Literature of the English Country House: Reading the 17th century

As Literature of the English Country House reaches the 17th century we’re joined by Kate Gath, a PhD student in the School of English working on the political literature of this period.

An image of ‘The Siege of Rhodes’.
‘The Siege of Rhodes’ is an opera written to a text by William Davenant. These sketches are taken from the Restoration Theatre blog:

I research the early modern period, specifically literature of the 17th century. Primarily (but certainly not exclusively) I focus upon the work of Sir William Davenant (1606-1668), a writer, poet laureate, theatre manager and syphilis-ridden man who lost part of his nose.

Davenant moved in the higher echelons of society and lived through turbulent times, which included the violence of the English civil wars, the regicide of Charles I, the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell and his son, and the return of the monarchy in 1660. His friends included the famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan (1651). The revolutionary period was not simply background noise in the trajectory of Davenant’s life, as he was very politically active, mainly in a royalist guise, and had his own military career, eventually becoming a lieutenant-general in 1642.

A sketch of William Davenant.
A sketch of William Davenant.

Davenant escaped death not only at the hands of venereal disease in 1630, but also after being imprisoned and sentenced to execution following his capture at sea by a Parliamentary privateer in 1650. He was pardoned and released from imprisonment in 1654.

Prior to the Restoration, Davenant had for a time been the main playwright for the King’s Men before the theatres were closed in 1642, and after the return of the king he became proprietor of the Duke’s Company, introducing innovative moveable stage scenery, opera in the form of The Siege of Rhodes, and actresses. His output also included much poetry, masques and highly politicised prose. Ultimately, no literary figure embodies the seventeenth century in quite the same way as Davenant.

A sketch of the Siege of Rhodes
A sketch of ‘The Seige of Rhodes’

I first encountered Davenant on an optional undergraduate module examining the literature of the English civil wars, and it was during this time that my interest in both the writing of the period and the revolutionary decades as a whole developed.

Unfortunately the writing of the Interregnum especially is still very much neglected on many taught courses. I studied more revolutionary era works at MA level and was keen to include Davenant as a key figure in my PhD, even more so as I began to further appreciate his politically slippery nature, the complexities within royalism, and its potential for plurality.

For the archetypal royalist at least, much of his (or her) identity revolves around the constant pursuit of pleasure in its many forms. This also encompasses royalists’ self-appointed position as guardians of literary and artistic culture, and their indulgence in a nostalgia that yearned for an imagined and ultimately false idyll which supposedly existed before the revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century. Such broad ideas must be treated with plenty of caution, but these facets of royalist identity certainly existed, and its focus upon the pleasures of life included those of the body, sexual and otherwise.

Davenant’s exploration of the body in his own work spans genres, decades and shifts in royalist thinking, when the monarchy as an institution had to navigate a series of unprecedented events. He experiments with staging the body and its movement, the representation of proto-rake characters, and the deployment of the senses as an integral part of human reasoning. For Davenant, the human body can be, but is not simply a centre for (royalist) pleasure, but something altogether more powerful.

As is the case with much early modern literature you may encounter on this course and elsewhere, Davenant’s output is highly political, and while we are literary critics and not historians, being in possession of good contextual knowledge can only ever be helpful.

Written by Kate Gath, on 8 July 2015.

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