Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater

Article excerpt

The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater, by Claire Sponsler. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. vii + 308. Cloth. $65.00

The title of this richly detailed book gives only the slightest hint of its vast reach. True, the performance pieces of fifteenth-century poet John Lydgate are the focus of its investigation, and true, a late chapter headed "The Queen's Dumbshows" concentrates on three entertainments whose prime audience seems to have been Catherine of Valois, mother of the young King Henry VI. True, too, that Claire Sponsler offers illuminating readings of some rather difficult theatrical texts. But her interpretations emerge from the efforts demanded by a much larger project, which is nothing less than to reconstruct from a handful of manuscript miscellanies the social, political, material, and literary-cultural circumstances of Lydgate's civic and royal entertainments--while deliberately problematizing the notably non-theatrical features of the very texts that in many cases are the only surviving witnesses to these events. It is a daunting enterprise and it is carried out with a remarkable admixture of agnosticism and persuasiveness.

Not the least of the book's achievements is to re-position works that have traditionally been considered Lydgate's "minor poems" as touchstones of fluid representational practices that combine speech, mime, costume, printed banners, stained cloths, and even food as media of performance in the streets, halls, and palaces of London and its environs. That is to say, the models of medieval drama most familiar to us--the cycle plays and the moralities performed outside the capital--turn out to be more restrictive in their modes of conveying meaning than the entries, mummings, and disguisings that were the common fare of Lancastrian audiences in the political and financial center, compelling us to expand our understanding of pre-modern theater.

One provocative example will illustrate this synaesthetic phenomenon and the political role it performed. At the English coronation banquet of Henry VI in November 1429, guests were presented between courses with portable displays called subtleties--shaped, edible confections that were accompanied by verses believed to have been written by Lydgate. The first subtlety was fashioned to show Saint Edward and Saint Louis "brynging yn between hem" Henry VI in his coat armor, with a ballade explaining that Henry VI is the "braunche borne of here blessid blode" and the inheritor of the fleur-delis, who will one day resemble his illustrious predecessors in wisdom as well as "in knighthood & vertue" (156). Its political function was to remind all assembled of the dual nature of Henry's monarchy. Though he had not yet been crowned in France--his rival Charles VII had been enthroned at Rheims the previous July--he would travel there for that purpose during the following year. Meanwhile, there was to be no mistaking who really possessed the French throne. The second subtlety addressed the issue of heresy and portrayed Henry VI kneeling before Henry V and the Emperor Sigismund, with verses explaining the Emperor's recent defeat of Jan Hus and Henry V's suppression of Sir John Oldcastle's Lollard plot. The new king was thus signifying in miniature his championship of true religion. A third confection presented the Virgin and Child, seated between Saints George and Denis, with Henry VI kneeling before her, a crown held high in her hand in a gesture linking the young king and the Christ child. The 'reason' or argument offered in the accompanying verse, observes Sponsler, was "a translation of the hymn 'Ab inimicis nostris defende nos christe' that Lydgate had made for the coronation and to which he added an envoy asking for God's blessing for the young king and his mother," thereby adapting Christian symbols to political use (157). In this ensemble of subtleties, several kinds of representation were savored seriatim--first visually as the sculpted and colored sugary figures were exhibited, then verbally as their arguments were read, either by the individual diners or aloud for the benefit of everyone in the hall--thus captivating the eye and satisfying the intellect as it grasped the show's meaning, and the moral sense as it found that meaning just. …

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