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Politics and Political Culture in the Court Masque.

Politics and Political Culture in the Court Masque, by James Knowles. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. viii + 288. Hardcover. $85.00. E-book. $64.99

In Politics and Political Culture in the Court Masque, James Knowles argues that the masque form is engaged with a broader English political culture beyond the Stuart court and, indeed, is a site for the articulation and transformation of political discourse in seventeenth-century England. Central to this analysis, we're told, are "the varied ways in which political ideas and practices are represented, communicated, and debated across society," and Knowles's aim is to demonstrate how masques could act as contested sites for articulating "difference and even... dissent, rather than replicating royal ideology or rehearsing factional powerplay" (1). As an approach to a form which has a place in literary, theatrical and historical scholarship and which is best approached from an interdisciplinary perspective, this makes good sense. This book is deeply concerned with cultures of libel, political critique, and the place in these discourses of masquing and poetry. In particular, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the printed text of the masque in textual scholarship and book history.

Knowles, long a masque expert, structures his argument around a series of moments of courtly crisis and their associated masque performances. This means that, though the Jonsonian masque figures prominently, the book is not constrained to any single author. Knowles begins with Jonson's Love Restored (1612), connecting it to debates over the royal finances and anti-Scots sentiment as a means of reading the failure of the Great Contract, intended by Robert Cecil to reform the monarch's financial situation. Other crises or controversies in the life of the court are then dealt with. Moving on from the masques for the marriage of Frances Howard and Robert Carr, the heart of the book deals with the masques staged during the years of crisis of the early 1620s, including the Palatinate crisis, Prince Charles's emergence as a force in the court, and the controversies clustering around George Villiers, the high-flying Duke of Buckingham. In particular, Knowles argues for the centrality of Gypsies Metamorphosed (1624), commissioned by and starring Villiers, as a masque which not only acknowledges but begins to integrate and contest non-courtly, external forms. The book concludes with James Shirley's Triumph of Peace (1634), given by the Inns of Court, and Knowles argues that, "[d]eprived of the institutional arena of debate that might have been provided by Parliament, a whole range of political actions and expressions were displaced into other political and cultural for a" (173).

These central chapters on early 1620s libels, masquing and a growing culture of news are particularly significant. Knowles's emphasis on the textual or print history of the masque is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact, reception and cultural uses of masques in and beyond court performance. In his study of the dissemination and circulation of printed masque texts, Knowles traces their ownership, physical presentation and, crucially, the ways in which they are collected, anthologized or excerpted to create new meanings from existing printed texts. In doing so, he reveals new and valuable ways of reading the present moment and long afterlives of these texts.

Knowles attributes the impossibility of separating the masque of the early 1620s from "other texts, genres and occasions" to the pressures of the Palatinate Crisis (106). In doing so, he draws the fascinating inference that the serial crises of these years and the emerging culture of news that is so important to Jonson's News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1621), act as something akin to a drawn-out moment of cultural compression, in which genres, forms and modes become embraided, like individual trees compressed into coal under geological pressure. The definition of what constitutes "the political," however, is not always transparent or unproblematic. At times, towards the beginning of the book, the case for situating the masque inside discourses of national politics beyond the court is perhaps a little laboured and backfires slightly when it leads to arguing against Jonathan Goldberg's classic New Historicist analysis of 1983, so very much of its time and so productive in that moment, but now very much a straw man. In addition, as is clear from the list above, the choice of case studies primarily concerns male protagonists (Robert Cecil, James VI and I, Charles I, and George Villiers) and this creates a specific narrative of masquing history. Knowles certainly acknowledges the courts of the two early Stuart consorts, Anna of Denmark and Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria's interventions are indeed identified in a footnote as "political" (252, n. 6) but instead of integrating confessional and gender politics into the broader analysis of "the political," they are defined as "factional" while, in contrast, the ructions over the rise of Villiers are categorised as "political." Masque studies would benefit from a narrative which integrated the performances of the various Stuart courts, including those of its women. That said, the case-study structure has many benefits; it allows Knowles to range over the early seventeenth-century masque, generating valuable and fresh insights into the lack of structural homogeneity in the "Jonsonian" masque, and revealing the way in which the early 1630s sees "a strategic recreation of an earlier masquing culture rather than creative exhaustion" (174).

This is a valuable book. As we'd expect from James Knowles, it rests on exemplary scholarship and it is particularly productive in generating avenues for future research. Knowles's important work on book history and the circulation and materiality of masque texts strongly suggests that more research is needed into how these printed texts circulated beyond England. Given that these performances were aimed at ambassadors and the courts they served, it would be greatly beneficial to know more about how these texts were received, collected, annotated and anthologized in continental Europe.

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Author:Mcmanus, Clare
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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