Politics Of Discourse; The Literature and History Of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zucker, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987
No question these days in modern European democratic societies literature, high literature anyway, and politics do not mix, except by accident. This however has not always been true, and as the academic book under review here, Politics of Discourse, testifies to in the early modern democratic period the fit between the two was far tighter than the modern mind could imagine. And nowhere was this combination more prevalent that in 17th century England, from the immediate pre-revolutionary period through to the late restoration period. The specialized essays that make up this volume give a pretty clear impression that, at least at the level of “high culture” and courtier/bourgeois society, one could not be knowledgeable about the affairs of the day without reading the polemics, parables, and panegyrics of such luminaries as Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Carew, and John Dryden.
Of course the 17th century in England was the high point, or rather one of the high points, in the struggle over the role of religion in public life from such questions as toleration, an established state church, the nature of worship and liturgy, religious qualifications for public office, and the great internal and foreign policy struggles between international Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. So public men, literary sorts or not, had be aware of the stakes involved when they went about the business of polemicizing for their views. No question that given the very undemocratic nature of monarchical society under James I and Charles I (and the later Charles II and James II) that one had to couch their polemics for their positions in oblique terms. This is, after all, the great age of the parable, the masque, and the ethereal epic poem. Moreover, democratic stirrings or not, religious sentiment in public and private life at both the patrician and plebeian cultural levels drove all literary and political conversation, especially the manic drive to prove one’s point by reference to Scripture. Still this period produced some of the masterworks of English literature, none better than John Milton’s defense of Republican England under Cromwell, in Paradise Lost.
That said this book is not for those who are not at least somewhat familiar with the history of 17th century English, especially some knowledge of the issues around the titanic struggles in mid-century in the revolutionary period, the Puritan Revolution proper. With that in mind there are a few outstanding essay here worthy of taking the time to read: a great exposition on the Scottish historical sources that Shakespeare may, or may not, have been familiar with when creating his saga on monarchical legitimacy in Macbeth; an interesting study of a literary patroness, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, to detail the audience that any literary figure needed to address their works to; a generally overlooked subject during this period, that of a courtier literary figure and his defense of the monarchy, Thomas Carew; the trials, tribulations and twists of a literary politician trying to read which way the wind was blowing in creating his works, Andrew Marvell; the usages of the fable in the Restoration period to telegraph dissent (a literary devise still necessarily in use today, unfortunately); and, lastly, a couple of great essays on the great defender of the English revolution and of its republican virtues, John Milton.
Those last essays were my reason for reading this volume, especially the essay on the politics of Paradise Lost by Mary Ann Radzinowicz, featuring some ideas that the great British Marxist historian and Milton devotee Christopher Hill alerted us to in an earlier time, but the others mentioned deserve a reading as well.