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Vaught, Jennifer C. Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England
by Shannon Miller

Vaught, Jennifer C.  Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England.  Farnham:  Ashgate.  2012.  xi + 195 pp.  ISBN 978-1-4094-3208-1.  £55 hardback.

Jennifer C. Vaught’s Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England seeks to contribute to the substantive body of criticism on carnival practices and carnivalesque imagery in the early modern period.  The book effectively illustrates that early modern literature actively engaged with carnival activities and motifs in wide-ranging readings of plays by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Comus, and Herrick’s Hesperides, and the author attempts to distinguish her work from the rich scholarship on carnival practices by focusing on “native English festivities” (2).  But the book’s four chapters are weakened by a lack of precision in the author’s terminology and a method of argumentation that privileges accumulation over focused argument.  Further, forays into republicanism and the material representation of time in early modern culture are intriguing, but not fully integrated into a larger thesis.  For a reader looking for an extensive bibliography on carnival and literature in early modern England and wide-ranging observations on a series of texts, this book could be a useful resource.  A reader looking for a focused and original view on carnival in the period will likely be disappointed.

The introduction attempts to differentiate this book from previous studies by Mikhail Bakhtin, C.L. Barber, François Laroque, and Michael Bristol by focusing on the distinction, and interplay, between elite and folk or popular festivities.  The author argues that Carnival and Literature in Early Modern Literature ”challenges more restrictive, binary understandings of carnival as either authoritarian suppressions of popular, rebellious energies by those at the top of the social hierarchy or as grassroots movements tied to social protest and liberation of the folk and disempowered groups” (8).  Vaught describes her approach in the monograph as a “middle course” between these binary views (8).  Yet her methodology remains significantly underdefined in the introduction and throughout the monograph:  for example, the author’s stated “folkloric approach” is never explained (20).  The book’s introduction also needed to achieve a better balance of footnotes to original prose; the 80% of notes on individual pages compete awkwardly with the 20% of Vaught’s own writing (see pages 1-7).  While readers will appreciate the detailed literature review contained within the notes, it would have been more helpful if the author’s engagements with other critics had occurred in the body of her introduction; the clarification of her own work’s parallels with and differences from other work in the field is not something to be relegated to over-crowded notes. 

The stated, and promising, focus on elite and folk or popular festivities dissipates when the book engages the literary texts at the center of Chapter 1, “Grotesque Imperialists, Alien Scapegoats, and Feasting in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice”.  This is unfortunate since specific references to such events are often the most interesting moments in her discussion of the plays; as Vaught rightly argues, carnivalesque practices often produced scapegoats or directed extensive violence on groups such as prostitutes (as in Shrove Tuesday celebrations) and Jews.  These observations lead her to focus on the theme of outsiders within these plays, an approach that provides some unity to a chapter attempting to discuss three quite rich plays.  Yet instead of focusing on “native English festivities,” the chapter dilutes its energies by applying Bakhtin’s definitions of the carnivalesque to the three plays rather than engaging popular festivities to produce fresh readings.  Some of these applications can be convincing, but others over generalise.  For example, are all moments of class slippage carnivalesque, as her reading of Dr. Faustus suggests on page 27-30?  Vaught also follows Jean-Christophe Agnew’s insightful work on the carnival, topsy-turvy nature of the marketplace in early modern Europe, an established point of the scholarship that Vaught links to cannibalism:  as she points out, “carnival” means “carne-vale,” which translates “farewell to the flesh” (4).  She deploys this to produce an intriguing reading of Barabas’ boiling as a carnivalesque act by a community consuming his flesh (41).  But generally, the style of argumentation tends toward accumulation; the chapter gathers a wide range of more and less convincing examples of the carnivalesque, but the examples are not drawn together into a specific argument.  I was also disappointed to see lost opportunities in the discussion of The Merchant of Venice, where moments of carnival, masquerading, and resulting social and domestic chaos could have been analyzed in a sustained way.  These scenes in the play would have provided more productive sites to trace carnivalesque festivals than her discussion of vaguely defined “fairytale”-like sequences in The Merchant of Venice (see p. 44).  At these moments, the carnivalesque designates so many supposedly carnival practices that the term becomes un-usefully broad. 

The first chapter also returns to the connection between republican values and carnival practices and events asserted within the introduction.  While I find the possibility of interweaving of these two discourses fascinating, the author has left “republican values” too undefined in this and most of the subsequent chapters.  She will argue that Marlowe is upholding republican values because he allows lower-class characters time on the stage (27-30).  And yet, the rich history of republican thought, which critics like David Norbrook have explored extensively, is not engaged within these discussions.  The effect is that the term can mean almost anything associated with class fluidity or destabilization.  A more sympathetic representation of the lower classes might speak to a writer’s sympathy for the populace, but that is not equivalent to valuing the structure of representative government at the heart of republican thought.  

This absence of precision, now in terms of evidence, also weakens Vaught’s  suggestive coda to the chapter.  The author asserts that republican values present in early modern carnival practices become appropriated by elite groups in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  While a potentially fascinating argument, her theory about post-Renaissance puppet performances rests on assumptions rather than evidence:  “The existence of these puppet plays most likely based upon Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in Germany, where dramatic customs were largely shaped by touring English companies from the seventeenth century onward, add [sic] to the probability that puppet show versions of Marlowe’s play were performed then in England and Ireland as well” (53; my emphasis).  Without successfully having established that Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays illustrate “republican and egalitarian” visions, the author cannot effectively support this intriguing argument about the plays’ production history through more “popular festive elements” as puppetry (55).  Further, her argument rests on “the probability” that puppet shows of Marlowe’s plays existed, but not on actual theater history.   

In Chapter 2, “Protestant Spiritualism, English Nationalism, and Holiday Festivity in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar and The Faerie Queene,” more engagement with specific festival practices provides an intriguing perspective on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.  By beginning with the Shepheardes Calendar, Vaught quickly establishes that “Spenser displays fondness for native customs tied to religious holidays once they are situated in a Protestant context” (59).  While more attention to the Shepheardes Calendar might have solidified aspects of her argument, her association of masque sequences in the House of Pride or the House of Busirane to pageantry casts these sequences in a potentially new light.  The author suggests links between the House of Pride and “festive, spectacular, and performative traditions of religious and civic pagentry” (63), even those taking place within Elizabeth’s court.  Yet how are we to read these “carnivalesque” practices in the House of Pride?  Is this a topsy-turvy scene, or a deadly serious one?  And what kind of pressure does this put on the portrait of Queen Elizabeth, now aligned with Lucifera (66)?  The author describes the dragon Red Crosse Knight fights as “carnivalesque,” and she argues his portrait is shaped by “Old Snap the Dragon” from St. George pageantry and mummer’s plays (72; 73).  This argument explicitly engages elite and popular forms of festivity, one of the book’s potential contributions to the scholarship.  But the examples are not convincing enough to shift the reader away from the apocalyptic seriousness of this episode.  Perhaps more engagement with texts that operate on a comic level while conveying a spiritually elevated message would have made this specific argument more convincing.  I like the idea of introducing more humor into Spenser’s epic, but I needed to be convinced. 

Further, these readings seem unable to produce a consistent reading of Spenser.  The author does acknowledge that Spenser’s engagement of these practices is “ideologically diverse” (90):  finding complexity in Spenser’s treatment of colonial practice or representations of nationalism has produced exciting Spenser scholarship.  Nonetheless, such “ideological divers[ity]” works against a focused chapter.  Sometimes the chapter’s readings suggest a suspicion of the populace, as in the book’s engagement of Maleger sequence (78), while the negative portraits of Envy, Wrath, and Mammon are viewed as upholding republican values (67, 76).

The chapter also engages “folktales” in Book 2 as well as a reading of the Book 5 “carnivalesque episode” in which Britomart rescues Artegall (77, 86).  This range of ways to discuss “carnival” dilutes the chapter’s focus, which is at its best when considering how Spenser takes up “festive rituals” as in Book 6 (87).  The author’s reading of the parody of such festivals in the Serena and the cannibals episode is intriguing, yet she choses to ignore an ideal example of such English festivals:  the May-day pole resonances in the Book 6 Colin Clout sequence might well have linked many of her other observations with English and Irish festive traditions, a stated goal of her chapter.

 Chapter 3, “Carnival, Economics, and Social Mobility in Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair,” returns to Chapter 1’s method of exploring a range of texts.   The reading of Dekker integrates him extensively with English festivities, as the central action of the play revolves around Shrove Tuesday activities, and many of Vaught’s links to other carnival-like practices in the Shoemaker’s Holiday are compelling.  While the republicanism she argues for in the play seems undefined, the prominence of social mobility is indisputable.  Her transition into a much shorter treatment of Twelfth Night is more problematic.  Here, she argues for the “potentially conservative and violent underbelly of literary and cultural celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany” in Sir Toby Belch’s treatment of Malvolio (100).  While complete consistency in a single author’s oeuvre is neither expected nor is a sign of nuanced criticism, the divergence between the reading of Shakespeare’s conservatism on class in Twelfth Night and his supposed sensitivity to outsiders and class status in of Merchant of Venice becomes jarring.  When the author moves to The Winter’s Tale in the chapter’s next section, the nostalgia for older forms of pastoral festivity that she sees as characterizing the play also stands in striking contrast to her reading of Twelfth Night.  Her reading focuses on the role of time throughout the play that, according to the author, links it to nostalgia for festivals and by-gone pastoral practices.  The section on time-pieces in Renaissance England and Europe is fascinating (113-115), but this discussion of material culture detracts from a focused argument about carnival practices.  Consequently, the author’s broader claim about “nostalgia and melancholy [for] the cultural loss of rural temporal markers” adds to scholarship on The Winter’s Tale but feels out of place within this chapter (115).  The final segment on Bartholomew Fair treads well-worn critical analyses of this play’s engagement with a changing economic world.  This play actively engages a range of English festival traditions, but Vaught’s reading of the play as “underscor[ing] the importance of republican liberty” (120) ignores the wide-ranging satire that marks both this play and much of Jonson’s work.  Yes, the play “highlights the breakdown of ethics in a savage, commercially-driven world” (127).  But the use of the term “republican”—especially in a play that is highly critical of so many characters at so many class levels—requires much more precision.  The chapter’s final point about the privatization of festival in seventeenth-century early modern England is fascinating:  I would love to hear more about this theme, an idea also explored in her analysis of The Winter’s Tale

The final chapter engages the performance history of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, and includes a sustained discussion of Herrick’s poetry.  Entitled “The Decline of Carnivalesque Egalitarianism:  Milton’s Comus, Herrick’s Hesperides, and Mardi Gras Appropriations of Renaissance Texts in the American Deep South,” the chapter covers much temporal ground.   The author compares two Renaissance writers, contrasting the anti-monarchical and anti-court messages in the John Milton’s Comus with Herrick’s use of English rural and festive customs to defend Charles I’s reign.  Vaught’s use of the term republicanism in her discussion of Milton is still underdefined, but the general nature of the term becomes more centered by the final chapter.  Her treatment of Comus is brief, while the section on Hesperides could have detailed more effectively where she diverges from and substantively adds to Leah Marcus’s work on Herrick and The Book of Sports.  In positioning these two authors in dialogue, Vaught effectively shows that the deployment of English festivals and carnivalesque practices can support strikingly different political positions, an argument outlined in the introduction.  In the final section of the chapter, the author insists that there is a “general decline of egalitarianism in literary renditions of carnival” as we move into the later seventeenth century and beyond (145).  As she transitions into a discussion of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American performances of The Merchant of Venice and Othello, the author insists that an acceptance of Shylock characterized early modern productions of the play.  I would have preferred more support for this claim, but overall her turn to nineteenth-century appropriations of Shakespeare’s and Milton’s texts has a great deal to contribute to the fields of theater studies, adaptation, and literary appropriation.

Vaught’s reading of Louisiana “krewes” during the American Civil War and Reconstruction is the most successful part of the monograph.  Vaught effectively shows how these “krewes” furthered white supremacist propaganda by “promot[ing] their elite status through street theater” performances of Milton, Spenser, and Shakespeare (151).  Tracing two groups—the Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers—who created Mardi Gras shows and floats, Vaught illustrates how they advocated “a return to a regressive monarchy rather than supporting a progressive democracy” (159) as well as aggressively rejecting Reconstruction-initiated integration.  Their appropriation of Spenser and Milton is fertile ground for research on theater history, though again the distinctions between her argument and that of Richard Rambuss’s frequently-cited article could be made more clear.  While this concluding section of the book is informative and effectively researched, Vaught’s treatment of early modern texts and their engagement with “republican” ideals cast many of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts in a progressive light that can feel anachronistic, even inconsistent, given her readings of Renaissance plays in earlier chapters. 

Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England has mixed success at contributing to the lively conversation around carnival or elements of the carnivalesque in the early modern period.  Many of the chapters provide individually interesting or suggestive observations but rarely sustain a consistent, overarching argument about the  numerous texts within each chapter.  Chapter 4 delivers the most sustained argument as well as fresh new information about the reception of early modern literature in the American South.   The book’s reading of the conservative work performed by these New Orleans “krewes” makes a contribution to work on literary appropriation and adaptation and will be of interest to Shakespeareans, Spenserians, and Miltonists.

Shannon Miller

Temple University



  • Portsmouth Concrete Company 5 months, 2 weeks ago

    Vaught describes her approach in the monograph as a "middle course" between these binary views .

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Cite as:

Shannon Miller, "Vaught, Jennifer C. Carnival and Literature in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 43.1.12 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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