A Memorable Masque
January 7, 2011
The Memorable Masque began with a procession. Fifty richly attired gentlemen set out on horseback with their footmen from the house of the Master of the Rolls. Next came a mock-masque of little boys dressed as baboons 'in Neopolitan suits and great ruffs, all horsed with asses and dwarf palfreys'.Then followed two triumphal carriages festooned with great gilded mask heads, carrying 'the choice musicians of our kingdom' - and here's the novelty part: 'attired like Virginian priests'. Behind the musicians 'rode the chief masquers in Indian habits'.
The recent colonization of Virginia had provided the entertainment with its imaginative coup. American Indians would seem to present their congratulations to the bridal pair. From the description provided by Chapman, the costumes bore only the vaguest relation to anything a Powhattan chieftain would be seen dead in: 'Strange hoods of feathers...on their heads, turbans, stuck with several coloured feathers, spotted with wings of flies of extraordinary bigness, like those of their country... Betwixt every set of feathers, and about their brows in the under part of their coronets, shined suns of gold plate sprinkled with pearl. In their hands they brandished cane darts of the finest gold: their vizards of olive, but pleasingly visaged; their hair black and large, waving down their shoulders.' Not unsurprisingly the masque itself presented a great rock which split open to reveal 'a rich and refulgent mine of gold', representing the sort of El Dorado which the New World seemed to offer to its new colonizers.
Francis Beaumont's masque was meant to have been performed the next night, Shrove Tuesday. The Masquers this time arrived at Whitehall by water 'in great triumph' in the royal barge 'with a great number of lights, placed in such order as might make the best show.' There was music in accompanying galleys and peals of ordnance being fired off. The Count Palatine and Lady Elizabeth were watching the landing at the palace's water stairs from the privy gallery. But at the last minute, his majesty postponed the masque itself until the following Saturday. An order had gone out that the ladies would not be admitted if they were wearing farthingales, in order to allow more room. But in all the excitement and crush, the hall was not ready for the performers, and the crucial members of the audience could not get to their places.
But the real reason for the postponement was that the irascible King James was worn out with all the festivities, and the idea of sitting through another long masque appalled him. According to John Chamberlain, writing in a letter to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton: 'Sir Francis Bacon (who was the 'chief contriver' of the masque) ventured to entreat His Majesty that by this disgrace he would not as it were bury them quick: and I hear the king should answer that they must bury him quick, for he could last no longer.'
The masque went ahead and was performed the following Saturday (albeit within the Lenten season), and was a great success according to Chamberlain,. The actors 'performed their parts exceedingly well and with great applause, and approbation, both from the king and all the company'; so much so in fact that the king gave them a dinner in their honour the following night.
This final Wedding Masque contains gods and goddesses (interestingly, Iris appears as she does in the masque in TheTempest), as well as dancing statues, and a rustic anti-masque which includes a May Lord and Lady, and a baboon, and which was clearly re-staged as part of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe later that year.
Mercury announces that Jove has sent a message which he then conveys, proposing the revival of the Olympic Games for the wedding:
'The Olympian games,
Which long have slept, at these wished nuptials
He pleas'd to have renew'd, and all his knights
Are gathered hither...'
At which point the knights, all dressed in carnation satin, descend from Olympus and having performed a few exhausting Olympian 'gallairds, durets, corantos etc.', the stage direction announces, 'Then loud music sounds, supposed to call them to their Olympian games.'
Francis Beaumont then concludes the masque with a rather charming wish that the newly married couple, in bed together, should have the power to stop Time itself:
'Alas that he that first
Gave Time wild wings to fly away,
Hath now no power to make him stay !
And though these games must needs be play'd
I would this happy pair when they are laid,
And not a creature nigh 'em
Could catch his scythe, as he doth pass,
And clip his wings and break his glass,
And keep him ever by 'em.'
Masques, as a character in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy says, are 'tied to rules of flattery'. And perhaps at a wedding, royal or not, we all understand the etiquette required. But it does seem odd, if Cardenio was indeed written for this particular nuptial, that scenes in which a wedding is presented where the bride is forced against her will to marry. But then, as we know Much Ado was also presented that Christmas. And in that play there is another wedding scene which ends in the groom denouncing his bride at the altar as a whore. Perhaps marriage as a theme, whatever its outcome, was thought appropriate fare for such occasions?
by Greg Doran
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