Brief Review


The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes, by Leah S. Marcus, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 319 pages, $29.00.

The Puritans generally get bad reviews in English classes, as they do most places. They weren't much fun and, more particularly, they closed England's theaters and brought the great age of English drama to a crashing end.

Behind the simple good guys/bad guys, art-versus-religion story, however, is a more complicated history in which good guys are hard to find. Yes, the Puritans in England and Presbyterians in Scotland opposed many traditional folkways—maypoles, morris dances, even Christmas festivities—as remnants of paganism. But kings James I and Charles I tried to use these various forms of "public mirth" to suppress middle-class aspirations and bend individualistic Calvinism into an Anglicanism that served the crown. As Leah Marcus, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tells the story through the plays and poetry of the time, the Puritans were more sinned against than sinning.

In 1618, James I issued The Book of Sports, a proclamation that gave an official character to the old holiday customs. The book, writes Marcus, "sought to contain festival by keeping it within the bounds of state religion. Papists who refused to convert were to be barred from participation in all the old pastimes. The 'freedom to be merry' was a privilege available only to faithful adherents of the English church."

Indeed, royal power and privilege were threatened by the erosion of tradition that came with the rise of a mercantile, increasingly urban, and generally Puritan middle class. Mocked relentlessly by conservative playwright Ben Jonson, whose work is amply represented in The Politics of Mirth, these uppity souls set little store by the costly pageants and court entertainments they were expected to finance.

Predictably, King James saw the commercial classes as greedy and crass. Like many a modern pol, he decried London's building boom and tried, in 1616, to restrict it: "And for the decrease of new Buildings heere, I would haue the builders restrained, and committed to prison; and if the builders cannot be found, then the workemen to be imprisoned; and not this onely, but likewise the buildings to bee cast downe."

He ordered all gentry and nobility whose business didn't require their presence in London to return to the country "to maintaine Hospitalitie amongst their neighbors"—to throw continuous parties in the traditional style rather than occupy themselves with the grubby business of earning a living or pursuing individual salvation. Is it any wonder the Puritans rebelled, not only against the monarchy but also against the customs it foisted on an unwilling populace?

The one free spirit represented in The Politics of Mirth is John Milton, a Puritan but a fiercely individualistic one who served conscience above king or (later) commonwealth. In his masque Comus, Milton neither condemns nor exalts traditional revelry. Rather, in this short allegorical drama, he scores the abuse of power that underlies royal enforcement of public mirth. "Advocates of the Book of Sports liked to portray political obedience as a form of liberty," writes Marcus. "But in Milton, what may appear to be liberty—a free choice of pleasure—turns out to be base submission."

Comus is an enchanter, whose invitations to play disguise intentions to enslave. Comus tempts his captive Lady to drink from his cup, chastising her for her pride and employing the appeal to nature and order often expressed by Anglican traditionalists. For them, writes Marcus, "it is precisely this holiday abandonment of one's separate identity and of spiritual experience conceived as a personal quest for righteousness, which brings down divine blessings upon all and enriches and restores the community."

Ritual and tradition are far more powerful—and valuable—than most modernists choose to admit. And, although Marcus does not include them, some playwrights of the period did recognize the possibility of adapting folkways to celebrate, rather than control, the individualism and striving of the new capitalist class.

In The Shoemaker's Holiday, for example, Thomas Dekker not only made a shoemaker his hero but lovingly chronicled his rise to wealth and the festivities that accompanied his inauguration as Lord Mayor of London. That neither kings nor Puritans would grant the shoemakers real freedom to be merry is the tragedy of The Politics of Mirth.