Assessing "Cultural Influence": James I as Patron of the Arts

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RECENT cultural history has seemed inclined to foster a concept of King James and his English court based on seemingly contradictory but interdependent views. On one hand, many essays have depicted James I as a royal patron of the arts. We are often reminded, for example, that his first act in the literary realm was to take the theaters under his patronage because as part of his entertainment James demanded court performance of plays. He cared enough about public drama, it seems, to have assumed Shakespeare's own company under the new name of "the King's Men," and even to have assigned the remaining London troupes to other members of the royal family. Although these changes in the status of theater companies are of themselves unreliable indices of James's preoccupation with the London stage, (1) such evidence has encouraged scholars to make related assumptions about the role of the new king in other important initiatives--such as furthering the brilliant and fruitful collaboration of Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson in their series of opulent masques at court, appointing the poet John Donne Dean of Paul's, and, to be sure, ordering the translation project that resulted in the King James Bible.

The other side of this particular conceptual coin, curiously, is a concomitant view of the new king as somewhat incompetent--as lax, self-indulgent, and even slightly unsavory. An extreme example of such an attitude may be found in the observations of Roy Strong, who describes James as "the bloated, pedantic middle-aged father [of Prince Henry], careless of affairs of state, prepared to accept appeasement at any price, bent on the pleasure of the chase, totally unaesthetic, whose penchant for handsome courtiers was hardly becoming." Earlier, G. P. V. Akrigg's book on the Jacobean court, still popular with literary scholars, viewed James as a spend-thrift king, always absorbed in his current male favorite to the detriment of the state, and concerned with losing status if he did not maintain himself as the generous benefactor to his supporters, a practice which depleted the royal budget. (2)

Interestingly, this dualistic construction of James--as royal, generative patron of the arts or cultural icon, on the one hand, and as corrupt dawdler, on the other--has not been understood as troublingly inconsistent because indifference to politics and personal indolence in a learned king seem to many commentators to augur well for the arts--presumably, they flourish in such compost. It is almost as if absorption in the affairs of "high culture" is incompatible with the practice of statesmanship, or vice versa (at least in the case of James).

This essay, part of a larger effort to determine the structure and purpose of high cultural practices at court during the first decade of the Stuart reign, would interrogate the implications of James's dual image for our construction of the early court scene. In undertaking this limited analysis, I think it important to view James's situation not solely from the vantage point of his investment in belles lettres, but also in terms of the kinds of regnal problems to which he addressed himself at his accession. In other words, in order to reconfigure the misleading premises in so many portraits of the king, it is important here to assess James's relationship to the development of the arts in England in terms of his parallel assumption of monarchal responsibilities.

Accordingly, in what follows I shall be arguing two points. First, I would like to challenge the narrative of James's self-indulgent political ineptness, focusing primarily on representative activities surrounding the accession. Second, I hope to counter the view of King James as the primary instrument of high culture in the Stuart court by identifying the parameters of his intellectual interests, and by suggesting his own relative remoteness from contemporary currents of change in the arts.

There are, however, important caveats that need to be established in connection with both these points at the outset. …