Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature [*]

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature [*]

Article excerpt

This essay argues that Stuart fairy poetry rooted in Shakespeare's innovative representation of tiny, consumeristic fairies, attempts to indigenize new forms of elite material display. Rather than the fairies of popular tradition or courtly mythography, Stuart poets depict miniaturized Mabs and Oberons who are notable for their wardrobes, banquets, coaches, and the decor of their palaces. The fairy poetry of William Browne, Michael Drayton, and Robert Herrick must be interpreted not as playful escapism, but as a self-consciously politicized literary mode which reveals these writers' deep ambivalence toward elite culture -- and toward their own artistic role within that culture.

The great strength of new historicist scholarship has been its focus on structures of ideology and social practice which may seem utterly foreign -- and negligible -- to us. Of late, this project has been extended to an examination of the relationship between literature and material culture in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England: Steven Mullaney has argued that Elizabethans collected bizarre objects in order to "rehearse" and thus dramaturgically efface "strange cultures" (48), Douglas Bruster has explored playwrights' preoccupation with commodification and ownership, and Patricia Fumerton and Jeffrey Knapp have each analyzed some of the important roles played by early modern ornaments and "trifles." Despite these provocative new assessments of cultural history, however, scholars have not reevaluated one of the most ostentatiously materialistic literary modes produced in Stuart England: fairy poetry.

In contrast to our own disregard for the subject, former generations of literary critics hailed the early modern era in England as "our great period of fairy literature." [1] Shakespeare's depictions of fairies were analyzed by scholars earlier this century as a watershed in the literary representation of folklore which greatly influenced subsequent portrayals of the fairy world. [2] From the 1620s through the 1640s, poets drew upon Shakespeare's innovative description of a miniature fairy queen in Romeo and Juliet and lavished attention on the wardrobes, coaches, banquets, and palace decor of tiny fairy monarchs. Earlier literary historians remarked upon this phenomenon only to lament it, accusing writers like Drayton and Herrick of extinguishing traditional fairy beliefs: "no spirits with the blackest reputation or the most wicked proclivities . . . could continue a real existence when they were repeatedly appearing on the pages of poems in which they were being continually dressed in diminutive garments a nd fed infinitesimal baked insects." [3]

In this essay, I shall reexamine the significance of the early modern English vogue for fairy literature, focusing on fairy poetry written during the Stuart period. I shall place particular emphasis on a facet of this literary mode previously cited -- and slighted -- as a hallmark of its frivolousness: its overriding preoccupation with tiny things. In Stuart fairy poetry, I shall contend, we find writers attempting to indigenize a new form of material display rooted in the unsettled socioeconomic conditions of nascent capitalism. English fairylore was traditionally bound up with normative concepts of a precapiralist social formation; thus, as England shifted from a rural, household-based mode of production to an urban, commercial, and increasingly mercantile economy, fairylore became a particularly apt vehicle for mystifying the profound socioeconomic changes of the early modern period. Shakespeare's revision of fairylore in Romeo and Juliet, I shall demonstrate, embodied a new awareness of this social and economic turmoil, and Stuart writers in turn recognized and exploited the ideological charge of Shakespeare's miniaturized fairy world. Rather than interpreting Stuart fairy verse as an escapist "poetic game," [4] I shall argue that we need to recognize that this literary mode was self-consciously topical and politicized, and that the relentless attention to miniaturized physical objects which characterizes Stuart fairy poetry signifies seventeenth-century writers' deep ambivalence towards their own production of elite culture in a time of great social, economic, and political upheaval. …

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