Mark Thornton Burnett. Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture: Authority and Obedience. Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan and St Martin's P, 1997. 225pp. ISBN 0 312 17592 2.
Julie H. Kim
Northeastern Illinois University

Kim, Julie H. "Review of Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 101-4<URL:

  1. Mark Thornton Burnett's Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture: Authority and Obedience is an impressive work which sifts through a wealth of material, and is particularly enlightening and thorough in its treatment of archival evidence. Burnett's objectives for this work are clear, since he lays out his argument so concisely in the short introduction. In the space of a few pages, he reviews for his readers the many and sometimes conflicting definitions of the nebulous term "servants," outlines each of his five chapters, gives rationales for their breakdowns, articulates a critical methodology, and -- in the process of doing the latter -- defends New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. Burnett argues in this book that "the ways in which servants are represented in English Renaissance drama and culture articulate some of the period's deepest sensitivities and aspirations, point to attempts to understand and control the changes that were challenging the contemporary order, and disclose fears of political instability, disorder and social frustration and unrest" (5). He is largely successful in making this argument, thanks mostly to his careful treatment of -- as well as the range and volume of -- the texts explored, addressing canonical plays (King Lear and Othello, for instance) and recuperating marginalized voices (for example, in reproducing documents of abused serving maids). While his work is ultimately less literary analysis than cultural criticism, the arguments he advances about what the master-servant relations reveal about early modern English society's attitudes toward class, power, and sexuality make this work incisive and useful to students of the Renaissance.

  2. The strongest sections are probably Chapter 1: "Apprenticeship and Society" and Chapter 4: "Women, Patriarchy and Service." His point, in Chapter 1, that "possibilities for resistance are broached in representative plays and pamphlets of apprentices who declare a dissatisfaction with the exercise of power through murmurs, violence or open revolt" (9) is clearly made and well-supported with documents both of "popular" and "high" culture. Perhaps most impressive, however, might be Chapter 4, the only chapter addressing women servants. Here, Burnett concedes that representations of women in service do not open up as explicitly the "spaces within which subordinate voices could question institutionalized authorities" (138-9); instead, he aims to recover "the maidservant's voice more fully" and show her both as "the unwitting butt of reductive patriarchal attitudes" and also attempting to empower herself in "protesting against mistreatment" (120). This chapter makes use of a wide range of evidence including court documents about abused serving maids, biographies and diaries of employers, and letters of recommendations to show the plight of women in service. Then, through analysis of Renaissance drama such as Much Ado about Nothing and Othello, he demonstrates that it is often through dialogues between mistresses and maidservants that we are afforded "glimpses of a more interrogative stance" toward patriarchy and "in such a way as to confront contemporary behavioural strictures" (139).

  3. If Chapter 4 is fullest in producing evidence, both archival and dramatic, Chapter 2: "Crafts and Trades" is the least supported of the five chapters. Here, a short discussion centering on the depictions of the relationships between a journeyman and his employer concentrates only on the drama of Thomas Dekker and the prose fiction and ballads of Thomas Deloney. Conversely, Chapter 3: "Carnival, the Trickster and the Male Domestic Servant" might suffer from too wide a scope. This chapter addresses a hodgepodge of figures, and it is difficult, for instance, to see King Lear's Kent as a "clever trickster" (83) or to understand how either he or As You Like It's Adam fits into this rather amorphous grouping of "Carnival, the Trickster and the Male Domestic Servant."

  4. Perhaps Chapter 5: "The Noble Household" most clearly shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of the work. As with Chapters 1 and 4, this final section makes good cultural materialist critiques of master-servant relations, this time focusing on stewards and other "gentlemen" servants at the top of the hierarchy of household government. Yet it is ultimately dissatisfying as literary analysis. A central text discussed is Webster's Duchess of Malfi, in which the character of Antonio is presented more positively and the figure of Bosola is much more complex than as portrayed by Burnett. The argument that "a chief officer's desire for his mistress posed the greatest threat to status alignments and social boundaries" (169) could benefit from a deeper analysis of the threat felt by Ferdinand and the Cardinal by Antonio's relationship with the duchess; and the figure of melancholy scholar Bosola deserves further exploration in a work which examines the uncomfortable power-relations between masters and (rebellious) servants. In Burnett's work, literary texts are presented to support a cultural critique rather than studied as literature. Therefore, he weaves in and out of numerous texts (and a work can appear in many different contexts, in support of various points), but he does not provide very full analyses of these texts.

  5. Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture: Authority and Obedience takes its cue from Jonathan Dollimore and is successful in the ideological objective to "prioritize not so much the master's voice as the servant's, to concentrate on the margins of literary discourse rather than the centre, and to be alive less to the exercise of power than to expressions of resistance" (qtd. 7). Finally, while Burnett may not concentrate as heavily on English Renaissance drama, his treatment of masters and servants in early modern British culture is, in fact, quite masterful.

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