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This chapter considers the attempt during the Marprelate controversy (1589–90) to reprise the rhetoric of plain Englishness as both presbyterian polemic and comic commodity represents a complex set of nostalgias: not for just the medieval history of reformist ploughmen but the more recent reformist era of the 1540s. This bid for authenticity, however, is destabilised by both the tracts’ use of ‘tradition’ as a foil for stylistic experiment and their perceived affinity with the entertainment economy of the late 1580s. As the last part of the chapter argues, ‘Martinism’ was partly the creation of ‘anti-Martinism’ and these salient features can be read through the work of the anti-Martinist critics, in particular pamplets by John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe. The close attention they pay to the textual detail of the tracts represents its own critical tradition, one minutely sensitive to the contemporary resonances of their linguistic affect.
Chapter Six looks at three plays by William Shakespeare which explores the merry world broadside ballad as a mode of consumption, probing the nature of audience complicity that it invites. It begins with The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610), which interrogates the status of old tales and of happy endings, and the idea – explicitly articulated in Cymbeline (c. 1610–11) – that to be ‘put into rhyme’ is to suffer aesthetic and emotional impoverishment. It then contrasts As You Like It (c. 1598–99) with King Lear (c. 1605–06) as rival disguised-king stories, in which the failure of ballad tropes to reflect reality is played first as farce and then as tragedy.
This chapter argues that the phrase ‘the merry world’ – and sometimes even the word ‘mirth’ – acquired a coded status in Reformation polemical print that then shadowed its use in other contexts: a way of expressing nostalgia for the pre-dissolution past that was proximate to, but not identical with, sedition and recusancy. There is evidence that these feelings were widespread, even amongst orthodox Protestants, but also that they remained potentially incendiary. Focusing on a series of disguised-king broadside ballads set in a pseudo-medieval ‘merry’ past, it suggests the historical fictions of cheap print recuperated the psychic materials of merry world complaint as a source of cosy and uncontentious pleasure.
Beginning with the wildly unsuccessful first performance of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1607, the introduction interrogates the idea of mirth in early modern England. It argues that ‘mirth’ was understood in three distinct but related senses: as a historically inflected hangover from the pre-Reformation past (‘the merry world’); as secular pastime; and as a generic category denoting certain kinds of entertainment. It sets out the emergence of nostalgia for the pre-Reformation past alongside the growth of a competitive professional theatre and print market. The Knight of the Burning Pestle dramatises the dynamic between the nostalgic desire of audience for past pleasures, both theatrical and historical, and the pressure of the competitive theatre towards novelty. The second half of the chapter situates this tension in relation to the historical rupture of the Reformation; to the explosion in cheap print; and contemporary cultures of performance.
This chapter considers two plays which draw explicitly on the broadside ballad tradition of merry world fiction: Thomas Heywood’s The First Part of Edward IV (c. 1599); and Henry Chettle and Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (c. 1598). While these play-texts quote from, allude to, and overlap with the ballad stories they dramatise in various ways, it is also possible to see a distinctively theatrical vocabulary emerging which adapts the merry world topos to the stage. As such, they presuppose a high degree of audience familiarity with the visual and verbal conventions of the genre on page, stage, and in performance. The theatrical literacy of this assumed audience allows both plays to be constructed around moments of recognition and repetition. This degree of stylistic self-consciousness is playfully knowing in Heywood’s Edward IV and a source of frustration in the Downfall, where it is the impetus for an elaborate meta-theatrical framework exploring audience desire and response.
For many people in early modern England the Reformation turned the past into another country: the 'merry world'. Nostalgia for this imaginary time, both widespread and widely contested, was commodified by a burgeoning entertainment industry. This book offers a new perspective on the making of 'Merry England', arguing that it was driven both by the desires of audiences and the marketing strategies of writers, publishers and playing companies. Nostalgia in Print and Performance juxtaposes plays with ballads and pamphlets, just as they were experienced by their first consumers. It argues that these commercial fictions played a central role in promoting and shaping nostalgia. At the same time, the fantasy of the merry world offered a powerfully affective language for conceptualising longing. For playwrights like Shakespeare and others writing for the commercial stage, it became a way to think through the dynamics of audience desire and the aesthetics of repetition.