Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Moderation and Religious Criticism in William Cartwright's the Ordinary (1635)

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Moderation and Religious Criticism in William Cartwright's the Ordinary (1635)

Article excerpt

Cartwright and moderation

"Coarse and bourgeois in tone," a "devitalized" imitation of Middleton and Jonson's London city comedies, achieving only "pedantry and dullness": thus Alfred Harbage's damning verdict on William Cartwright's 1635 play The Ordinary.1 The author himself fares little better: "Why greatness was thrust upon William Cartwright (1611-43) as either a man or a poet no modern student will understand; his contemporaries seem to have selected him arbitrarily as a paragon."2 The praise of those contemporaries, including Charles I and Archbishop Laud, is dismissed. Although "affable" and moderately intelligent, the best that can be said of the writer is that he is "sinuous in exploiting his mediocre talents."3 Harbage associates Cartwright politically with the Laudian ascendancy. His patron and friend Bishop Brian Duppa, Dean of Christ Church and Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, was known for his moderate Arminian sympathies and Cartwright dedicated poems in this vein to Duppa and his wife.4 His play The Royal Slave was written for the royal visit to the University in 1636 and was performed early the following year at Hampton Court on the order of the Queen.5 All of this evidence leads Harbage to perhaps his most magisterial put-down: Cartwright is "a conformist to the bone."6

More recently, Jane Farnsworth, Lucy Munro, and Chloe Houston have begun to rehabilitate Cartwright's critical reputation. Building upon the influential work of Martin Butler, Kevin Sharpe, Lois Potter, and Robert Wilcher, these scholars have explored the political richness of Cartwright's drama.7 For example, Farnsworth situates his 1636-37 play The Lady-Errant in the light of Britain's potential re-engagement in conflict with Spain and the possibility of restoring the king's nephew to the Palatinate.8 She suggests that by arguing "in defense of the king and his policy of peace," the play counters the more militant drama supported by Henrietta Maria.9 By contrast, Munro focuses on the politics of language. She studies the figure of Moth in The Ordinary, an antiquarian dupe who speaks an elaborately muddled form of Chaucerian Middle English. Yet Moth's linguistic archaism does not prevent him from attaining a wife. His plot is thus "a kind of 'Chaucer's jape', with the sexual success of the poet's archaic devotee standing in as the joke's punchline." Although Moth's language offers a satire on antiquarianism and the use of Chaucer, it also shows "that medieval poets still have their uses" in contemporary society.10 Lastly, Houston considers Cartwright's 1636 play The Royal Slave. Contrary to Farnsworth, she argues that this play seeks to reconcile the political views of the monarchs. She also suggests that the play's Persian setting reflects anxieties about a court at once "luxurious and feminine" yet also "capable of good governance."11

As this scholarship shows, Cartwright's political aim is sometimes partisan, sometimes conciliatory, depending on context. Caroline writers loyal to the monarch developed sophisticated methods for combining praise and critique.12 Sharpe'sinfluential emphasis on "the factions and differences of court politics" and how they produce "the differing and discordant voices of courtly literature" has shaped debate on literary politics in the 1630s.13 However, more recent work by historians of early modern religion has encouraged us to think about how the rhetoric of moderation allows those writers who might otherwise be dismissed as mere conformists to articulate dissent. Cartwright writes his plays for University and court audiences. He was adept at the multivalent voicing of competing views. He is not a subversive writer. But he is politically engaged and no mere conformist. When a Caroline writer loyal to the King addressed Protestant religion he had to tread carefully. By 1635, Arminian theology had gained the upper hand in Church and at court. Although there is considerable debate on this subject amongst historians, it is fair to say that Calvinists, moderate and militant alike, perceived themselves to be on the back foot. …

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