Looking Behind the Masque; the Politics of the Stuart Court Masque. Edited by David Bevington and Peter Holbrook (Cambridge University Press, Pounds 40). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

The Birmingham Post (England), August 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Looking Behind the Masque; the Politics of the Stuart Court Masque. Edited by David Bevington and Peter Holbrook (Cambridge University Press, Pounds 40). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


The monolithic aspect of the historical study has, in recent years, undergone a significant sea change.

Not only is the writing waspish and funny but the 600-page book on a single subject seems to have become a thing of the past.

Nowadays, we get a collection of correlated essays, readable, interlinked and totally fascinating.

This is very much the case with Bevington and Holbrook's (editors) refreshing study of that glittering courtly diversion, the masque, which utilised the talents of all kinds of artists and writers from Ben Jonson to Henry Lawes, the musician, and John Milton, who seems to have closed the genre with Comus.

The masque is discussed here in connection with its aspect as a spectacle of music and dancing with political overtones, along with sets by Inigo Jones.

In an excellent and provocative introduction we are told that in the early modern context of the royal court, prestige was either visible or non-existent.

Put more simply, your clothes, jewels and conversational wit advertised your social position and in every context your look and style was pre-eminent if you were a courtier.

To see and be seen was the order of the day.

The Accession Day celebrations, particularly at the time of Elizabeth l, were occasions, for the court, of extravagant display set within over-riding structures of princely power where everything from the mock tournaments, the gods, goddesses and classical allusions, all designed to flatter the Queen, were engineered by those courtiers who had much to gain from the process, or, conversely, much to lose.

The argument is proposed that Renaissance literature "did not reflect history, but, in a sense, helped to make it".

This proposition is reflected within the complex rituals of the masque, perceived by some as merely a trivial entertainment, yet participated in by the highest and most powerful persons in the land, happy to play the fool in front of the Prince, whether it was Elizabeth in her disguise as Diana the huntress goddess, chaste and fair, or her successor, James l, notoriously homosexual, twitchy and fickle.

Martin Butler in his essay Courtly Negotiations speaks of "the entanglements between culture and power", which links perfectly with Stephen Orgel's focus on James, showing the masques presented at that particularly sleazy court which underlined always Stuart power structures.

Orgel has done more to illuminate the masque and its divisions and symbolical references than any other academic going.

His fine two-volume study, written with Roy Strong and published in 1974, stands as a monument to the subject as it deals with the theatre of the Stuart court.

Although Orgel is not a paid up member of the new historicism school ("the process by which artistic works interact with politics thus reflecting the political life of a nation"), his writings are unfailingly swift, richly informed and bristle with the vitality academia so often disdains.

Orgel's essay here, Marginal Jonson discusses the dangers and "irresistible attractiveness" of the 17th century stage - Stephen Gosson's "cup of Circe", where the fictions of the playwrights have the capacity, or so the puritans believed, to "change audiences for good or evil by persuasion or seduction" (and how often have today's phoney-documentary TV movies, by example, provided disturbed individuals with a blueprint for murder).

Ben Jonson's attitude towards women, Orgel believes, at least in The Alchemist or Epicoene, is to see the female sex as a compliant book for men to open. Yet when Jonson worked for women at the Stuart court (as opposed to working for male theatre owners in the common theatre outside which female involvement was forbidden by law), his success depended on his capacity to satisfy them, a reversal of the norm determined by aristocratic domination.

James' wife, the unmanageable Queen Anne, set herself up with the help of Jonson and the designer, Inigo Jones, as a black woman represented in The Masque of Blackness, where court women, who usually used white make-up, were plastered in black. …

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