1611: Authority, Gender, and the Word in Early Modern England
explores issues of authority, gender, and language within and across the variety of literary works produced in one of most landmark years in literary and cultural history.
- Represents an exploration of a year in the textual life of early modern England
- Juxtaposes the variety and range of texts that were published, performed, read, or heard in the same year, 1611
- Offers an account of the textual culture of the year 1611, the environment of language, and the ideas from which the Authorised Version of the English Bible emerged
Helen Wilcox is Professor of English at Bangor University, Wales, and Director of the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Universities of Aberystwyth and Bangor. Her most recent major publication was the highly-acclaimed annotated edition of The English Poems of George Herbert (2007).
Jonson's Oberon and friends: masque and music in 1611
Bringing in the New Year
1611 began in England with a flourish of culture in the court of King James. On New Year's Day the King, his family, his courtiers and several foreign ambassadors attended the performance of a masque in the Banqueting House of his court at Whitehall. Masques were an integral part of courtly celebrations and central to the iconography of royalty by 1611; their plots often incorporated rebellious energies shown to be overcome by peaceful authority, and their mixture of drama, music, dance and visual splendour was a symbolic display of learning, largesse and patronage. The masque to mark the beginning of 1611, Oberon, The Faery Prince, was no exception: it was the result of collaborative work by some of the greatest creative artists active in England at the time. The text, which includes dialogue, lyric verse, stage directions, scenic descriptions and learned annotation, was written by Ben Jonson; the songs were set to music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger, Prince Henry's music tutor; the performance took place in costumes and on stage sets designed by Inigo Jones; its speaking parts were played by members of Shakespeare's company, the King's Men; its lively action included ballets devised by choreographers Confesse, Giles and Herne, and it concluded with courtly dances to the music of Robert Johnson. The patron and central figure of this glittering event was James's elder son, Henry, whose political coming of age had been celebrated for much of 1610 and had kept many writers, including Samuel Daniel, very busy with masques and other ceremonial ‘solemnitie’ (Daniel (1610), title page). The festivities surrounding Henry's investiture as Prince of Wales may be seen as reaching their completion with this new-year masque for 1611, reminding us immediately of the continuity of cultural history in which the start of this special year simultaneously represents the continuation and climax of other cycles of events and experiences.
The full title of the masque also evokes the recent past in textual culture. The character of Oberon played a key role in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in performance since the 1590s and available in print since 1600; Oberon also featured in Robert Greene's play, The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth … Entermixed with a Pleasant Comedie, presented by Oboram, King of Fayeries, staged in 1590 and published in 1598. The subtitle of Jonson's masque, identifying Oberon as the ‘Faery Prince’, was bound to call to mind a major work of recent English poetry, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and with it, no doubt, positive memories of the reign of Elizabeth I and the glorious triumphs of her Protestant kingdom. It is perhaps no coincidence that the poetic works of Spenser, who had died in 1599, were collected and published in a grand folio volume during 1611. Jonson's new-year masque therefore asserts, even in its title and subtitle, that there is no such thing as a clean slate on which to create new texts: the new year and its products are built on the continuing cultural memories of the preceding era.
The title page of Oberon, as printed in Jonson's own folio Workes in 1616, announces the text as ‘A Masque of Prince Henries’, indicating the young prince's sponsorship of the event, and on 1 January 1611 it was Henry himself who played the title role of the ‘Faery Prince’. This early modern dramatic, musical and visual spectacle is a fitting place to begin our study of the textual culture of 1611 – not only because it was performed on the very first day of the year and is in itself a ‘minor masterpiece’ (Butler, 188) but also because it encapsulates the typically vital interconnections in this period between language, performance, politics and the moment. The simple plot – concerning a set of rebellious satyrs awaiting the arrival of Prince Oberon in their midst – focuses on excited anticipation: the dramatic impulse is forward-looking, intent upon the appearance of this splendid emblem of virtue and authority. The masque is preoccupied with time and is imbued from the start with a sense that the moment – aptly for a new year's celebration – must be seized. The spectacle opens with a night-time scene, described by Jonson as ‘nothing … but a darke Rocke, with trees beyond it; and all wildnesse, that could be presented’ (Jonson 7 (1941), 341). The first figure on stage is a ‘Satyre’, a mythological woodland creature whose presence and physical appearance, featuring ‘cloven feet’, ‘shaggie thighs’ and ‘stubbed hornes’ (345–6), would immediately suggest uncontrolled energies and excessive revelling. Although the emphasis is on ‘play’, it is already significant that there is an urgency about the Satyr's attempt to wake his playfellows with the sound of his cornet:
Times be short, are made for play;
The hum'rous Moone too will not stay:
What doth make you thus delay?
The ‘hum'rous’ moon ‘will not stay’: its brief pre-eminence and its shifting cycles, like the changing humours or moods of human beings, suggest the necessity of haste in the interests of pleasure. The prince whom they hope to see, Oberon, is himself the head of the fairy realm and thus a monarch of the night: even he is constrained by time. The impact of the initial nocturnal scene upon those present on New Year's Day 1611 is recorded in the extant eyewitness account of the diplomat William Trumbull. He refers to the ‘great rock’, the brilliantly craggy form at the centre of Inigo Jones's set, and specifically notes that the moon was ‘showing above through an aperture, so that its progress through the night could be observed’ (Jonson 10 (1950), 522–3). The passing of time is thus made a part of the set's visual effects and, as the action proceeds, the audience is constantly reminded of the temporal nature of the experience: ‘O, that he so long doth tarrie’, cry the impatient Chorus as they wait for Oberon, and later much is made of the cock's crow, a sign of the coming end of the night and so the exact time for the Prince to emerge – he who fills ‘every season, ev'ry place’ with his ‘grace’, and in whose face ‘Beautie dwels’ (Jonson 7 (1941), 343).
When Oberon, played by Prince Henry, is pulled forward in a chariot at this crucial moment in the masque, his arrival is hailed by a song which reminds the audience that the ultimate purpose of the masque is the glorification not of Henry but of King James. The reason given for Oberon's visit is that he is to pay his ‘annuall vowes’ to the legendary King Arthur (Jonson 7 (1941), 352) in a new-year statement of homage. This is yet another way in which the masque is explicitly shaped by the significance of time, but it is also an assertion of the hierarchical authority celebrated by the performance. In the mythology of the drama, Oberon pays his respects to ‘ARTHURS chayre’, but the words of the song explicitly point out that there is only one monarch higher than King Arthur, and that is ‘JAMES’, the ‘wonder’ of ‘tongues, of eares, of eyes’ (351). Seated on his throne in pride of place above the audience at Whitehall, James is the off-stage focus of the nocturnal masque. As Jonson's text asserts, James is the glorious sun by whose reflected light the moon and her prince can shine:
The solemne rites are well begunne;
And, though but lighted by the moone,
They show as rich, as if the sunne
Had made this night his noone.
But may none wonder, that they are so bright,
The moone now borrowes from a greater light.
Through the mirroring effect of the masque's rhetoric and movement, in which the actions on stage are intimately bound up with the relationships in and with the audience, Oberon reasserts James's position as the rightful descendant of Arthur. Indeed, Trumbull's account of the one-off performance of the masque makes it clear that James's political concerns were prominent: the ‘very large curtain’ which hung in front of the set until the performance began was ‘painted with the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, with the legend above Separata locis concordi pace figantur’, meaning ‘May what is separated in place be joined by harmonious peace’ (Jonson 10 (1950), 522). James's regal identity was firmly associated with keeping war at bay – his personal motto was the biblical phrase Beati Pacifici [blessed are the peacemakers] – and one of the major priorities of his reign was to maintain the several kingdoms of the British Isles in relatively peaceful coexistence. In an allegory of James's political concerns, the factions and orders of the fairy world who appear in the masque...