When David Meade predicted the apocalypse for 23 September 2017, citing scripture and numerology, he was summarily dismissed by Protestant and Roman Catholic critics alike. Certainly, conspiracy predictions like these are perennial and easily dismissed (not to mention mercifully misguided). Yet they also ignore contemporary Christian eschatology. Mainstream eschatology treats Revelation with caution and sobriety, and non-alarmism and devotion. Calls for the world’s imminent end in turn prove kooky and misinformed. It is tempting to dismiss early modern apocalypticism on similar grounds. Kevin Sharpe considers the rhetoric of early modern apocalypticism and its related themes, anti-popery and anti-papalism, to be largely ‘hysterical and irrational’ (qtd. p. 9). Adrian Streete offers a different, innovative perspective, arguing instead for this rhetoric’s flexibility and ability to provide ‘a rational expression of religious and political good sense’ (p. 258). For Streete, apocalypse and anti-Catholicism, while often ugly and bigoted, can also offer ‘an adaptable and multifarious language’ that conveys a full range of affectivity and rationality, and moderation and extremism, in ‘times of stability and volatility alike’ (pp. 2, 11). He records how dramatists and poets turn to it when grappling with nationalism and internationalism, the threat of Roman Catholicism, imperialism, loyalty, and more. For Streete, this approach involves challenging established readings for a number of plays. The introduction and opening chapter spend significant time considering Classical and medieval sources for the apocalypticism/anti-papalism in early modern drama, particularly Virgil and Joachim of Fiore. Streete makes the argument that ‘[a]nti-papalism is a medieval invention informed by imperial Classical discourse. It is the political establishment of the Reformed Churches across sixteenth-century Europe that allows Protestants to lay claim to the medieval language of anti-papal critique’ (p. 28). This laying claim largely occurs, for Streete, in dramatic text and performance, where allegory, typography, and transparent historical reference play with the ‘imperially inflected eschatology’ (p. 34) of Protestantism. More than base fear or hysteria, Protestant wariness of Roman Catholic invasion and influence mixes with readings of Revelation to provide a kind of ‘exegetical repetition’ through drama, helping playwrights and playgoers alike to read their political moment through their beliefs (p. 44). Successive chapters then pick up moments of political crisis throughout the seventeenth century, tracing how contemporary plays respond with apocalypse and anti-Catholicism. Streete brings the same general argument to each text, observing that previous political readings of these plays tend towards ‘straightforward analogy’ (p. 183). The language always proves more fluid, dynamic, and complex. In Chapter 2, for instance, Streete reads John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan against the accession and early foreign policy of James VI and I. During moderate and militant disputes with Spain over territories in the Low Countries, Marston uses the image of the Whore of Babylon to express, not straightforward hatred for Roman Catholic Spain, but a more complex ‘comedic and nondogmatic’ (p. 60) representation of the Dutch nations that can critique English entanglement and ‘political and personal self-interest’ (p. 93). Later chapters follow a similar structure. Chapter 3 considers Thomas Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy against the regicide of the French King Henry IV in 1610. Streete claims to have uncovered ‘a new set of historical narratives’ for the play from post-Constantinian Rome (namely, the reign of Jovianus) that suggests dangerous parallels between Protestant anti-Catholic arguments for regicide and Jesuitical ones (p. 22). What looks like a straight-forward Protestant defence proves more blurred. Chapter 4 continues Streete’s exploration of imperialism through the failed Spanish Match and Philip Massinger’s Believe as You List. Facing a ‘general critical neglect’ and ‘conventional allegorical readings’ (pp. 124–5), Streete suggests that the play be understood through the Joachimite tradition of ‘last world emperors’ (p. 163) and the nation’s various triumphs and doubts over Charles’ international matchmaking. By invoking and problematizing anti-Catholic rhetoric, Massinger examines ‘what happens when imperial apocalyptic expectations are invested in flawed political figures’ (p. 159). Chapters 5 and 6 then take a more theological turn. By looking at James Shirley’s The Cardinal with the outbreak of the English civil wars, and Nathaniel Lee and John Dryden’s The Duke of Guise with fears of James II’s Roman Catholicism, Streete observes how apocalypse and anti-Catholicism language can support moderate, balanced critiques of king and country. Shirley uses anti-Catholic language to explore the dual danger of placing ‘arbitrary power’ (p. 192) in the hands of the king or the military, retaining a monarchical posture while providing critique of the monarchy. Lee and Dryden, traditionally in opposition, are shown to come together in an attempt to showcase the differences in Tory and Whig perspectives before and after the 1688 invasion by William of Orange. Streete shows how much Tory and Whig writers both depend on apocalyptic and anti-Catholic rhetoric that, ironically, ultimately blurs the lines between them. This rhetoric reveals ‘a culture searching for definitive political dividing lines and finding instead blurred boundaries’ (p. 238). In this way, Streete ends his chapter sequence with a strong example of apocalypticism’s ability to be flexible, shared, rational, and illuminating. While a productive structure, the historical approach in each chapter can become too extensive, giving space that might have better gone to theological inquiry or lengthier close readings. The historical context often treats Calvinists, Arminians, and dissenting Protestants more as people groups than as specific patterns of belief. Even a brief dive into commonplace books and depositions, or an expanded look at terms like ‘revelation’ (pp. 4–5), could have enriched the dominant focus on statecraft and court with more individual experiences of apocalypticism. In terms of length and depth, Streete does explain why he avoids Shakespeare, court masques, and city pageants, instead exploring plays with less critical attention that underline how ‘widespread and recurrent’ apocalyptic rhetoric was in the period (p. 20). The particular charms of Streete’s book more than make up for any weaknesses readers may note. Its comprehensiveness is staggering: en route to close reading particular plays, Streete provides numerous examples and quotations from a variety of contemporaneous plays, poems, speeches, and sermons, making it the most cross-generic monograph this reader has seen and enjoyed. Streete’s sensitivity and command of early modern culture is unparalleled. Of the Popish Plot Streete writes, ‘Whether or not [the plot] was tre was less important than the possibility that it could be true’ (p. 206). Streete’s ability to trace ripples of fear through his encyclopaedic grasp of the period’s publishing history makes his argument virtually airtight. Readers of Review of English Studies will enjoy Streete’s longue durée approach. The conclusion spends significant time tracing apocalypticism into drama of the mid-eighteenth century. By effectively tracing a common and energetic theme through its halting adoptions and problematic iterations from Classical to Enlightenment texts, Streete writes a ‘disrupted chronology’ that continues the revisionist work of British political and religious history in recent years (p. 259). The book offers much across subfields of English literary criticism, and will reward the most careful of readers. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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