Mark Thornton Burnett. 1997. Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture. London: Macmillan. xii + 225 pp. ISBN 0333694570. HB.

Viviana Comensoli. 1996. 'Household Business': Domestic Plays of Early Modern England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. x + 238 pp, ISBN 0802007333228. HB.

  1. There's a quantifiable gulf between a manservant such as Adam in Shakespeare's As You Like It and Bosola in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. In between the pastoral of one play and the palpable viciousness of the other lies possibly the most distinctive sign of the shift in English society as depicted on the London stages. There had always been violence simmering beneath the thin veneer of civility but revenge tragedies have a wonderful way of making it boil over. Ideas of power and gender, violence and responses to it, authority and its limits, all appear on the stages between the later years of Elizabeth's reign and the closing of the theatres in 1642. The big question is the degree to which such matters reflect change or actively promote it.

  2. The contributions made by these two books are significant in that they take differing approaches to their material. Comensoli's is the more 'theatrical' of the two, Burnett's the more 'historical' though this does not detract from the merit of their findings. Comensoli's book paints an extremely interesting picture of those 'domestic' plays which looked at the reality behind official polemic regarding such institutions as family structures, marriage and infidelity. She describes how ideas about marriage were transformed at this time, citing non-theatrical evidence to show how these changes were mirrored offstage. Particularly amusing is the spectacle afforded by William Gouge, who, in his highly popular treatises Of Domesticall Duties (1622-33) admitted that whenever he instructed his parishioners in 'the doctrine of female submission and inferiority' he sensed a certain amount of 'squirming' and 'murmuring' on the part of the women in the audience.

  3. With notably few exceptions, the plays performed on the Elizabethan and early Stuart stages were written by men, but also by men not immune to changes around them. Their audiences included women, so would not such women respond as Gouge's parishioners did to any depictions of shrews being truly tamed? The suggestion is of course based on a current notion of a politicisation of gender that might not have existed in the early seventeenth century but Comensoli provides enough theatrical evidence to suggest that it did. That said, it is difficult to assert that there is a palpable sense of resistance, that plays actively challenged the status quo other than indirectly. Enough examples exist, however, to suggest that some of our conceptions of a patriarchal society are not quite as solidly founded as others. Comensoli cites Ingelend's The Disobedient Child (c.1569) which alerts the viewer to the vicissitudes of marriage, with the profligate prodigal returning home having been forced onto the streets by his shrewish wife to sell sticks. The father sends him back to his wife. Just as revealing is The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (c.1607) in which the protagonist's bigamy, his abandonment to a profligate life, and his chosen wife's suicide are portrayed as the tragic consequences of enforcement.

  4. Burnett takes a more historical approach in writing a fascinating account of apprentices and their lives. At a time when few households employ servants Burnett illustrates the significant position held by those who did fulfil this key role in early modern England. Perhaps the only quibble I would have with the approach he takes is the central position given in the text to notions of power, authority and, especially, the 'anxiety' over its distribution. Jonathan Goldberg's James I and the Politics of Literature (1983) championed a mode of literary interpretation on the nexus of authority in Renaissance studies, so it is perhaps a little worrying to see that approach still being followed sixteen years later. The activities of apprentices were critical in the public demonstration of antipathy towards Gondomar, Lambe and Buckingham in the 1620s but does that mean onlookers would have automatically translated that protest into a concern with subversion? Or are we putting words into Jacobean mouths? The stages were certainly producing material which, as Martin Butler has written, did not simply reflect history, but helped to make it. In the ongoing process of reshaping the language of theatre studies these two volumes have much to commend them.

  5. Comensoli's book could have a bit more history, Burnett's a bit more theatre but collectively they are a boon for social historians and literary scholars alike.
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Contents © Copyright Tristan Marshall 1999.
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Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 13 December 1999.