Lesley Mickel. Ben Jonson's Antimasques: A history of growth and decline. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999. 216 pp. ISBN 1 84014 272 3.
Matthew Steggle
Sheffield Hallam University

Steggle, Matthew. "Review of Lesley Mickel, Ben Jonson's Antimasques." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 14.1-6 <URL:

  1. This is a chronological study of the rise and fall of the antimasque within Jonson's masques, and it focusses in particular on the form's political content in the more specific sense: its commentary on court intrigue and on royal policy. One of the book's concerns is to situate the antimasque within the wider Jonson canon.

  2. Chapter 1 reviews Jonson's poetry, and the ways in which Jonson exploits "the relation between satire and panegyric," relating them to the early masques such as The Masque of Blackness and The Masque of Beauty, which Mickel argues possess in embryo the properties of antimasque. Chapter 2 offers a clear account of the relationships between Arthurian and Augustan in Jonson's chivalric masques, and suggests that the antimasque form developing through these entertainments of 1610-11 should be considered as a relatively close relative of the Roman plays. In the next chapter Mickel considers the antimasques to Hymenaei, Love Restored, and Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court, arguing that all three must be read in strongly topical terms. Chapter 4 relates Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly and The Irish Masque to Bartholomew Fair's treatment of the carnivalesque, while the last chapter locates Love's Triumph Through Callipolis amid the increasing absolutism of Charles' court, and concludes that the collapse of the antimasque is a function of the rise of Neoplatonism and of Charles' growing impatience with criticism in any form.

  3. The argument -- inevitably -- is dogged by the question of whether masques in general are celebrations or subversions of the royal orthodoxy, and Mickel sets up this debate in binary terms, Orgel versus the Cultural Materialists. On the one hand, it can be argued that the antimasque articulates a problem or a threat which is then defeated by the arrival, in the main masque, of the royal authority that the masque always unproblematically celebrates. On the other, it is equally possible to argue that the problems thus staged resist the easy and miraculous closures imposed upon them in the course of the masque: that the audience is aware, ironically, of the gap between the representation of royal authority and the reality: and that the masque in general, and the antimasque in particular, can thus always be seen as a coded criticism of the monarch. Clearly, neither of these axiomatic positions is satisfactory, and the book outlines a third way, in which the masque must be seen as a complex procedure of dialectical negotiation: a polyvalent text with several levels of meaning available to different audiences. This idea is so unanswerable, and so in tune with how most Renaissance scholars currently think, that it's almost too convincing for its own good: certainly this reviewer swallowed it far more easily than the author seems to expect.

  4. In other respects, too, the book does not take much for granted. Chapter 4's discussion of Bakhtin and Bartholomew Fair assumes that the reader starts by knowing little, if anything, about either: but surely anyone interested in Jonson's antimasques will probably have come to them by way of the comedies and Bartholomew Fair? Surely, also, they will not need to be convinced that some political reference may be oblique, since the Eastward Ho affair (described) "must have taught Jonson that drama or poetry which relates to the socio-political context and addresses contemporary issues in a dialectical manner can be dangerous for the author" (126). Of course, there is nothing wrong with the thorough and patient approach work in itself, and it makes for pages from which the reader will find it hard to avoid learning something useful, but it does regrettably squeeze the space available for close reading of the antimasques themselves.

  5. These readings when they come can be described as historicizing and politicizing. Prince Henry's Barriers and Oberon are convincingly presented as essays in "integrating and adapting potential oppositional mythologies" (80) of Prince Henry's Arthurianism, with its accompanying political freight, and his father's investment in the Augustan. Hymenaei and Mercury Vindicated possess ironic undertones in the light of contemporary court scandals, but remain dynamically provisional and uncertain. Mickel reads the dialogue between the Sphinx and Love in Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly as an allegory of the continuing Puritan pressure on King James, thus interpreting King James as Cupid, and references to Venus as references to Mary Queen of Scots (152-3). On this point the chapter could be accused of unfairness in not mentioning Jonson's use of Cupid in Cynthia's Revels and elsewhere, but the proposal that the antimasque may also contain political allegory needs to be taken seriously. In a similar vein, Mickel makes the case for associating the depraved lovers of Love's Triumph Through Callipolis both with Puritan dissent and with the anxieties of British foreign policy at the time.

  6. This book is a useful and accessible review of the antimasques' historical contexts, and does a good job of introducing several current theoretical issues. One possible criticism relates to the amount of time spent on approach work: more jaded scholars may sometimes find themselves being convinced at length of things that they're already quite happy to believe. For anyone interested in Jonson's antimasques, though, at whatever level, this is an important reference point.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).