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The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher.

Gordon McMullan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. xiii + 338 pp. $35.

Eulogized in the 1647 Folio and throughout the Restoration as Jonson and Shakespeare's equal, John Fletcher went into a rapid critical eclipse at the close of the seventeenth century, cast as the expendable Lepidus of this early modern triumvirate. Gordon McMullan's splendid study, The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher, seeks to redress this inequity. In six chapters, each a substantial monograph on an aspect of Fletcher's work or milieu, McMullan makes a compelling case for our re-immersion in the fifty-four plays Fletcher wrote, either solo or in collaboration with Massinger, Beaumont, Shakespeare, Field, and even Rowley. While Fletcher's profoundly collaborative drama has recently had its defenders -- the scholarship of Robert Markley, Philip J. Finkelpearl, and Jeffrey A. Masten, published since 1988, has done much to promote his (and Beaumont's) plays -- McMullan's is by far the most comprehensive account, not only of a major playwright but of his engagements with concerns that are now at the forefront of Renaissance studies.

In lieu of the illustrative anecdote that typically ushers in the new historicist reading, McMullan begins The Politics of Unease with an extended narrative of the Fletcher family's staunch ecclesiastical ties over several generations to conformable Protestantism and, through his father's appointment in 1581 to the post of chaplain-in-ordinary, to Queen Elizabeth. Fletcher's own patronage ties were to the fifth earl and countess of Huntingdon, and thus to "the country-based, feminocentric, uncourtly environment cultivated by the Huntingdons at Ashby" (35). McMullan writes intelligently of "the modulation of shared interests" (xii) between Fletcher and his longstanding patrons, interests that converged in certain arenas while remaining independent in others. Fletcher's plays take informed and balanced positions, for example, in responding to the Midlands Revolt of 1607, in which the earl, badgered by the Privy Council, played a reluctant part in suppressing the levellers. His anatomy of gender relations, perhaps the most radical dimension of Fletcher's work, would likewise have suited the attitudes of the forceful fifth countess. In the case of British colonialism in Virginia, however, the earl of Huntingdon was a partisan supporter of the struggling plantations, while Fletcher's The Island Princess (1619-1621) and The Sea Voyage (1622) explore "the utopian dreams, the material justifications, and the theological premises for colonization, and in both plays [he] provides a memorably uneasy account of the Jacobean urge for discovery" (199). The portrait of Fletcher's politics that emerges from McMullan's study is convincingly complex. His historical analysis ratifies Markley's perception that the royalists' nostalgic appropriation of Fletcherian drama to their cause in the 1640s was based on a misconstruction of his political allegiances.

In a particularly interesting chapter, McMullan reports on the inadequacy of our current critical and theoretical understanding of collaboration in the Renaissance theater. Like Jeffrey Masten, McMullan pays a refreshing tribute to the contribution G. E. Bentley's The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642 (Priceton, 1971) made in mapping out the dramatic practice of early modern playwrights. The implications of Bentley's research -- "that active collaboration was the norm of Jacobean theater" (142) -- have not yet been absorbed, this chapter argues, because scholars continue to privilege the single, autonomous author invented by Ben Jonson in his classic Workes. Following Jack Stillinger, McMullan proposes a more expansive working definition of collaborators, that would include not only writers, editors, printers, and translators " `acting together or in succession'" (155), but would also allow for diachronic collaborations "with the dead," as when, for instance, Fletcher "returned to material shelved years earlier, often well after the death of his then co-author [Beaumont or Shakespeare], in order to produce a new play from the fragments" (135). McMullan's own theorizing here is professedly preliminary, and he still holds to the editorial custom of allocating "shares" of a collaboratively-written play to its various sources, despite what would seem to be the logic of his own argument and the near futility of a practice that amounts to sponsoring editorially-adjudicated custody battles over texts produced so as to minimize precisely those features on which ascriptions of authorship could be made.

McMullan's book is learned, massively-researched, and beautifully written, a model of historicist criticism. The Politics of Unease should also kindle textual scholars' interest in editing some of the less well known of Fletcher's plays (The Woman's Prize, say, or The Wild Goose Chase), which need to be made available in editions more affordable than either The Revels Plays or the current Cambridge edition being published under the general editorship of Fredson Bowers.
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Author:Brady, Jennifer
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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