Andrew McRae. Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. x+250pp. ISBN 0 521 81495 2.

Tom Lockwood
University of Birmingham

Lockwood, Tom. "Review of Andrew McRae, Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 14.1-4<URL:>.

  1. Andrew McRae's Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State is much more than a companion to the online edition of Early Stuart Libels that he jointly edited with Alastair Bellany (, but much of what is richest and most suggestive in the book rests on the foundation provided by the online resource, and much, too, of what is most generous about the online publication shows strongly in McRae's monograph. Where Early Stuart Libels provides annotated texts of some 350 manuscript libels grouped helpfully by theme and chronology, Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State draws those materials into an argument that foregrounds particular crises that attract this kind of writing and (in McRae's words) shows 'at once how satire adapts to the political and cultural circumstances of these decades, and how in turn it informs contemporary discourse' (3). After an introduction that usefully surveys the theoretical and historiographical bases for the project, the first two parts of the book describe the personal and public politics of this largely manuscript culture in the first two decades of the seventeenth century; the third section, 'The Politics of Division', look forward through the 1630s towards the subject of the Epilogue, 'Early Stuart Satire and the Civil War'.

  2. Part I, 'Personal Politics', moves from the satires produced on the death of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, in 1612 to the dense network of libels on James's relationships with his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and the jubilant texts produced by his assassination in 1628. The story this material tells, as McRae recognises, is one informed by the 'assumption that the identity of the monarch, as well as those of his courtiers, might be fashioned and contested in libels' (82). Thus, to see James in 'The Five Senses' imagined as captivated and in effect blinded by Buckingham ('I humblie pray | That thou wilt take the Filme away | That keepes my Soveraignes eyes from vieweing | The thing that wilbe our undoeing'), is to recognise a specific set of literary and political pressures being given voice in the poem, the idea and image of the king being negotiated between opposing representations. It is also to recognise the force created in this poem by the stripping away of the insulation that generally separated the monarch from the satiric and libellous criticism that his courtiers may have attracted; the king's well-known anxiety about 'railing rymes and vaunting verse' are well born-out in McRae's analysis (75-82). This politics of the body runs right through the material in Part I: it is crammed with satirical bodies whipped, sliced, hanged, stabbed, misshapen, stinking, branded, purged, abused, and (sometimes) mourned.

  3. If some of the material covered in Part II, 'Public Politics', has been often and well-treated by others - A Game at Chess in particular - it is invigorating to see it refreshed in and by the specific contexts of the book. As he adds printed poetry, prose and drama to his admirable body of manuscript witnesses, McRae's focus expands here: its concern is as much the broader question of the nature of satire, and its relations to emerging political events and discourses, as it is the particular treatment of particular satirical texts. This central section of the book succeeds wonderfully, drawing out the way in which new kinds of writing articulate 'the ways - complex, hesitant, yet insistent - in which radical new notions of citizenship were forged in this period' (107); Chapter 4, 'Discourses of Discrimination', finely calibrates the shifting nomenclatures and ideologies of the 1620s, and measures these against the scriptural and classical precedents that contemporaries sought for them.

  4. Part III, 'The Politics of Division', takes two exemplary, polarised figures as its focus; Richard Corbett and William Prynne here stand as emblems of larger positions identified by McRae's chapter titles as 'royalism' and 'puritanism', both categories which, in his analysis, he is always able shiftingly to modify and make provisional. In Corbett's work, as it is presented by McRae, we see a move away from the binarism of satiric vice and virtue into a new mode of 'contestation between crystallizing political forces and ideologies' (179); the difficulties Corbett encountered in making panegyric a viable response for and to the 1630s are brought up against Jonson's earlier and contemporary deployment of the same mode, and against the similar dilemmas of Carew. McRae argues that earlier 'literary techniques of praise and blame had been transformed within the early Stuart political context' (186), and his treatment of Prynne and his contemporaries gives full weight to the discourse of blame in the period. McRae remains aware (as he argues the authors themselves were aware) of the ways in which 'the verbal dexterity exhibited in such texts underpins a sophisticated attention to the powers and trickeries of language itself' (192). This is historically informed criticism that nonetheless retains a keen eye for the habits and patterns of the words used by the writers it studies. By making available such an important body of primary materials for the study of politics, textuality and culture, Early Stuart Libels open-handedly extended an invitation to other researchers; Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State will offer those new to that field not only a learned and approachable guide, but, beyond that, a model of how these texts interact with one another and the richly described cultures within which McRae situates them.

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).