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  • Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England by Jennifer C. Vaught
  • Ivan Cañadas
Vaught, Jennifer C., Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012; hardback; pp. 208; 10 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9781409432081.

This engaging, well-researched study by Jennifer C. Vaught explores how early modern English literature developed in conjunction with festive culture, towards which writers like Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, Herrick, and Milton were diversely disposed. Four chapters allow Vaught to focus on the gradual appropriation of festive culture by the aristocratic-centred elite.

In Chapter 1, this process, manifested in literature as social conflict, is represented by discussion of Christopher Marlowe’s radical drama, which ‘evokes sympathy for socially and economically downtrodden and ethnically or racially victimized members of the community’ (p. 34). Vaught, thus, examines the shift from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In Vaught’s words, it is the excessively violent nature of ‘Barabbas’s acts of revenge [which] call attention to the ridiculousness of … popular stereotypes about Jews’ (p. 39). Whereas Vaught describes The Merchant of Venice as ‘a play with abundant, yet … unsatisfying feasting’ (p. 43), it is subsequent – eighteenth- and nineteenth-century – puppet versions of Elizabethan plays, such as Faustus, which merely ‘served a limited, conservative means of making money for English and European … theatre producers’ while barely providing ‘a distant reminder of subversive protest among the lower ranks’ (p. 55).

Chapter 2 concerns Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calendar, and explores Spenser’s efforts to gain approval for native, holiday traditions by dissociating them from Catholic feast days. Nationalist and sectarian sentiments are orchestrated in The Faerie Queene through Spenser’s construction of Redcrosse, who, initially lacking self-knowledge, discovers his identity as St George. As Vaught contends, the ‘procession of the Seven Deadly Sins’ in Book I, Canto iv, ‘offers … a subtle critique of the mistreatment of the disenfranchised poor in early modern England’ (p. 69); and, again, Spenser is attributed ‘qualified degrees of sympathy for the downtrodden populace’ (p. 75; emphasis added). [End Page 288]

Chapter 3 opens with discussion of two late-Elizabethan romantic comedies: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Vaught focuses on Sir Toby’s appropriation of ‘his holiday role … as Lord of Misrule … for conservative and normative, rhetorically violent purposes during his “brawl” with Malvolio’ (p. 102); while Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday ‘contains numerous carnivalesque motifs from disguises and inversions of rank, to the scapegoating of outsiders and Morris dancing’ (p. 95).

In addition, Chapter 3 also includes discussion of the shift from public to private conceptions of time, both through the removal of ‘celebratory practices … originally associated with Catholic feast-days’, and, literally, of time, as a material thing: ‘early modern timepieces, such as table clocks and pocket watches, many of which were expensive’ (p. 92). In The Winter’s Tale, however, cosmic time is also presented as a mystical alternative to empirical knowledge; and, thus, the play’s female figures – Paulina, the long-lost Perdita at her coming of age, and, of course, Hermione – triumph against ‘the burden of mortality that plague[s]’ the male aristocratic figures, Leontes and Polixenes, who are ‘both … consumed by anxieties about the futures of their aristocratic lineages’ (p. 112). Vaught situates The Winter’s Tale’s discussion of time in the context of the emergence of new paradigms, associated with the period’s nascent materialist culture and increasing individualism.

While Vaught’s reading of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean, festive-themed play of 1614, Bartholomew Fair does not contribute much which has not been said before about this particular play, its conclusion is excellent, also bringing the chapter to an end with commentary on ‘Justice Overdo’s invitation to the fairgoers … to a feast at his home’, which raises, again, the issue of private versus public space and time – and the triumph of the elite, which could command possession of such exclusive, private locales, analogous with the ‘luxurious timepieces owned by the wealthy’ (p. 129).

Arguably, the highlight of the study is Chapter 4 – which includes discussion of Milton’s Caroline masque, Comus...


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pp. 288-290
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