court masque

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The Court Masque in the 17th Century

The most lavish 17th-century productions were not open to the public. King James I and later his son Charles I commissioned spectacular private performances called ‘masques’ which involved music, dance, opulent costumes and extraordinary scenery and special effects. They were performed once or twice at one of the royal palaces and were only seen by members of the court. Such lavish court entertainments were fashionable throughout Europe as an expression of princely power.

Masques were often used to celebrate royal occasions such as a wedding or birth. Design and visual symbols played an important role in masques which called for lavish costumes and sets. Nobles and royalty would take part, often playing gods or heroes while the other roles were played by professional actors.

Court entertainments were far more opulent than those of the public playhouses, but professional actors and writers crossed over between both. Masque-like elements began to be included in popular plays. There are masque scenes in Thomas Kyd’s 'The Spanish Tragedy’ and Shakespeare’s 'Cymbeline’ and 'The Tempest’. Ben Jonson wrote masques for the court as well as drama for the public playhouses.

Inigo Jones (1573–1652)

Inigo Jones introduced the proscenium arch and moveable scenery arranged in perspective into British theatre.

While travelling in France and Italy he had been impressed and inspired by the use of stage machinery and scenic invention. Under James I and Charles I he collaborated with the writer Ben Jonson on a series of masques and elaborate court productions that cost a fortune.

Inigo Jones’s scenery used a series of shutters that slid in and out using grooves in the floor. He even flew in scenery from above and introduced coloured lighting by placing candles behind tinted glass.

After a series of successful collaborations Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones quarrelled. Jonson accused Jones of ensuring that the scenic changes and transformations had more predominance in the masque than his poetry. Indeed 'The Masque of Oberon’ in 1611 cost over £2000 and the costumes alone cost over £1000. Jonson received £40 for writing the script.

Inigo Jones went on to design theatre buildings. In 1619 he transformed the Banqueting House at Whitehall into a theatre and in 1629 built the Cockpit at Court.

On this day, 1 August in 1740, one of the most famous songs in British history was first performed.

“Rule Britannia”, written by the Scotsman James Thomson was performed in the masque (a court performance) called “Alfred”, about Alfred the Great.

It was performed at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales – the eldest son of George II – to commemorate the accession of George II, and the third birthday of Frederick’s daughter, the Princess Augusta. (Frederick pre-deceased his father, and on George II death, the throne passed to Frederick’s eldest son, George III.)

James Thomson was born in Ednam in Roxburghshire around 11 September 1700. There is a memorial to him at Ednam near Kelso.

He co-wrote “Alfred” with David Mallet, and Thomson’s song “Rule Britannia” was set to music by Thomas Arne.

His words, “Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” are not meant to be a boast about things past. The word is not “rules”.

Rather the word is “rule”. An exhortation for Britons, through our navy, to rise to commanding heights in the world. That is, “to rule”.

After this song appeared, Britain did indeed seek to follow that command quite successfully!

PSA: CRUNCH TIME

Hi guys. So I sort of warned you this day would come, but now that it’s fast-approaching, time for a little more info:

I have about a month left to work on my dissertation. In that amount of time I have a lot of other things to do, including being in a court masque, moving to a different apartment, and figuring out what to do with all the stuff I’ve accumulated in the past year. That’s a lot, so for the sake of my own sanity I will be taking a break from Tumblr until September 5th. The queue will still be running so the page won’t be dead, but I’m going to close the inbox at 12:01 AM on August 1st. I have about 40 unanswered asks, so if you sent me one and I haven’t gotten to it, don’t panic. It’s there and will probably get posted soon. If you have any pressing questions you haven’t asked yet, now’s the time to send them!

Thanks so much for your patience, friends. August 2016 is going to be the craziest month of my life thus far and Tumblr is something I just can’t keep up with at the same time. 

See you on the flipside.

Xx Dukesie

P. S. This post will reblog itself periodically just to remind people so if you got the message and you’re tired of seeing it, just block the tag ‘the way is shut.’

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Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy… first and last dance.

“At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverance. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.”

© “Wolf Hall”

The Tempest: A spectacular play

Robbie Hand is a Research Intern at the Globe. 

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most spectacular play. With its innovative stagecraft and lengthy musical interludes, it borrows from the Jacobean tradition of court masques, the lavish performances staged at the court of James I.

One specific influence on The Tempest may have been The Masque of Queens, danced at Whitehall on 2 February 1609, two years before Shakespeare’s play was first performed. The text for the masque was written by Ben Jonson, but by all accounts the main attraction – aside from the bevy of aristocratic performers that included James’s queen, Anna of Denmark – was the technical wizardry of designer Inigo Jones. Jones’s designs featured a revolving stage and moving scenery, both of which would have been unfamiliar and exciting to Jacobean audiences.

Shakespeare’s company could never have recreated the effects used in a court masque – the one performance of The Masque of Queens cost over £3000 to stage – but The Tempest is full of allusions to the theatrical goings-on at court. The most overt reference comes in Act 4 when Prospero stages his own masque to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s betrothal. After the performance Prospero delivers one of the play’s most famous speeches:

           Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

           As I foretold you, were all spirits and

           Are melted into air, into thin air;

           And – like the baseless fabric of this vision –

           … shall dissolve,

           And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

           Leave not a rack behind.

When Shakespeare wrote these lines he may well have been thinking of Jonson’s description of the ‘vanishing spectacle’ in The Masque of Queens:

In the heat of their dance, on the sudden, was heard a sound of loud music, as if many instruments had made one blast; with which not only the hags themselves but the hell into which they ran quite vanished, and the whole face of the scene altered, scarce suffering the memory of such a thing.

The masques were famous not only for their lavishness, but also their transience ­– despite the huge expense lavished on the scenery and costumes, each masque was only performed once. It is this ephemerality – of which the vanishing spectacle was a part – to which Prospero refers in his speech.

The same speech, however, has also formed the basis for a popular (mis)reading of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, with Prospero’s renunciation of his ‘art’ supposedly representing Shakespeare’s own retirement from the professional theatre. The 19th century critic Thomas Campbell wrote in 1838 that

Shakespeare, as if conscious that [this play] would be his last, and as if inspired to typify himself, has made its hero a natural, a dignified, and benevolent magician.

The clear appeal of this story is the main reason it has retained any traction at all – it is, at best, historically dubious. As Gordon McMullan has recently argued, the whole concept of an author’s distinct ‘late style’ relies on the author in question being aware that his or her career is drawing to a close, and in this particular case it also requires us to ignore the minimum of three further plays that Shakespeare would subsequently write in collaboration with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. The idea of The Tempest as a theatrical swansong seems to stem from a desire to establish a trajectory for Shakespeare’s authorial career that the biographical facts simply do not offer.

That is not to say that the realities of Shakespeare’s writing career present a less appealing image – far from it. We know that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers throughout his professional life; we can also see that, even as late as The Tempest, he was aware of and keenly engaging with the latest theatrical trends both in the playhouses and at court. With this in mind, Shakespeare emerges as a theatrical writer who was constantly looking for ways to innovate.

Sources:

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (Arden Shakespeare, 1999)

David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson (eds.), The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (Cambridge University Press, 2012) – in particular The Masque of Queens, ed. by David Lindley (vol. 3, pp. 281-349)

David Lindley (ed.), The Court Masque (Manchester University Press, 1984)

Clare McManus, Women on the Renaissance Stage: Anna of Denmark and Female Masquing in the Court Stuart 1590–1619 (Manchester University Press, 2002)

Stephen Orgel, Introduction to The Tempest (Oxford University Press, 1987) – discusses the origins of the ‘farewell to the stage’ reading of the play

Gordon McMullan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death (Cambridge University Press, 2007)