s best plays were written for them, and they performed frequently at court, negotiating with evident facility the change of patron on the succession of Charles (Bentley 1941—68: I, 23). They retained two playhouses, the second Blackfriars and the second Globe, as in the previous decade. The latter, however, plainly declined in importance. Typically, they used the open-air public theatre only for relatively short summer seasons (Wickham et al. 2000: 609). No other company managed to operate over the whole decade, and those who played only in public theatres were among the most short-lived.
The Phoenix playhouse (also known as the Cockpit), a private playhouse and the first in what is now termed the West End of London, was home to the Lady Elizabeth’s Men (also known as the Queen of Bohemia’s Men). The history of this troupe is somewhat uncertain in the late 1610s, but it evidently formed again in 1621 or 1622. It did not survive the hiatus of 1625, though it enjoyed some success in its short career. The Changeling was first staged there, probably in 1622. The reopening of the theatres coincided with the arrival of Henrietta Maria as potential patron, and her company occupied the Phoenix from late 1625, assembling an impressive repertoire of new plays and performing from time to time at court. Its dramatists included Thomas Heywood and Philip Massinger, and James Shirley established himself as their principal writer, continuing with them in the years of the personal rule (Bentley 1941—68: I, 218, 223; Wickham et al. 2000:625).
The Palsgrave’s (or King of Bohemia’s) Men were probably the most significant ensemble to play the public theatres. However, the burning of the first Fortune in 1621 left them temporarily homeless until its replacement with the second Fortune in 1623. The group did not survive after 1625, but for a while it classically embodied the practices of the public theatres. Their venue stood outside the city limits (to the north-west), and few of their known repertoire of plays, usually either anonymous or by undistinguished writers, have survived. Rather shadowy groups lacking patronage and protection intermittently operated in the Fortune once the theatres reopened (Bentley 1941—68: I, 156—7; Wickham et al. 2000: 639).
The Red Bull at Clerkenwell dated back to about 1605, and seems to have been substantially unchanged from its rather primitive design, until well into the 1620s. Queen Anne’s Men had used it formerly and returned to it after 1617. Partially reconstituted from that company, the Revels company occupied it till 1623, when Prince Charles’s Men, in a venture that did not survive the migration of his patronage to the King’s Men, took it over. After the plague, an obscure group, the Red Bull Company, played there intermittently. Prince Charles’s Men secured some good writers — Dekker, Ford, Rowley and Middleton worked sometimes for them — though the repertoire of the Red Bull Company resembles that staged at the second Fortune (Bentley 1941—68: I, 174, 282; Wickham et al. 2000: 564—7).
The highly conservative nature of London theatre should once more be emphasized. These were repertory companies whose stock in trade was revivals of plays in their ownership. The Shakespearian canon remained at the heart of the King’s Men’s operation, even when it played at court. Plays by Marlowe and Robert Greene may still have been playing in the public theatres in the 1620s (Bentley 1941—68: I, 156—7, 174). The best new plays were staged by the most successful companies, for the most part, but not exclusively, in the private theatres. Above all, this is the period in which Middleton, so often promising, finally achieved his potential.
Middleton collaborated with William Rowley on the script of The Changeling. He worked alone on Women Beware Women, probably first performed in 1621. Both plays have retained a popularity in our own period, and have secured their place in contemporary canon formation. Indeed, Alastair Fowler, noting that in 1978 there were three London productions of The Changeling, tartly asks ’Who can tell how many Jacobean plays may not be better than the very few that happen to have been put on in our time?’ (Fowler 1985: 215). A Welsh translation of the play was premiered in 2003 (Middleton and Rowley 2003). The abiding fascination of both plays remains clear, and it rests largely in their chilling observation and representation of abnormal psychology in the context of extreme social stress — with an added frisson: the focus is on the sexual behaviour of young women. Neither conforms to the expectations of domestic tragedy, in that essentially they depict the perpetration of criminal or dishonest behaviour and its condign punishment. The low mimesis of morally limited and emotionally stunted characters blundering into desperately self-destructive actions resembles a novel by Georges Simenon rather than Othello. But the social problems they engage with belong firmly to early modern England.
Over the course of the seventeenth century among propertied English people, the role of the paterfamilias in determining the marriage contracts of his children was gradually displaced by the emergence of love matches and companionate marriage. Indeed, it was ’the accepted wisdom’ at the start of that period that ’marriage based on personal selection, and thus inevitably influenced by such ephemeral factors as sexual attraction or romantic love, was if anything less likely to produce lasting happiness than one arranged by more prudent and more mature heads’ (Stone 1979: 128). Of course, in the literary context patriarchal interdiction confronted true love, producing both tragic and comic outcomes. Middleton’s version is more closely grounded in early modern social reality than Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer-Night’s Dream. In The Changeling, the issues are established with brutal clarity in a scene between Beatrice, her father Vermandero, and Alsemero, the male lead she has just met and whom she prefers to Alonzo, her father’s choice:
VERMANDERO … I should ha’ told thee news,
I saw Alonzo lately.
BEATRICE [aside] That’s ill news.
VERMANDERO He’s hot preparing for this day of triumph:
Thou must be a bride within this sevennight.
ALSEMERO [aside] Ha!
BEATRICE Nay, good sir, be not so violent; with speed
I cannot render satisfaction
Unto the dear companion of my soul,
Virginity, whom I thus long have liv’d with,
And part with it so rude and suddenly;
Can such friends divide, never to meet again,
Without a solemn farewell?
VERMANDERO Tush, tush! There’s a toy.
(Middleton and Rowley 1964: 1.1.188—97; p. 12)
Vermadero is rightly dismissive of Beatrice’s concern to retain her virginity, for she loses it soon enough to De Flores. Beatrice’s choices are simple. She could have obeyed — Alsemero’s initial response is to give up any hope of the relationship and quit Alicante (1.1.198) — and married Alonzo. The road not taken remains an element in the play. Compliance with patriarchal authority would have retained honour, and secured prosperity and lawful procreation; the alternative leads to disgrace, suicide and murder.
Women Beware Women opens after Leantio, a man of modest means, a mere ’factor’, an agent in the service of a mercantile master, has already clandestinely married Bianca, the daughter of rich Venetians, ’parents great in wealth, more now in rage’ (Middleton 1975: 7; 1.1.50). He articulates the voice of romantic love, as customarily depicted in plays: ’Little money sh’has brought me; / View but her face, you may see all her dowry’ (ll.53—4). But his mother explains that he has acquired a woman who entertains expectations that cannot be met on his income without an advantageous marriage settlement. She observes, ’to draw her from her fortune … You know not what you have done’ (ll.59—61). He soon discovers.
Bianca’s capitulation to the Duke after her mother-in-law’s dereliction of her chaperon role betrays her into his power is usually termed a rape. However, while morally indistinguishable, the incident is more complex. Bianca has no hope of defence, but she has a choice: she may resist, in which case she will be held down and violated; or she may accede, and be rewarded. As the Duke tells her:
I can command,
Think upon that. Yet if thou truly knewest
The infinite pleasure my affection takes
In gentle, fair entreatings, when love’s businesses
Are carried courteously ’twixt heart and heart,
You’d make more haste to please me.
(2.2.362—7; p. 65)
Bianca says very little in this exchange because she recognizes, as soon as she is left alone in a confined space with the duke, that there are no good options, that the game is lost. The courtroom experiences of women in early Stuart England demonstrate repeatedly that a woman accusing a social superior of rape was unlikely to succeed. As Laura Gowing concludes:
The legal and social culture of early modern society accorded less credit to women’s words than to men’s. In the sphere of sexual conduct this was particularly so; women, especially young women and servants, found it hard to make accusations of seduction, assault, or rape stick against men. Some of their accusations, indeed, ended up being cited as slander. (1998: 251; see also p. 75)
Even if the duke were not the head of the Florentine city-state, if he were merely a Jacobean grandee, the possibility of justice through a judicial process would have been slight. Middleton’s characters function within a milieu close to the social conditions of seventeenth-century London. Bianca’s only honourable recourse is to the dagger of Lucrece, an option she never considers.
Leantio and De Flores manifest the powerlessness that comes of social dependency. The cuckold was the most despised figure in early modern Europe, universally derided and blamed not only for the sexual humiliation he incurred but for betraying the responsibilities of patriarchy, on which society depended, in failing ’to maintain household order’ (Gowing 1998: 94). Though Leantio is compensated with the reward of a military command in the gift of the duke and is kept as a sexual plaything by the socialite Livia, a residual sense of shame prompts him to indiscreet displays of new-found wealth and eventually to a fatal duel with Livia’s brother, an act of belated male honour which he enters into as an act of social and sexual redemption: ’Slave, I turn this to thee / To call thee to account, for a wound lately / Of a base stamp upon me’ (4.2.35—7; p. 135).
Because he is her father’s dependent, Beatrice may treat De Flores with disgust and contempt. Her revulsion is of a sexual nature. When he picks up a glove she drops, she discards it rather than have again something he has fingered. Even a pre-Freudian audience would have been alert to the symbolism. When the notoriously promiscuous Frances Howard dropped a glove for the fastidious Prince Henry, he declined to retrieve it on the grounds that ’it is stretcht by another’ (Strong 1986: 55). What Middleton does extremely well is to chart the difference between audience expectations of dramatic heroines and the chilling calculation of these earthier characters. Thus, the non-Lucrece, Bianca, becomes the ’glist’ring whore shin[ing] like a serpent / Now the court sun’s upon her’ (4.2.20—1; Middleton 1975: 134). Thus, too, the non-Juliet, Beatrice, allows De Flores to deflower her in recompense for his murder of Alonzo. She does so with little protestation.
I have noted the conservative nature of the Jacobean stage, and indeed Middleton’s stark, fresh engagement with the world of his audience rests on the old improbabilities of earlier decades. The Changeling has a conscience-pricking ghost and another run-out for the bedtrick as the deflowered Beatrice bribes her virginal waiting-woman to take her place in the bridal bed. Women Beware Women ends with a murderous masque that kills off all the principal characters still standing; its genealogy descends from The Spanish Tragedy through the exhibition bout of sword-play that ends Hamlet. Yet aside from those creaking conventions, the Inns of Court men of the original audiences, lustful, ravenous for preferment and patronage, and terrified of losing them once achieved, would have recognized as their own the world of Middleton’s plays. Perhaps we should recall the fate of John Donne, whose clandestine marriage to the ward of Sir Thomas Egerton, whom he served as secretary, was met with disgrace, dismissal and impoverishment. Or Thomas Carew, a former Middle Templar, whose imprudent and disloyal comments on his first employer, Sir Dudley Carleton, cost him his place in his household. Middleton’s plays assume that sexual mores relate to class and that hierarchical structures may breed corruption; he was scarcely telling his audience anything they didn’t already know. These plays are neither satire nor gestures towards social reform. When in 1624 The Changeling was played at court, the royal family could have viewed it with equanimity as the portrayal of weak people making poor choices in a world little different from how the world had always been and for which no early modern English ruler would have recognized or acknowledged a responsibility.
Middleton’s A Game at Chess, first performed in August 1624, has rarely been revived, nor indeed was it, in all probability, intended as a repertory piece for the company that delivered it, the King’s Men, at their usual summer venue, the Globe. Among pre-Restoration plays that have survived, it is by some way the closest depiction of contemporary political events on the public stage. Within the lightly sustained political allegory of a game of chess, Middleton depicts three clusters of events: the defection back to the Church of Rome by Marcus Antonius de Dominis; the eclipse of the Spanish party (that is, the anti-war party) at the English court; and the return of Buckingham and Charles from the aborted attempt to secure the Spanish Match. The first motif seems to have been added some time after the play was first performed, and adds a comic dimension somewhat inappropriate to the high seriousness of its subject. De Dominis, born in Venetian Dalmatia, was a former Jesuit, a former archbishop of Split, a leading theologian and a major theoretician on the relationship of secular and ecclesiastical power. His had been a high-profile career in which he had accepted Anglicanism and gained access to the most powerful levels of the Jacobean patronage system. In part through the agency of Gondomar, he had reverted to Rome, in the event a disastrous move. He died of natural causes while incarcerated and under investigation for residual heresies. (For the best account, see Malcolm 1984.) The complexity of the case and the personal tragedy it constituted were, of course, brushed aside in contemporary pamphlet attacks in the rush to present a devious and ambitious papist cleric, a perspective Middleton substantially followed. A modern editor speculates that Middleton may have added this theme to provide a role for William Rowley, his former collaborator and a somewhat overweight actor gifted in the representation of comic fat men (Middleton 1993: 29—31), but there were real enough connections with the Jesuits and with Gondomar. The impeachment of Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, seems alluded to in the perfidy of the White King’s Pawn, though the figure has been otherwise identified by some commentators (Middleton 1993: 89, 116), and functions perhaps as a combined representation not only of Cranfield but of the whole court faction hostile to war with Spain. (Cranfield, as Lord Treasurer, had a very sure sense of its fiscal implications.)
But the representation of the White Duke (Buckingham) and the White Knight (Charles) in their outwitting of the Black Knight (Gondomar, formerly Spanish ambassador and principal Spanish architect of the match) is at the centre of the play. Middleton’s depiction is a species of panegyric. Charles and Buckingham in private conversation are represented discussing how their purpose is simply to disclose the ’gins, traps and alluring snares’ of Spain, and thus to secure ’truth’s triumph’ (4.4.5, 8; Middleton 1993: 160—1). As others have noted, Charles adopts a stratagem adapted from Malcolm’s testing of Macduff in Macbeth. He feigns vicious appetites. When Gondomar tempts him with the promise of satisfying those vices once he joins their ranks, he reveals his true character, in effect leaping out of the way, which allows the Black King to be given ’checkmate by / Discovery … the noblest mate of all’ (5.3.160—1; ibid.: 186).
In this endgame, a piece that has blocked a line of check moves out of the way of another piece of the same colour, thus exposing the opposing king. Charles, by showing himself not be what the Spaniards thinks he is, conclusively discloses their real nature. The chess analogy here works quite well. Throughout the play, though, Middleton struggles to sustain the conceit. Even the premier drama company had limited membership and he cannot deploy enough chessmen — at most he manages 22, probably achieved through some doubling up. Moreover the case he wants to make is only fitfully consonant with the rules of chess. One pawn changes sides. The Fat Bishop (and his Pawn) belongs to neither side. And the pieces enter and exit in ways that bear no relationship to the pattern of the actual game. Nobody moves the chessmen; they move of their own volition; there are no players. Why, then, bother with an allegory that proves so problematic? The obvious answer, perhaps, has to do with an attempt to put a little fictive distance between the events of the play and those to which they allude. But the game also allows Middleton to negotiate the difficulty of representing events that made very little sense to those outside the highest royal circles. Why did James want such proximity to Spain? Why did Buckingham and Charles, now so hot for war with Spain, compromise themselves with a clandestine mission? Chess is generally perceived as a pastime of deep policy played by powerful minds, and thus it offered a way of representing events that served particularly well Charles, Buckingham — and James, whose frequent assertion that foreign policy belongs among the arcana imperii, the secrets of government, seems confirmed by the depiction of a game too complex for outsiders to comprehend or anticipate.
Though approved by the Master of Revels, A Game at Chess violated the general rule against the representation of living people on stage. It proved immensely successful, playing for ten days in the largest playhouse in London to a packed audience that was estimated in total at about 30,000 people (though some may well have seen it more than once). It rested heavily on the anti-Catholic and Hispanophobic prose tracts produced in profusion in the early 1620s, but it transformed their vitriolic commonplaces into a striking theatrical experience (Cogswell 1989: 281—301). Perhaps Midddleton was uniquely suited to the task, in that he had recently assumed the role of chief script writer for mayoral pageants, and was used to the allegorical representation of contemporary figures and events in that rather different context. The play prompted a protest to James from the Spanish ambassador, and he ordered the Privy Council to suppress it. The Master of the Revels was questioned, the players were bound over for their future conduct, and Middleton may briefly have been imprisoned, but the lenity of the royal response suggests that the King’s Men still enjoyed royal protection, and no doubt were assured too of the favour of the duke and the prince (Cogwell 1989: 306—7). But then Middleton and the company, far from articulating the voice of opposition, served the ends of the new war party, which had come into alignment with the widely and fiercely held prejudices of much of the political nation. No wonder they got away with it.
The plague of 1625 that devastated the viability of London theatre companies carried off one of the finest survivors from the age of Shakespearean drama: John Fletcher. He perished, on a seventeenth-century account, because he delayed his planned flight to the country until a new suit of clothes was ready from his tailor (DNB 1975). Several highly accomplished plays for the King’s Men date from this period, including The Pilgrim (?1621/2), an adaptation of Lope de Vega’s recently translated comedy El Peregrino en su Patria, The Wild-Goose Chase (?1621), A Wife for a Month (?1624) and Rule a Wife and Have a Wife (?1624), the last also from a Spanish source (Beaumont and Fletcher 1966—94: VI, 113—14, 227—8, 357—8, 485—6). The late flowering of a master craftsman, these plays evidently enjoyed immediate popularity. Most were presented at court, and they remained in the repertoire till the closure of the theatres.
They negotiate a complex relationship with late Jacobean London. The settings are foreign — perverse, exotic, ’oriental’ in the manner of Measure for Measure or The Duchess of Malfi. The rules of English common law are often strikingly absent. In A Wife for a Month, Frederick, the ’unnatural and libidinous’ king of Naples (’Persons represented in the play’; p. 368), out of lust for the virginal Evanthe, allows her to marry Valerio, her beloved, on condition that he be executed after a month — and then, wickeder still, forbids Valerio to consummate the marriage on pain of Evanthe’s immediate death, a threat which he was also charged to conceal from his bride. Contemporaneously, Naples had no king; it was a Spanish dependency with a Spanish viceroy (Ogg 1965: 48). But the anachronism matches the vaguely atopical setting: this is a generalized Italy of bawds, poisoners, absolutists and the ’necessary creatures’ who perform their will. There is no recourse to legal process. However, among the array of impossibly wicked villains and impossibly resolute heroes, Fletcher amazingly achieves some delicacy of characterization, particularly in his depiction of Evanthe’s sexual frustration as the decent characters in the play celebrate the bedding of the bride, which she eagerly anticipates, while we and her husband and her tormentor know that Valerio may not deflower her. (In the event, he pretends to be suffering from sexual dysfunction that renders his willingness to die for a month of married life somewhat puzzling, not least to his bride: ’Tis hard to dye for nothing’ — 3.3.238; p. 412.) The play would have made a decent Puccini libretto. Fletcher works the audience’s expectations with persistent adroitness. First we think Valerio and Evanthe will enjoy an intense married life under urgent time pressure. Frederick’s second arbitrary ruling eliminates that. Then we think the king’s decent but melancholy brother, the only possible source of external intervention, is poisoned. Then we think Evanthe or Valerio will die and someone will avenge the death. In the event, Fletcher saves Valerio from execution through a cruder version of the mechanism that saves Claudio in Measure for Measure — a decent officer charged with the task pretends to have flung his corpse in the sea ’To feed the fishes’ (5.3.12; p. 440). A coup d’état replaces Frederick with his brother. We anticipate his condign punishment, but in yet another surprise Fletcher dismisses him to the monastery where his brother had been dwelling, a commutation secured through a surprising — and very brief — act of contrition. Fletcher achieves an engaging work of immense pace, but also the most intimate depiction of female desire to be accomplished on the early Stuart stage.
A prologue to Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, presumably added for a court performance, explicitly distances the setting and the events depicted from Jacobean England: ’still tis Spaine, / No such grosse errors in your Kingdome raigne’ (Prologue, ll.11—12; p. 502). The main plot tells how Margarita, a virginal but libidinous heiress, marries Leon, a seeming buffoon, to give a specious respectability to the life of debauchery she intends for herself. The buffoon, however, rapidly emerges as a Petrucchio figure in disguise, asserting his role within the patriarchal household, making himself master of her fortune, and in the process saving her honour and winning her love. The play hovers around the disgrace of cuckoldry but produces instead an orthodox celebration of masculinity and male dominance in marriage, although the secondary plot, in which the heiress’s maid, Estifania, gets the better of her duped husband, Perez, precludes too simple a schematization, for this is a play, as the prologue announces, designed to appeal to both sexes. Again, though unequivocally a comedy, the play reflects the changed direction of Jacobean foreign policy. Its opening remarks seek to allay anti-Spanish sentiment: ’Now we present their [Spanish] wit and not their state’ (Prologue, l.8; p. 502). Moreover, the background to the action is mobilization for war, which gives an urgency to the mating game. Margarita anticipates Leon’s embarkation, and while the gallants accept her colours, they acknowledge they will ’Weare em before the bullet, and in bloud too’ (5.5.176—7; p. 576). Moreover, Estifania’s depiction of her hunt for her husband has an immediately pertinent resonance:
I went to twenty Taverns.
Where I saw twenty drunk, most of em souldiers,
From hence to’th dicing house, there I found
Quarrels needlesse, and senselesse, swords, and pots, and candlesticks,
Tables, and stooles, and all in one confusion,
And no man knew his friend.
(4.1.28—35; p. 548)
Fletcher looks unflinchingly on the less glorious side of military adventurism, in the civil disorder associated with the muster of young and riotous men. The seaports on England’s south coast would be habituated to such scenes in the years to come.
The Wild-Goose Chase was first printed in 1653, most fittingly with a prefatory poem by Richard Lovelace, that paradigmatic royalist poet and, as we shall see, a decisive figure in the fashioning of the cavalier image. In terms of plot, Fletcher’s play owes something to early Shakespeare. Like Love’s Labour’s Lost or Much Ado about Nothing or Twelfth Night, it is a multiple mating story, in which disguises, games and tricks are used to bring together characters that the audience perceive as mutually compatible. But Shakespeare’s world of playful, witty courtiers to whom no hint of grossness adheres is superseded by a milieu peopled by rich young toughs, for whom the backstory, plainly established in their libertine banter, is one of riot and debauchery. The audience is never invited to ponder the previous sex life of Benedick or Orsino. But Mirabell and his fellow-travellers Pinac and Bellure, returned to Paris, explicitly rehearse their past fornication and their current intentions:
MIRABELL Welcom to Paris once more, Gentlemen:
We have had a merry, and a lusty Ord’nary,
And wine, and good meat, and a bounsing Reckning;
And let it go for once; ’Tis a good physick:
Only the wenches are not for my dyet,
They are too lean and thin; their embraces brawn-fall’n.
Give me the plump Venetian, fat, and lusty,
That meets me soft and supple; smiles upon me,
As if a cup of full wine leap’d to kiss me;
These slight things I affect not.
PINAC They are ill built;
Pin-buttockt, like your dainty Barbaries,
And weak i’th’ pasterns; they’l endure no hardness
(1.2.1—12; p. 256)
Fletcher’s heroes probably approximate more closely in their appetites and values to the rich, young and unmarried men of the Inns of Court than Shakespeare’s more ethereal lovers. The play ends with a dirty joke. Bellure, about to wed and forswearing further travels, vows, ’No more for Italy; for the Low-Countries, I’ (5.6.108; p. 335). Fletcher revivals proved immensely popular in the early years after the reopening of the theatres in 1660 (Clark 2001: 284); characters like these anticipate the earthiness of the Restoration rake.
Ben Jonson fared less well with his late plays, though modern critical opinion has attempted a revaluation. He had last composed for the theatre in 1616 (The Devil is an Ass). In 1626 The Staple of News was performed by the King’s Men, significantly first at court, and then at the Blackfriars Theatre. Since his previous play, his dramatic output had been confined to writing masques. The Staple of News, in an audacious baroque interrogation of genre boundaries, shifts city comedy into the allegorical mode. The premise is a familiar one, a plot that exposes, in part through the use of disguise, the appetitiveness of contemporary society, in effect Jonson’s standard fare since his late Elizabethan plays. Chiselling, turning a dishonest penny and conspicuous consumption drive the action in a milieu of frauds and gulls. The wealthy but aged Pennyboy Canter, in improbably successful disguise, breaks to his son and heir, Pennyboy Junior, the false news of his death and Junior’s sudden accession to vast wealth. Junior runs a prodigal’s course, squandering resources on, inter alia, investment in the eponymous ’staple of news’, from which a news service is operated. In the process, in a curious modal shift, Junior is encouraged by his usurer uncle, Pennyboy Senior, to pursue the Lady Pecunia (= ’Money’ [Latin]), an heiress who is ’The Venus of time, and state’ — Jonson 1925—52: V, 319; 2.5.34). The allegory functions rather fitfully, although, as the plot runs its course, she returns to enunciate the moral:
And so Pecunia her selfe doth wish,
That shee may still be ayde vnto their vses,
Not slave vnto their pleasures, or a Tyrant
Ouer their faire desires; but teach them all
The golden meane: the Prodigall how to liue,
The sordid, and the couetous, how to dye:
That with sound mind; this, safe frugality.
(5.6.60—7; p. 382)
Jonson’s conclusion may strike but a glancing blow at the early Caroline court. Presumably nobody would have interpreted words written by the favoured masque-writer of the 1620s as a reproach to a court expenditure, the lavishness of which was to its supporters and participants merely a decorum of state. However, the intergenerational conflict at the centre of the play, resolved in the shaming of the young man, could scarcely have struck a sympathetic chord among those scions of the propertied, wasting their fathers’ money in feigned study at the Inns of Court, who may well have made up a significant proportion of the audience at Blackfriars. Moreover, Jonson’s secondary target contains a further ill-judged reproach. In 1620 Jonson had scripted a Twelfth Night masque, News from the New World Discovered in the Moon, which had found such favour that it was repeated a few weeks later (Orgel and Strong 1973: 307). In it, the antimasque had satirically represented ’a factor of news for all the shires of England’, whose enterprise supplied the political nation with spurious reports (pp. 308—11). No doubt James, increasingly concerned with intrusive gazes into the arcana imperii, relished the deprecatory depiction and savoured the antimasque’s dismissal at the disclosure of the Prince of Wales, Buckingham and their masquing companions. In the printed version of The Staple of News, Jonson inserted a note ’TO THE READERS’, making explicit his purpose in repeating the attack on news distribution. What he depicts is:
Newes made like the times Newes, (a weekly cheat to draw mony) and could not be fitter reprehended, then in raising this ridiculous Office of the Staple, wherin the age may see her owne folly, or hunger and thirst after publish’d pamphlets of Newes, set out euery Saturday, but made all at home, no syllable of truth in them … (p. 325)
The audience, who had paid their 6d to watch the performance, may well have taken a different view of their appetite for news. After all, many — indeed, probably most — of them would have been among the multitudes who had seen A Game at Chess at the Globe. The Staple of News is in many ways an ingeniously crafted and theatrically challenging play, artfully self-referential, marked by modal instabilities and distancing ironies. But its contentions that young men should respect their parents and, more significantly, that the ordinary Englishman should keep his nose out of the king’s business, showed a dramatist too much at odds with his audience. Jonson, evidently, had been away too long.
The Staple of News was received unenthusiastically and did little to revive Jonson’s career away from court. His next play, The New Inn, was performed in 1629 by the King’s Men, a year after a severe stroke had physically incapacitated him. The play proved an instant disaster. He vouchsafed it to the press in 1632, hedged around with attacks not only on the audience, a familiar target for Jonson’s anger, but also the acting company with which he had been associated through the best years of his playwriting career. Even the title page is a howl of complaint: this is the text of a comedy ’As it was neuer acted, but most negligently played, by some, the King Seruants. And more squeamishly beheld, and censured by others, the Kings Subiects’ (Jonson 1925—52: V, 395). No corroboration is extant, though Jonson perhaps reports accurately the limitations of the single performance the play received. Yet there are other evident explanations for its failure. Richard Harp notes that the plot, with its improbable reunion of lovers long separated, recalls Shakespeare’s ’late romances’ (Harp 2000: 94). But Jonson, once more bending genre conventions, transposes those improbabilities from Shakespeare’s remote and exotic locations to an English country inn, a setting carefully established in realistic detail. This is Barnet, not Bohemia. But the location would be merely a challenge to the audience’s suspension of disbelief, were the problems not compounded by the extreme complexities that the plot develops. Indeed, the printed version appeared with a 1,000-word ’Argument’ and a ’short Characterisme’, a pen portrait, of each principal character (Jonson 1925—52: V, 398—404), indicative, surely, of some entirely reasonable anxiety about its comprehensibility even in its printed version. As in the disaster of his Roman tragedies (see above, chapter 2), Jonson realized too late the limitations of what can be communicated theatrically. To the printed text he added a poem, ’The iust indication the Author tooke at the vulgar censure of his Play, by some malicious spectators’ (Jonson 1925—52: V, 492—4), though his farewell to the ’lothed stage’ (l.1) smacks rather of Coriolanus banishing Rome. It was not, however, his last theatrical venture.
Philip Massinger’s brilliant comedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (?1621—5), negotiated the urgent issues of its own age as nimbly as Jonson blundered. The date and circumstances of its earliest performances are unclear. The title page to its first edition (1633) alludes to a performance by the Queen’s Men at the Phoenix in Drury Lane, but that company took up residence there in late 1625, and perhaps the play had an earlier stage history. Certainly, it engaged deeply with matters of widespread interest and concern across the first half of the decade. The love plot involves the mating through trickery of a young hero, Alworth, with Margaret, the daughter of a cruel and interdictive usurer. It has an obvious affinity with The Merchant of Venice, but in place of a villainous Jew (at a time when almost no Jews lived in England) Massinger offers the instantly recognizable figure of Sir Giles Overreach, whom critics unanimously identify as Sir Giles Mompesson (1584—1651?), as no doubt the earliest audiences did. Mompesson was a very safe target. His wife’s sister had married the half-brother of Buckingham. This gave him a route to the heart of government where his development of schemes for the licensing of public houses and of the production of luxury textiles allowed him to accumulate a considerable fortune very quickly. Parliament in 1621 had stripped him of his knighthood and passed a sentence of massive fines and lifetime incarceration, which he escaped by bolting (DNB 1975). Massinger’s depiction misses much of the detail, though his misconduct in the licensing of unsuitable public houses seems to be alluded to. But Overreach becomes, rather, a composite figure of mercantile greed and corruption. The play develops a larger symbolic structure as Massinger opposes the ancient values of what modern historians call ’the county community’ to the ruthless individualism of the city.
In the main plot, Overreach’s nephew Welborne, born to the brother of his former wife, has through his own profligacy and his uncle’s usurious guile fallen into extreme indigence. He reminds Lady Alworth, a rich widow, of his former kindness to her late husband: ’Wants, debts, and quarrels / Lay heavy on him: let it not be thought / A boast in me, though I say, I reliev’d him’ (Massinger 1964a: 22; 1.3.100—2). Furnace, Order and Amble, the servants of her country house, function almost as a chorus, to assert the values of gentry society, and one duly remarks, ’Are we not base rogues / That could forget this?’ (ll.108—9). Lady Alworth connives in a plot to deceive Overreach into thinking she is about to marry Welborne. In the resolution, Overreach is betrayed by his creature Marrall, who in turn is rejected for his violation of the code of personal loyalty the county community requires:
WELBORNE You are a rascal, he that dares be false
To a master, though unjust, will ne’er be true
To any other: look not for reward,
Or favour from me …
not a word
But instantly begone.
ORDER Take this kick with you.
AMBLE And this.
FURNACE If that I had my cleaver here
I would divide your knave’s head.
MARRALL This is the haven
False servants still arrive at.
(Massinger 1964a: 89; 5.1.338—41, 346—9)
Massinger dedicated the printed edition to Robert Dormer, Earl of Caernarfon, in terms that asserted the loyal retainership of his lineage: ’I was born a devoted servant, to the thrice noble family of your incomparable Lady’ (1964a: 3). His father had been an estate manager in the Wilton household of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. The daughter of his brother, Philip, Earl of Montgomery and eventually fourth Earl of Pembroke, had married Caernarfon. While the dedication chimed with the theme of old values and county community, it also picks up the martial dimension Massinger gives the play. Alworth is page to Lord Lovell, who participates in the country plot against Overreach and ends by marrying Lady Alworth. Lovell is briefly back in England from the continental wars, where his role roughly resembles that of Sir Horace Vere, leader of the ill-fated English expeditionary force. At the end of the play, Welborne asks for and is granted command of a company in Lovell’s service, and the assumption clearly is that they will all return to the continental wars. The larger ideological structure of the play opposes selfish and appetitive mercantilism, the sort of thing Buckingham’s cronies get up to, with not only country values but also selfless courage in the Protestant cause. Massinger’s is a text for his times.
In November 1623, the month in which Ben Jonson’s own library and accumulated manuscripts were accidentally destroyed by fire, Shakespeare’s First Folio appeared. Many of his plays had remained staples in the repertoire of the King’s Men, frequently revived in their theatres and performed in court, as they continued to be till 1642 (Bentley 1941—68: 1, 127—30), a practice which reflected not only an abiding enthusiasm for an extraordinary dramatist but also the evident conservatism of dramatic literary taste. About half the oeuvre had appeared piecemeal as quarto editions of single plays. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies marked an innovation in English publishing (see plate 4). Jonson had offered his Works in 1616, but that had mixed drama with poetry. The new volume offered a definitive collection of a wholly dramatic corpus ’Published according to the True Originall Copies’ (Shakespeare 1623: title page).
In a singularly barren period for printed poetry, Shakespeare’s dramatic verse must have seemed extraordinarily rewarding to aficionados. But the collection appeared hedged around with evidence of caution and anxiety. Its editors, Henry Condell and John Heminge, formerly colleagues of Shakespeare and still shareholders in the King’s Men, placed the collection in that same patronage network that Massinger had courted in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Here the dedication is to William, third Earl of Pembroke, and Philip, Earl of
Plate 4 William Shakespeare, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), portrait frontispiece and titlepage. Reproduced by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Montgomery. More interesting is Heminge and Condell’s epistle ’To the great variety of Readers’, which urges the browser to be a buyer of the book: ’the fate of all Bookes depends on your capacities: and not your heads alone, but of your purses. Well! It is now publique, you wil stand for your priviledges: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first’ (Shakespeare 1623: sig. A4r). This was, indeed, a luxury item, typically sold for 15s. unbound, 16s. to £1 bound (depending on the quality of the binding), a price which may be contextualized by reference to the 6d a day paid to seventeenth-century agricultural labourers, and expenditure of a different order from the 6d usually charged for a single play. Recent estimates of the print run vary from 750 to 1,500 copies, of which about 230 copies are extant (West 2001: vi, 4). The capital invested in the project may well have been without precedent in the publishing of creative writing in English, though comparisons with incunabula are necessarily speculative. But its appearance was timely. John Pitcher, setting it against the other now canonical works available to the late Jacobean readership, has sagely concluded they ’urgently needed, as its heart and mind, something less upper-crust than Sidney, less trashy than the newsletter, less erudite than Spenser, and less hard to understand than Chaucer’. Shakespeare’s collected plays appeared ’arranged in traditional generic groups, rather than in some order of performance or composition that purported to trace the author’s development (as with Chaucer and Jonson)’, a feature John Pitcher judges to be ’rather old-fashioned’ (2002: 373—4). Yet it reflects how Shakespeare’s plays were contemporaneously perceived and encountered, as central to a living theatrical experience in which the order of their first appearance had little significance. Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew were still performed at court in the 1630s (Bentley 1941—68: I, 97). Ben Jonson’s prefatory poem recognizes Shakespeare’s historical impact on English drama, as he outshines ’our Lily… or sporting Kid, or Marlowes mighty line’. But Jonson works towards an assertion of Shakespeare’s transhistorical significance. If he is, indeed, ’not of an age, but for all time’, an appreciation of his development has little part in the general reader’s experience of the text (Shakespeare 1623: sig. A4r-v).
Poetry and Prose Romance
Donne and Jonson wrote significant verse during this period, though the former vouchsafed none to the press and the latter’s poetry appeared piecemeal and infrequently. We have considered some items in passing, such as his dedicatory poem to the First Folio and his farewell to the stage printed with the quarto of The New Inn. However, further consideration of their late verse is reserved until the next chapter, as is the early writing of Thomas Carew, George Herbert, John Milton and Robert Herrick, though again they were writing important verse in the late 1620s. In terms of what could be bought, rather than culled from manuscripts in circulation, this was a relatively unrewarding period, though with some fascinating developments, particularly in the published work of Francis Quarles, George Wither and Lady Mary Wroth.
Quarles is best remembered as the author of Emblemes (1635), probably the most successful emblem book in the English tradition (considered in chapter 4). But his busy career as a religious poet began in 1620 with A Feast for Wormes (Quarles 1620), a narrative poem about Jonah, in effect a sort of sacred epyllion. Quarles’s early writing demonstrates readers’ demands both for religiously improving writing (the masses of which are largely unconsidered in this history) and for printed verse; neither need was met by those who are, from a modern perspective, the major writers of the period. A Feast for Wormes demonstrates a fairly competent if evidently unexciting command of the heroic couplet:
Why? what are men? But quicken’d lumps of earth?
A feast for wormes, A bubble full of mirth.
A looking-glasse for griefe, A flash, A minnit,
A painted Toombe, with putrefaction in it.
(Quarles 1620: sig. C3r-v)
The narrative frequently provides a platform for such religious meditation. This is a strictly and explicitly functional piety: the volume concludes with ’The Generall Use of this History’, enjoining, ’reade it often, or else reade it not: / Once read, is not observ’d, or soone forgot’ (sig. L1r).
Quarles rapidly followed the story of Jonah with other narrative poems, on Esther, Job and Samson (Quarles 1621, 1624, and 1631). Milton’s own great narrative (and dramatic) accounts of Bible stories should be set against this rather homespun domestic tradition as surely as against the models of Homer, Virgil and Sophocles he more evidently emulates. Indeed, Quarles made Milton’s own point, about the superiority of godly heroism over pagan heroism, as the subject for verse, while invoking Urania as his explicitly Christian muse (Quarles 1621: sig. B1r-v). He also favoured the occasional epic simile, sometimes flagging them up with a marginal note, ’simile’.
The case of Quarles also serves as a caution against over-schematic accounts of late Jacobean and early Caroline ideological formations. He had held a minor court office as a cupbearer in the entourage of Princess Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, and had dedicated A Feast for Wormes to Robert Sidney, first Earl of Leicester, which would place him on the side of (or at least under the patronage of) the advocates of continental intervention in the Thirty Years War (though later publications are dedicated to King James and Charles, Prince of Wales, among others). His career, through the 1620s and early 1630s, was as secretary to James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, who, among critics of episcopacy, emerged in the early 1640s as the most acceptable of prelates, and evidently Quarles shared his master’s objections to Laudianism (Norbrook 1984: 235). Yet he proved loyal to the king’s cause in the early 1640s. (See DNB 1975.)
Quarles figures in a minor way in some modern anthologies; Wither rather less so, though his role as a significant oppositional writer in the 1610s and his later career as defender of parliament and republic give him a prominence in the cultural ideology of those periods. (See also Norbrook 1999; both are in Fowler 1991; Quarles alone in Cummings 2000; neither is in Abrams et al. 2000). In the 1620s Wither attempted to position himself as independent of the patronage system. In practical terms, this required a radical shift in authorial relations with the Stationers’ Company. As long as copyright belonged with its members, rather than with authors, the emergence of a class of professionals able to live from non-dramatic dissemination of their writing was constrained. Indeed, Wither’s early work was reissued in a pirated edition in 1620 (DNB 1975). As Wither incisively put it, ’the Book-eseller hath not onely made the Printer, the Binder, and the Clasp-maker a slave to him: but hath brought Authors, yea the whole Commonwealth, and all liberall Sciences into bondage’ (n.d.: 10). Wither, who recognized as surely as Quarles the demand for devotional writing of some literary accomplishment, in 1623 sought to take on the stationers by publishing himself his Hymnes and Songs of the Church under letters patent issued by royal prerogative. The collection presumably seemed unexceptionable to James, who may well have relished the penultimate hymn, ’for the Kings day’, with its fulsome acknowledgement of the arcana imperii:
Make us (that placed are below)
Our callings to apply,
Not over-curious be to know,
What he intends on high.
(Wither 1623: 53)
When the stationers declined to handle it, he issued a prose pamphlet, The Schollers Purgatory, discovered in the Stationers Commonwealth, excoriating the book trade for its ’contempt of his Maiesties powre, the hindrance of devotion, the prejudice of the Authors estate, & the disparagment of his best endeavors’ (Wither n.d.: title page, verso).
Wither’s strongest poetry of the period came in Withers Motto (1621), an extended celebration in heroic couplets of the poet’s sense of his own independence of spirit. Wither inflects the genre characteristics of early modern satire by placing himself — or, rather, a construct composed of Horatian values and Christianized stoicism — at the centre of his poem. The usual targets recur, from ’Hispaniolized English men’ (Wither 1621: sig. B5r) to court parasites and patronage brokers (sig. D5r), the latter perhaps supporting a vague attack on Buckingham. Wither is careful to exempt his poem from the kinds of close attention more specific topicality would have attracted: ’You are deceiv’d, if the Bohemian state / You thinke I touch; or the Palatinate’ (sig. A6v). Wither’s recurrent concern is the nature of literary production in late Jacobean England and the part played by patronage. By writing alone one can scarcely live: ’Men aske me what Preferment I have gained? / What riches, by my Studies are attain’d?’ (sig. C3r). His response is to differentiate his truth-telling from flattery, in ways which plainly found a sympathetic readership. The STC (Short Title Catalogue) distinguishes seven editions in its first year of publication. Yet, since his great coup of publishing under letters patent depended on a regal generosity, the claims he makes for himself may have seemed to some as more aspirational than real.
Wither and Quarles inhabited a world of financial insecurity and social dependence familiar to many of the early Stuart writers, for whom the material circumstances of literary production had scarcely changed since the Elizabethan period. Lady Mary Wroth, who had masqued with Queen Anne of Denmark, was an aristocrat with the finest social and literary credentials, proclaiming her ’strong sense of identity as a Sidney author’ (Lewalski 1994: 243). Her father was Robert Sidney, first Earl of Leicester and brother of Sir Philip, and her long-term lover and father of her children was her cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Again, the connections — kinship rather than patronage — were nominally with the advocates of continental military adventurism, and, in ways that reflect the nostalgia for Elizabethan prowess, her literary aesthetic was retrospective, despite her evident achievement of publishing the first work of English prose fiction written by a woman. Perhaps equally remarkable is the lifetime publication of a work of creative writing by an aristocrat.
The title page of The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (Wroth 1621a) proclaimed the author’s status as niece to Mary Herbert, recently deceased widow of the second Earl of Pembroke and ’the ever famous, and renowned Sr Phillips [sic] Sidney knight’. The latter, plainly, was profoundly influential. His Arcadia provided the generic model, and to the romance was appended a sequence of poems, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, unequivocally inspired by Astrophil and Stella. The romance, some 558 pages, breaks off (in some copies) midsentence, possibly indicative — though some have doubted this — that the copy which the printer used was fragmentary and unprepared by its author for the press, and a large manuscript, evidently not ready for the press, containing a second and concluding part is extant and has recently been published (Lewalski 1994: 264). Wroth herself wrote to Buckingham a letter of disclaimer, claiming that the printed copies ’were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published’ (Wroth 1996: ix).
The prose romance has in recent years attracted considerable critical attention. In its own age, its apparent allusions to the manners and conduct of some Jacobean courtiers rendered it mildly notorious. More recently, the critical focus has been on gender issues and its differences from romances by male writers. Thus, Paul Salzman concludes: ’Urania has its valiant heroes, but the reader’s attention is directed to the women who are left behind by the questing men, or whose paths cross the heroes’ with invariably miserable results’ (Salzman 1985: 141; see also Lewalski 1994: 244, 266—8 and 2002: 611—12). More obvious and utterly unrelenting are its social assumptions. This is a tale of male and female shepherds and aristocrats — and aristocrats transiently disguised as shepherds: ’How came this fortune to you, said he, for no doubt but you were borne of better ranke then the estate you appeare in shewes you to be’ (Wroth 1621a: 356). The characters are rarely more than (improbable) names, the landscapes they pass through bear no relation to the Balkan and eastern Mediterranean countries in which the stories are supposedly set, and the style is elegantly unremarkable: ’Amphilanthus, and Ollorandus with Dolorindus passed farther into the countrie, and tooke their way by Amphilanthus direction towards Neapolis, where they were to visit the faire Musalina, who by meanes made by Allimarlus was reconciled to Amphilanthus, betweene whom an ancient quarrell ceased thus’ (ibid.: 341).
Wroth’s poetic oeuvre consists of the lyrics and sonnets inset in the romance itself and its poetic supplement. Once more, the current critical objective is the identification of a woman’s distinctive voice within a customarily male idiom, here English appropriation of Petrarchanism. As Barbara Lewalski notes:
Wroth does not simply reverse the usual sonnet roles. Pamphilia addresses very few sonnets to Amphilanthus: there are no praises of his over-powering physical beauty or charms, no narratives of kisses or other favours … no blazons scattering his parts as a gesture of aggrandisement or control, no promises to eternise him through the poet’s songs. (2002: 611; see also Lewalski 1994: 252 and Masten 1998: 34—6)
Yet while the gender values and politics are identifiably new, poetic technique is studiedly conservative. The dense ambiguities of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the extraordinary metrical confidence and imaginative potency of Donne’s holy sonnets are displaced in favour of the restrained elegance of Sidney’s idiom:
You blessed Starres, which doe Heauen’s glory show,
And at your brightnesse makes our eyes admire:
Yet enuy not, though I on earth below,
Injoy a sight which mouese in me more fire.
I doe confesse such beauty breeds desire
You shine, and clearest light on vs bestow:
Yet doth a sight on Earth more warmth inspire
Into my louing soule his grace to know.
Cleare, bright, and shining, as you are, in this
Light of my ioy: fix’t, stedfast, nor will moue
His light from me, nor I change from his loue;
But still increase as th’earth of all my blisse.
His sight giue life vnto my loue-rould eyes
My loue content, because in his loue lies.
(Wroth 1621b: 24)
In 1620 Bacon published the Novum Organum, a substantial Latin treatise intended to place his mature reflections on the advancement of learning before an educated and international readership. He was already Baron Verulam, Lord Chancellor, the most senior lawyer in England, and, as his father had been, Keeper of the Great Seal. In the week before the first meeting of the parliament of 1621 he was promoted Viscount St Albans. The success that had come to him reflected not only his evident abilities — he remained as clever, cunning and energetic as ever — but also his seemingly secure place as a major beneficiary of Buckingham’s patronage. That apparent strength proved an evident weakness. Once parliament had dealt with Mompesson, it turned to Bacon, who had, in an official capacity, supported Mompesson’s patent for the licensing of inns (see above). Parliament tried him on well-substantiated charges of corruption. A convincing array of evidence established that he had accepted bribes from those whose law cases he was adjudicating on, and he could not be saved by Buckingham or by the king without a degree of exposure they were unwilling to accept. He was stripped of his offices, imprisoned in the Tower of London and heavily fined. Buckingham ensured his incarceration was short-lived, and through the king he wriggled out of paying the fines (an impossibility, anyway, for someone already, through his own profligacy, massively in debt). He was, however, effectively banished from court and parliament, and never regained the access he had enjoyed to the highest circles of power (DNB 1975; Jardine and Stewart 1998: 448—69).
He assiduously fashioned an image of himself in those five years of enforced rural retreat, as a sage and scholar withdrawn to complete the literary, historical, philosophical and scientific projects that he had pursued but fitfully in his years of power and prominence. But, as his most recent biographers have demonstrated, that image belies his fervid attempts to regain, primarily through courtship of Buckingham, the pre-eminence he had lost. That project was disrupted by the adventure of the Spanish Match and by James’s recognition that his presence at or close to court while the parliament of 1624 was sitting would have been a provocative display of royal prerogative in defiance of the determination of the previous parliament (Jardine and Stewart 1998: 473—501).
Yet his final years allowed an extraordinary flurry of diverse activity. His crowning literary achievement, the third and final major edition of his Essays (1625), revises the essays of the second edition of 1612, and adds 19 new essays, justifying the claim he makes in the dedication to Buckingham that ’they are indeed a new Worke’ (Bacon 2000: 5). Michael Kiernan, a modern editor, demonstrates the continued transition from the voice of the first edition, written ’essentially from the suitor’s point of view’, to the persona, present in 1612 but dominant in 1625, of Bacon as sage counsellor of princes (ibid.: xix—xxxi). Bacon was contemporaneously writing what were in effect briefing papers for Charles and Buckingham, and the new edition can be perceived as constituting a more oblique attempt to convince of his indispensability those who could redeem his fortunes. But some of the new essays also give the collection a tone of autumnal melancholy. The Baconian perspective is still unflinching and clear-eyed, although it seems, here, cast backwards.
’Of Truth’, the new essay which opens the volume, begins with an image of paradigmatic judicial malpractice: ’What is Truth; said jesting Pilate; And would not stay for an Answer.’ It develops into a recognition of the limited attractions for most people of truth over fancy, and ends with a contemplation of ’the last Peale’ and ’the Judgements of God’ (ibid.: 7—9). Some essays work to adjust the authorial image produced in the earlier editions by suggesting a hitherto unsuspected cultural hinterland in a Bacon who is sagacious not only about the affairs of state and the world of business but also about foreign travel (ibid.: 56—7), masques (ibid.: 117—18), architecture (ibid.: 135—8) and gardens (ibid.: 139—45). Others seem coloured by his recent disgrace. ’Of Envie’, read in context, offers an anatomy of where he went wrong:
those are most subject to Envy, which carry the Greatnesses of their fortunes, in an insolent and proud Manner… publique envy, seemeth to beat chiefly, upon principall Officers, or Ministers, rather then upon Kings, and Estates themselves. But this is a sure Rule, that if the Envy upon the Minister, be great, when the cause of it, in him, is smal; … then the Envy (though hidden) is truly upon the State it selfe. (Ibid.: 29—31)
Bacon no doubt well knew that his prosecution originated both in personal resentments of those who prepared that case against him and in the larger odium occasioned by Buckingham’s de facto management of the realm.
Of the essays newly added in 1625, the most remarkable, ’Of Vicissitude of Things’, concludes the volume. As Bacon added material to the 1612 edition, he developed the collection from ’advice to the esurient’ into ’advice to the prince’, a shift that adds a sort of Machiavellian statecraft to more intimate counsel. But it still functioned as a conduct book replete with hints on how to succeed in the early Stuart state. The 1625 edition remains a consummate expression of individualism, guiding the reader on his watchful and solitary paths through the anterooms and privy chambers of power. It concludes:
In the Youth of a State, Armes do flourish; In the Middle Age of a State, Learning; And then both of them together for a time: In the Declining Age of a State, Mechanicall Arts and Merchandize. Learning hath his Infancy, when it is but beginning, and almost Childish: then his Youth, when it is Luxuriant and Juvenile: then his Strength of yeares, when it is Solide and Reduced: And lastly, his old Age, when it waxeth Dry and Exhaust. But it not good, to looke too long, upon these turning Wheeles of Vicissitude, lest we become Giddy. As for the Philology of them, that is but a Circle of Tales, and therefore not fit for this Writing. (Ibid.: 176)
Bacon’s has been an engagement with the exigencies of personal struggle, but he ends with a long perspective in which individual endeavour appears puny against the larger cycles of maturation and decay which seem to afflict all hitherto existing societies. He vouchsafes no opinion as to which phase Jacobean England had reached, and he recognizes that his is an idiom and a mindset that cannot sustain such a long view, ’lest we become Giddy’. He breaks off and turns away.
Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621. Rather like Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (see below, chapter 5), this was to remain a life’s work. It appeared in four further lifetime editions and a posthumous one, and, principally in the second, third and fourth editions, it was much augmented by the author. It was, at the outset, a very long book of about 350,000 words; by the end, it was half as long again (Burton 1989—2000: I, xxxviii). Structurally and thematically, it changed relatively little. Rather, Burton, as he continued his own reading, found new material to supplement the examples and authorities already included.
Plainly, this was a relatively popular work. All these early editions were printed at Oxford. Burton was a career academic, a senior ’student’, that is a fellow, of Christ Church, at that time Oxford’s richest college, and his income was increased by the lucrative ecclesiastical livings which he held from time to time. His recurrent concern with ’the miseries of scholars’ (apparently, they are not paid enough and not respected enough) both reflects his own preoccupations and perhaps indicates where his strongest readership may have been. This is, indeed, a very scholarly work, a vast assembly of much of the learning of the ancient world and of subsequent investigation into human physiology, the aetiology of melancholy and its supposed cures, as well as a wide review of history and philosophy. He bluntly tells his readers, ’Thou thy selfe art the subject of my Discourse’ (ibid.: I, 1). Yet his views on the human animal are endlessly refracted through the cumulative but often contradictory wisdom of centuries of European thought and speculation.
In genre terms, the book poses difficulties. At one level, it may seem merely a scholarly redaction. No doubt J. B. Bamborough is right in his surmise that ’he seems to have felt the need to ’’cover the ground’’ and give the reader the benefit of every particle of knowledge which he himself had gleaned’ (Burton 1989—2000: I, xxvi). Yet that inclusiveness virtually neutralizes the value of the work even as a self-help guide, let alone a treatise on the causes, diagnosis and treatment of a malady. As he considers the role of diet, for example, almost every plant and animal has been adduced by someone as a cause of melancholy, leaving almost nothing on the menu (ibid.: I, 211—20). When he considers surgery, procedures proliferate: ’Montalus cap. 35. would have the thighes to bee cauterised, Mercurialis prescribes beneath the knees; Laelius Eugubinus consul. 77 for an Hypocondriacall Dutchman, will have the cautery made in the right thigh, so Montanus consil. 55’ (ibid.: II, 263). And the list continues through another half dozen alternatives, leaving the practising surgeon facing a perplexing range of options for his first incision.
Yet despite its endless presentation of facts and theories from a myriad of predominantly academic sources, this is a masterpiece of literary creativity. Burton recognizes a good anecdote, and he retells them well, incorporating them briskly and ingeniously into his own exposition:
And as that great captaine Zisca would have a drumme made of his skinne when he was dead, because he thought the very noise of it would put his enimies to flight, I doubt not, but that these following lines, when they shall be recited, or heareafter reade, will drive away Melancholy (though I be gone) as much as Zisca’s drumme could terrify his foes. (Ibid.: I, 24)
His own style is exuberant, and he uses a riotous juxtaposition of discordant discourses to stunning effect. Though he endlessly synthesizes the voices of others, Burton carefully controls the dominant voice that emerges. It is not, straightforwardly, his own. Rather, in a long prefatory epistle, ’Democritus Junior to the Reader’, some 50,000 words in the later editions, he explicitly constructs as his persona, his alter ego, within the text a figure based on Democritus of Abdera, styled in his own age the laughing philosopher, a contradictory and unstable character, ’sometimes sad & sometimes againe profusely merry’ (ibid.: I, 63). This figure well suits the labile narrator. Thus, in quick succession, we find him rounding belligerently on his readers: ’I owe thee nothing, (Reader) I looke for no favour at thy hands, I am independent, I feare not’, before collapsing into an apology: ’No, I recant, I will not, I care, I confesse my fault … I have anatomized mine own folly’ (ibid.: I, 112). That is, in his instability he has represented and exemplified the instability of the pathologically melancholy. Of course, this is a trick, a game. If Burton himself were worried about what he had written, he could easily have redrafted it. After all, the passage survives through multiple editions. But the stratagem serves him, allowing him to pre-empt a hostile response with a sudden reversal. For example, a pervasive misogyny, an interest in female sexual frustration and an unhealthy fascination with the melancholy effects of menstrual dysfunction recur over large sections of the book. As if anticipating a charge of morbid obsession, he pulls himself up: ’Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to doe with Nunnes, Maids, Virgins, Widowes? I am a bacheler my selfe, and leade a Monasticke life in a College … though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.’ That paragraph ends thus; the next begins: ’And yet I must and will say something more … ’ (ibid.: I, 416). Burton remains a moving target.
Sermons formed a significant part of the cultural, intellectual and spiritual life of the cultural elite in early Stuart England. Certainly during the 1630s, Archbishop Laud discouraged a preaching ministry, to the chagrin of his Puritan critics for whom the pulpit allowed alternative perspectives to be developed. But celebrity preachers, preeminently John Donne, featured significantly in Jacobean London.
Donne entered holy orders in 1615, and the patronage of the king and leading aristocrats secured his rapid preferment. From 1621 he was Dean of St Paul’s, a post he held pluralistically with other benefices and offices (DNB 2004). Several pulpits were open to him, and he preached frequently at court before the royal household. He had already begun to preach from time to time from the Paul’s Cross sermons. Until 1633 these were delivered from a pulpit in the churchyard of the cathedral; thereafter the venue moved inside. Large audiences attended, among them aristocrats and the leading citizens. The preachers were carefully selected for their orthodoxy. The duty of appointment rested with the Bishop of London. Sermons clustered around Eastertide and Whitsun week and the major anniversaries of the royal calendar, such as accession day and the Gunpowder Plot (Maclure 1958, passim). Donne’s own sermons mark most of these occasions.
Donne’s sermons were sporadically printed during his own lifetime. The first dates from 1622, a Paul’s Cross sermon preached to endorse and support a recent royal decree, ’Directions concerning Preachers’, which was intended to rein in more speculative and oppositional sermons. The sermon was printed on the king’s command. We know something of Donne’s ways of working. He preached from notes, which he expanded significantly into a written text (Love 2002: 100—1). The large collections of his sermons, three impressive folios, are posthumous, published in 1640, 1649 and 1661. In their own age, each must have had a poignancy, as celebrations of the finest achievements of an episcopal church that was challenged, abolished and eventually restored.
Donne’s most acclaimed sermon, in his age and ours, falls slightly outside the period of this chapter: Deaths Duell, or, A Consolation to the Soule, against the dying Life, and living Death of the Body (Donne 1953—62: VII, 229—48). Preached before Charles I in 1631 at the start of Lent, it was his last sermon, and one delivered under dramatic and vivid circumstances, which render it, to an extent, atypical of his sermons more generally. Donne was palpably very ill, appearing terribly emaciated, quite probably as a result of stomach cancer. He had returned to London after an unsuccessful attempt at rural recuperation, amid rumours that he had already died. The first edition carried a headnote: ’preached not many dayes before his death; as if, having done this, there remained nothing for him to doe, but die: And the matter is, of Death’ (ibid.: 229). Yet in many ways it is simply a fine example of Donne’s preaching art. The printed version — presumably he used some of his remaining time to work it up for the press — is carefully annotated and tied intricately to Bible texts in a manner resembling formal exegesis. The principal themes differentiate human mortality from the death of Christ and they examine the implications of the death of Christ for human mortality. But what makes Donne’s sermons extraordinary is not the quality of the theology, but the exhilarating vividness with which a sometimes disconcerting sensibility is produced and expressed within the text. It is a quality shared with his verse (see above, chapter 2), and it proves disturbingly appropriate for his themes in Deaths Duell:
Wee have a winding sheete in our Mothers wombe, which growes with us from our conception, and wee come into the world, wound up in that winding sheet, for wee come to seeke a grave; And as prisoners discharg’d of actions may lye for fees; so when the wombe hath discharg’d us, yet we are bound to it by cordes of flesh, by such a string, as that wee cannot goe thence, nor stay there. We celebrate our owne funeralls with cryes, even at our birth. (ibid.: 233)
The informing notion, that birth and death are intricately connected, is commonplace, but Donne reanimates it with the details, a caul as winding sheet, an umbilical as a bond or fetter tying the newborn to the womb like a felon to his cell.
Donne had rehearsed some of the issues in what is now his most quoted prose work, his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and sever-all steps to my Sickness, first published in 1624, and evidently popular in his own day since it went through five seventeenth-century editions. Donne produces an experimental form: each of 23 sections describes a stage in a developing, life-threatening illness; responds to it emotionally and spiritually; and ends with a prayer fashioned to match the context. The schema is encouraging, a sort of in vita purgatorial experience that ends with the patient returned to life both chastened and spiritually cleansed. The relapse he finally fears is a moral, not a physical, one, ’a relapse into those sinnes, which I have truely repented, and thou hast fully pardoned’ (Donne 1975: 127). As in Deaths Duell, Donne’s practical theology leads him to generalize from his experience to that of his audience, so that they may the more vividly visualize their own demise and seek a saving faith. It is a mission that extends back to medieval sermons, though the tradition owes a recent debt to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a movement which had shaped Donne’s own early religious experience. The text has retained its resonance. The 17th meditation, which cautions that ’No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe’ and urges ’never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee’ (ibid.: 87) probably matches the song from Cymbeline as a consoling reading for modern funerals. Yet familiarity perhaps dulls the awareness of how challenging, both emotionally and intellectually, Donne’s prose really is. The critical part of the argument is carried by a puzzling analogy: ’if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde.’ In what sense may losing a tiny fragment be equivalent to losing a large portion? Presumably in the sense that both are losses. In the same way, any person’s death carries the implication of loss. The reader needs to work at Donne’s prose, and understanding it, closely, clearly, unambiguously, sometimes comes a long way behind feeling it more vaguely as comfort or counsel.
The first newspaper printed in English appeared in 1620, the same year that the first newspapers were printed in French. Both series were produced in Amsterdam, primarily for export, and their appearance reflected a Europe-wide concern with the international crises at the outset of the Thirty Years War. There had long been manuscript correspondence carrying financial, social and political news. Earlier non-serial newsbooks dealing with particular events had been intermittently printed in English since the 1580s. But the new genre — perhaps the only really new genre to emerge in the 1620s — was distinguished by an expectation of regular and frequent publication in print (Frank 1961: 1).
The first paper, usually termed the Corrant out of Italy, Germany, &c., was published by Pieter van den Keere at least 15 times between December 1620 and September 1621, though there may have been earlier issues that have not survived. As Joseph Frank observes in his classic history of the earliest English newspapers (on which this account substantially depends), its ’coverage of the Thirty Years War during this period left no large gaps, and it was this war that was the major stimulus to the growth of the newspaper in western Europe’ (1961: 3).
James’s government regarded this wide dissemination of news with concern, and persuaded the States General of the United Provinces to ban the export of corantos to Britain. However, shortly afterwards London-produced corantos appeared, largely based on foreign gazettes. Official hostility gave way to a subtler form of control, and publication continued under a government patent through the early and mid-1620s. Anxious, presumably, to retain this privilege, editors carefully eschewed English domestic news and explicit comment and interpretation of the course of the war, although the circulation of accounts of Protestant victories and Catholic atrocities gave support to the case for English participation in the continental land campaigns. Despite their tact and evasiveness — the Isle of Re expedition passed virtually unreported — in 1632 newspapers were banned and successfully suppressed by the Privy Council.
It would be difficult to claim any literary merit for these early publications. Not until the revival of the news periodical in the 1640s did authors and editors of wit, élan and guile emerge. In many ways, printed newspapers were less informative to their readers (and modern historians) than manuscript alternatives. But they were cheap: 2d, when a manuscript report cost from 6d to 3s. (Cust 1986: 64; Frank 1961: 12). The provision of manuscript reports by London agencies provided provincial England with detailed information, for example, about late Jacobean and early Caroline parliaments, and even insider gossip about Privy Council politics in a form that, in county society, trickled down to independent yeoman level. The manuscript newsletter shared with the political ballad and the rudimentary poems of state the responsibility for opening up the business of government to wider scrutiny and, more significantly, wider evaluation (Cust 1986). By 1626, Charles I appeared in the eyes of some gentry as irrevocably tainted by association with Buckingham. As Cust concludes, ’the widespread dissemination of a portrait [of Charles I] so much at odds with the contemporary ideal inevitably undermined the prestige of the crown and confidence in the status quo’ (ibid.: 75).
In terms of literary history, this national hunger for news explains the success of A Game at Chess and provides a context for Jonson’s depiction of the staple of news. But it also demonstrates the probably growing gap between the image of the state entertained more widely and that presented in an elite literary culture. That culture looked to the highest circles for protection and patronage, remaining always susceptible to easy suppression, to prosecution, to ruin — or, more, mundanely, to the withholding of preferment. Court poets, theatres under the patronage of the royal family, and publishers controlled by the Stationers’ Company had an interest in self-censorship which did not obtain among, for example, provincial MPs writing home to their constituency supporters about their parliamentary experiences and the shortcomings of the monarch and his creatures. Moreover, as Bacon had sardonically observed to Buckingham in 1620, ’nowadays there is no vulgar, but all statesmen’ (quoted Jardine and Stewart 1998: 446).
The deaths of James and Buckingham significantly shaped the cultural history of this period, though it was the Protestant disaster in continental Europe that animated propertied and educated Englishmen at the outset, raised anti-Catholic sentiment, rendered the Spanish Match odious in prospect and politically impossible, and paved the way for the disastrous wars with Spain and France. Patronage, flowing from the court, most conspicuously through the channel of the duke, supported a court culture of sorts, from which the most accomplished writers, Bacon, Donne and Jonson, evidently benefited. Others, such as Herrick and Carew, who would contribute so much to elite literary culture in the next decade, were already associated with that network and already active. But literary production reflected, too, a wider audience with a probably unprecedented interest in the affairs of state. James’s ideal of government as royal prerogative, conducted with an appropriate secrecy, proved unsustainable once wars required frequent recurrence to the parliamentary process necessary for raising taxation. Charles and Buckingham, on their return from Spain, had tentatively mounted the unbroken stallion of public opinion; they kept that saddle only briefly. As successive parliaments were called, consulted and dismissed, so a reading and theatre-going public came to value a literary experience that looked, or seemed to look, at the real world. Middleton is the paradigmatic writer of the 1620s.
On 2 March 1629, Charles, now personally and directly in control of the state without the mediating presence of Buckingham, dismissed parliament. He was still at war with two European superpowers, still, it would seem, unhappy in his marriage, still childless. A beleaguered ruler of a beleaguered realm, engaged in military conflicts he could not afford, alienated from a country increasingly critical of his policies in church as well as state, he evidently intended to rule for a little while without recourse to parliaments: his proclamation of 27 March, suppressing false rumours, made it clear that none was to meet imminently, but it proved in the event a renunciation of parliamentary government. That it did so until 1640 could scarcely have been anticipated. Nor, indeed, would a review of the writing of the 1620s have given much indication of the extraordinary cultural achievement, in literature as in the performance and visual arts, of what we now know as the personal rule of Charles I.