Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

"But Why Do I Describe What All Must See?": Verbal Explication in the Stuart Masque

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

"But Why Do I Describe What All Must See?": Verbal Explication in the Stuart Masque

Article excerpt


Composed of signs taken from various art disciplines, the seventeenth-century masque involved a considerable amount of interaction between its constituents. Among these, word and image seem to have been particularly interdependent. One of the key aspects of the relationship between the two media in question was that the masque's frequently obscure visual element conditioned the explicative character of the verbal component. This paper attempts to classify the elucidative passages to be found in masques: it shows that these referred both to the signalled fiction and to the material structure of the scenic arrangement. Moreover, the study proves that these comments, essentially devised to clarify pictorial signs, fulfilled a variety of other functions: for instance, they served as ostensive markers, invested the scenic composition with temporal qualities, and emphasised the close connection between the stage set and the figure.


It was a common practice in Renaissance portraiture to supply sitters with symbols of the arts as their attributes. In some sense, the performative genre referred to as the Stuart masque functioned as such a tribute, expressed by means of all the creative disciplines that were at its makers' disposal. This type of seventeenth-century entertainment served to illustrate the glory of the monarch, who was to be perceived, as stated in Ben Jonson's Oberon, the fairy prince (1611), as "the wonder ... of tongues, of ears, of eyes" (Spencer--Wells 1967: 59). (1) A multimedia structure meant to express that overwhelming praise, the masque soon became an arena for the complex dialogue between a variety of artistic structures. This is to say that disciplines as diverse as architecture, painting, music, dance or poetry began to influence and complement one another, generating a variety of new messages, which would not be transmitted if any of these constituents were removed from the entertainment.

Long recognised as one of the constitutive aspects of the genre, this hybrid quality has nonetheless received surprisingly little in-depth analysis; consequently, the scope of its impact on the shape and informative potential of individual signs used in the masque remains largely unexplored. One of the possible reasons behind this omission is that, for all the comments likening the Stuart entertainment to an ideal Gesamtkunstwerk, the most common way to approach it has always been to disentangle its multimedia structure and then to deal with just one of its numerous components at a time, removing language, stage design, music or dance from their poly-systemic context. What is thus overlooked is the extent to which each of the elements listed above was actually shaped by and adjusted to the remaining ones. The present study, in its turn, will focus on one of such interdependencies, which, although it surely does not exhaust the subject of cross-disciplinary combinations used in the masque, is nevertheless highly representative of the genre discussed, emerging as it did between its two most intricately connected components, namely word and image. A crucial aspect of this complex interaction was that the linguistic medium supplemented and, not infrequently, also counterbalanced visual splendour, an inherent feature of the masque. This was effected by means of certain highly conventionalised linguistic structures, which this analysis will attempt to classify.

In his speech on the splendid scenic construction of the Throne of Beauty, Vulturnus, in Jonson's The masque of beauty (1608), asks: "But why do I describe what all must see?" (Orgel 1969: 66). Rhetorical as it is, this question deserves to be answered, for it could be posed with regard to almost every masque staged for the court of James and Charles I. Even a brief survey of the masques' printed accounts, customarily composed after the actual performance, will indicate that the Stuart productions abounded in speeches and songs explicating the visual element. …

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