The Female Body as Soul in Queen Anna's Masques

By Johnson, Sarah E. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Female Body as Soul in Queen Anna's Masques


Johnson, Sarah E., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


In masques in which Queen Anna and her ladies performed, such as Samuel Daniel's "Tethys Festival" and "The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses," the dancing female body comes to represent the soul visually and thematically. This bodily representation of the soul constitutes a political statement about women's exclusion from affairs of government. It transgresses assumptions about gender roles without hinging on an aggressive display of sexuality, a topic that past feminist masque criticism has foregrounded. To support this argument. I draw on seventeenth-century concepts of the soul-body divide and early modern theories of dance.

Ben Jonson refers to the poetry and written record of the masques he produced with Inigo Jones as the "spirit" that remains long after the performance ends and notes that its courtly participants "deface" the masque's physical "carcass" of scenery, costuming, and props. (1) With the dominant presence of Anna of Denmark and her ladies on the masquing stage early in King James's English reign, (2) Jonson's repeated comparison of the masque's material and immaterial components to the soul-body divide opens a window onto the gendered and political nature of that very divide. Anna's performances and the texts surrounding them unsettle the gender-coded distinctions between body and soul, material and immaterial. This creative revisioning of soul-body ideas makes a claim for women's political relevance--that is, for the importance of women's influence over and contribution to the state and its politics beyond women's bodily roles.

In what follows, I briefly review how the common mode of gendering the soul and body factors into James's understanding of ruling as a distinctly male prerogative. Re-imagining the soul-body divide thus shakes a main ideological foundation supporting the ideal of male governance. Recent feminist masque criticism is attuned to the ways in which Anna's performances make political statements that frequently contradict her husband's views. I build on this criticism by contributing a new perspective that emerges from a sustained focus on masque's engagement with contemporary ideas about the soul-body divide. This new perspective understands masque's textual and physical representations of soul and body as integrated rather than disjointed. In exploring the potential for female maskers to collapse the gendered hierarchy of soul and body, I address the body's place in masque structure, since that structure necessarily engages the interplay between the material and immaterial. In particular, I consider how the early modern view of dance as a form of rhetoric differentiates the performing body from the masque's structural "carcass"--a distinction sharpened through the masque's gendered juxtaposition of dancing bodies with framing scenery. In light of this distinction, I develop the correspondences among dance movement, narrative agency, and the soul as an active governing agent within the body to suggest that the performing female body comes to portray the soul. Finally, beyond its significance within the context of the Court, a bodily representation of the soul holds various implications for conventional representations of female physicality and virtue.

James is clear in his view that women have no place in politics, and he appeals to the soul-body divide to validate his position. In his advice on kingship addressed to his son, for instance. James counsels Henry on how he should treat his future wife, citing "Scripture" as his guide: "Treat her as your owne flesh, command her as her Lord, cherish her as your helper, rule her as your pupil, and teach her in all things: but teach her not to be curious in things that belong her not: Ye are the head, shee is your body: it is your office to command, and hers to obey ... [S]uffer her never to meddle with the the Politicke government of the Commonweale, but hold her at the Oeconomicke rule of the house; and yet all to be subject to your direction.

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