Re-imagining Cardenio

'Inventions rare' - the Wedding Masques of 1613

January 7, 2011

The wedding of James' beloved daughter Bessy, with Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, took place on Valentine's day 1613. Both were dressed in silver cloth, embroidered in silver thread, and Elizabeth wore an 'exceedingly rich coronet' which her father bragged, rather tactlessly, cost a million crowns. The masques presented for the occasion were all published and provide an insight into the extravagance of the Jacobean Court.

There were three: The Lords' Masque, by Thomas Campion, presented in the Banqueting House on Sunday 14th February - the wedding night itself; The Memorable Masque by George Chapman, presented by the Inns of Court, Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, performed at Whitehall on Shrove Monday Night, 15th February; and Francis Beaumont's Masqueof the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn which was presented the following Saturday, 20th February.

In The Lords' Masque, to the sound of a double consort of instruments, Orpheus emerges in his laurel wreath, a silver bird in his hand, and around him several wild beasts 'tamely placed'. He draws Mania, the goddess of madness, from her cave and warns her to release Entheus from his prison. Entheus, so Campion's notes suggest, represents 'Poetic Fury' (though whether or not his audience would have understood the reference is debatable). Mania concedes and suddenly twelve Frantics emerge 'in sundry habits and humours'. On reading this description I find myself becoming intrigued. Perhaps this will have some bearing on how the actor playing Cardenio would have been expected to depict his madness?

Then Entheus himself is 'hurried forth, and tossed up and down, till by virtue of a change of music, the Lunatics fell into a mad measure, fitted to a loud fantastic tune'.'Tossed up and down'? I wonder if this means literally tossed in a blanket, or merely bustled and jostled about?

Orpheus dismisses the madmen, apologizes to poor old Poetic Fury that he has been wrongly imprisoned with lunatics, and delivers his divine commission:

'Jove... by me commands thee to create
Inventions rare, this night to celebrate
Such as becomes a nuptial...'

Immediately Entheus becomes inspired with his task and espies Prometheus, who suddenly appears (as a curtain falls to reveal him). The descriptions of the scenic effects of these Jacobean Masques are part of their appeal. I want to know how they did them! For example, here is the description of Prometheus' spectacular entry: 'Then in clouds of several colours appeared eight stars of extraordinary bigness, which were so placed, as that they seemed to be fixed between the firmament and the earth. In front of the scene stood Prometheus attired as one of the ancient heroes.'

Then Prometheus' dancing lights begin to 'move in an exceeding strange and delightful manner, and I suppose few have ever seen more neat artifice than Master Inigo Jones showed in contriving their motion'. But we are not finished there. The stars suddenly vanish and in their places appear eight masquers, played by 'persons of rank'.

The description of their gorgeous costumes also designed by Inigo Jones, are worth including too: 'The ground of their attires were massy cloth of silver, embossed with flames of embroidery; on their heads, they had crowns, flames made all of gold late enamelled, and on the top a feather of silk, representing a cloud of smoke'. As it happens we still have a copy of Inigo Jones' designs for these costumes, from the Duke of Devonshire's collection at Chatsworth.

There follows dancing and singing, and the masque climaxes with a marvellous perspective scene, in the middle of which an obelisk was erected 'all of silver, and in it, lights of several colours, on the side of this obelisk, standing on pedestals were the statues of the bride and groom, all of gold, in gracious postures'.

I think we generally have little idea of the spectacular nature of these shows, and the massive expenditure they involved. Who would have thought that lighting effects were possible in that period, or that they could achieve extraordinary scenic effects like the dancing lights, for that matter? And all in a theatre improvised in a banqueting hall!

The Masque closes with Prometheus and Entheus blessing the happy couple and wishing them mutual love and prosperity, and finally Orpheus chases them away:

'Enough of blessing, though too much
Never can be said of such;
But night doth waste, and Hymen chides,
Kind to bridegrooms and to brides.
Then singing, the last dance induce,
So let good night present excuse.'

It would all have ended long after midnight, as the final song suggests:

'The Cocks already crow
Dance then and go!'

George Chapman's Masque had to follow that on Monday night. It was going to have to be Memorable, as its names suggests...

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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