Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Boy Who Would Be King: Court Revels of King Edward VI, 1547-1553

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Boy Who Would Be King: Court Revels of King Edward VI, 1547-1553

Article excerpt

In the mean season, because there was a rumor that I was dead, I passed through London. (1)

Many have commented on the coldness of the entries in the diary of the boy-king Edward VI, but few seem more chilling than this one (dated 23 July 1549). Partially because rumors were continually circulating about the precarious health of the king (rumors which were, shortly, to become fact), and partially because Londoners saw the young king far less frequently than they had watched his flamboyant father, the king's body was always a subject of concern. Indeed, at King Henry's death when the duke of Somerset took physical possession of the prince's body in order to ensure his own power, the performance of the "Protectorate" era began. Show the king, show the power. So when Edward needed to assure his people that his government was still functioning, his councillors put him on parade.

The connections between aristocratic and royal patrons and the entertainments that they actually produced have been of increasing interest to theater historians during the past ten years. The Records of Early English Drama (REED) project has revealed hundreds of financial accounts that establish the quantity and frequency of patron theater, and we are now beginning to consider the aesthetic and organizational relationships between patrons and their revels. Do patrons, as does Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, actively choose their ludi for specific reasons--taste, novelty, politics? Do patrons, as does Hamlet, actively interfere with texts? Do patrons, as does Don Vermandero in The Changeling, order up the local "madfolk" to dance for a three-day wedding celebration? For years, we have assumed that the nobility of early modern England retained entertainers as a sign of sophistication and wealth. We have assumed that the nobility retained entertainers in order to promulgate political or religious ideologies. We have assumed that the nobility retained entertainers because they were genuinely interested in the arts. We have assumed that they retained entertainers because they needed spies, messengers, processional fanfare, and martial signal corps. And we have evidence to support all of these assumptions, either all together or singly. (2)

Increasingly in the last decade, patronage studies have become more important and more interesting. Interdisciplinary methodologies combined with the groundbreaking work of REED and the second-generation applications of the records are reconfiguring the geography of early English drama. As we shift our critical lenses from texts to contexts, we find that the culture and the stage inform each other, and that cultural studies can help us approach, if not recover, sixteenth-century theater. It is difficult enough to understand the complexities of patronage in our own time, almost impossible to conceive of largesse in the sixteenth century. We find it almost impossible to represent the past accurately because we must constantly strive to recover it from within the prisons of our own paradigms. Nevertheless, bearing in mind Foucault's cautions against "presentism," I would like to examine Edward's revels, ultimately to compare his patronage to that of the other Tudors.

Like all of the Tudors, Edward VI was surrounded by the "stories, ceremonies, insignia formalities and appurtenances" that Clifford Geertz suggests define and justify our cultural status and relationships. (3) But Edward's narratives and icons differ from those of the rest of his family--differences that lead me to suggest ways in which the idiosyncracies of a particular personality shaped the aesthetics of court theater.

Clearly, specific information about a patron leads to more responsible conjectures about his or her motivations for maintenance. Consequently, as a "case study" I choose King Edward VI for a variety of obvious reasons. His rule was short and has often been ignored by historians, who consider him, with his sister Mary, as rather thorns between two Tudor roses--the sad remnant of Henry or the ragged rehearsal for Elizabeth; he acceded to the throne of England as a nine-year-old boy; he was, or definitely became, a radical Protestant by inclination and influence; and he authored the only autobiographical journal in Plantagenet, Tudor, or Stuart eras--the first "diary" in England, except for perhaps Margery Kempe's more problematic Booke. …

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