David Bevington and Peter Holbrook, eds. The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xiv+336pp. ISBN 0 521 59436 7 Cloth.
Scott Nixon
The Queen's College, Oxford

Nixon, Scott. "Review of The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 14.1-5 <URL:

  1. It is not surprising that the masque has become the focus of much scholarly attention in the past two decades. This is, after all, a period when New Historicism has dominated literary criticism, and the masque was the most overtly political of all Stuart cultural forms. However, much of the commentary has been of a remarkably homogeneous character, regarding the masque as concerned almost exclusively with the enunciation and celebration of monarchical power. Insofar as voices of criticism have been identified in some texts, they have usually been regarded as contained and hence defused. The one significant exception has been Milton's Ludlow masque, which is commonly described as a puritan response to the genre, taking up its aesthetic in order to subvert its politics.

  2. The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque consists of a series of articles that take up, but move beyond, this traditional approach. A unifying theme is the need to present and accommodate a more complex account of court politics, which were not univocal in nature, but rather depended on a network of constantly shifting allegiances between factions, which could be based as much on personality as ideology. The contributors include two of the most influential commentators on the masque, Stephen Orgel and Martin Butler, who both take into account this element of factional diversity in building upon their previous scholarship. Butler, for example, whose article sets out a theoretical basis for the other studies in the collection, regards the masque as not simply affirming a rigid hierarchical structure, but actually playing a role in the political process: "James's authority was never an uncontested monopoly but was constantly in balance, constantly being renegotiated with figures who had their own advisors, clients and followers, and who exerted significant sovereign pressures of their own" (27). Key figures in this regard are Queen Anne and Prince Henry, and particularly valuable re-readings of The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), The Masque of Blackness (1605), The Masque of Queens (1609), and Oberon, the Fairy Prince (1611) are offered by Butler, Peter Holbrook, Tom Bishop, and Leeds Barroll.

  3. Further contexts for the Jacobean masque are provided in articles by Paul Hammer on Essex's role in the Accession Day celebrations of 1595, and by Nancy Wright on the public shows of the London companies, particularly the Merchant Tailors. Moreover, David Bevington argues that The Tempest reformulated the court masque for the public theatre in order to cater to a paying audience interested in what a court wedding masque would look like. He develops this point by a detailed comparison of the structure of Shakespeare's masque with the three entertainments written by Campion, Chapman and Beaumont to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine.

  4. In addition, the collection of articles moves beyond a narrow focus on literary criticism to examine the integral importance of matters such as costume (Stephen Orgel), music (David Lindley), and choreography (Barbara Ravelhofer) to the overall effect of the masque. The fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence does make such enquiries hazardous, but the arguments presented are carefully constructed and open up the way for further research. The value of this mode of enquiry is apparent in the range of plates and musical settings provided by these three articles.

  5. Given the diversity of politics identified in Jacobean masques, it is somewhat disappointing that the study concludes with the traditional view of the Caroline masque as one-dimensional in nature. While Thomas Carew's Coelum Britannicum is described as a royalist text, Milton's Comus is viewed as puritan, each seen as aligning with a particular ideological camp in the “culture wars” (Lewalski, 296) that led to the conflict of the following decade. Lewalski essentially follows David Norbrook in this regard, describing Milton in Arcades and Comus as undertaking “to reform the court genres” (297) in order to pursue a “quite radical, political agenda” (305). It might be asked why there was a need to reform a genre which, as the essays in the collection admirably demonstrate, was perfectly capable of expressing and balancing a range of divergent political views. The response to this is normally to regard Milton as reaching back to Jonson's model, from which the Caroline writers had diverged. But this requires the critic to downplay the obvious elements of continuity between Jacobean and Caroline masques (most significantly embodied in Inigo Jones himself, whose importance is somewhat downplayed in this volume). Lewalski's approach glosses over the similarities between Comus and contemporary entertainments, and risks marginalizing elements of the former that do not support its characterization as an oppositional text. The perceptions that are gained from this book with regard to the Jacobean masques could profitably be applied to a new examination of their Caroline counterparts.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).