Masque Narrative

Education: Understanding the Masque

The Four Inns of Court. Photograph by Marc Baronnet

Many young men would be educated at the Inns of Court, of which there were four, where they were trained in law for seven years. The four Inns were The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. These were elite schools of training and considered to be a standard education for a courtier. They did not just learn the legal profession; they were fashionable places of training to become a gentleman at court. It was their informal educational opportunities which made the Inns so vital for the courtier. They had access to schools of dancing, fencing and music, as well as access to the court and it’s charms. They provided a humanistic training; astronomy, history, mathematics, theology, languages (amongst others) could all be pursued. The likes of writers such as Thomas Campion completed their education at the Inns.

Did you know?
It is thought that over 80% of the students here were from the aristocracy or gentry, in comparison to Oxford and Cambridge where it was more like 40%.

At the Inns, at universities and through private tutors, all courtiers were given a classical education; although women’s education was not as formalised as that of men, they did receive enough to understand the symbolism of the masques and to learn about dance and music. Knowledge of classical texts, including mythology, allowed them to understand the symbolic nature of characters in the masque. The masque was an allegorical piece of art, and everything from the characters to the costumes were symbolic. Roman and Greek costume was used by Inigo Jones in both his costume and stage designs; Roman armour was particularly common. The King and Queen were Gods, their court the heroes and heroines of the story. Royal power is always emphasised through the symbology and the morality of the court is equally a common theme. 

Symbolism of Colours

Blue: hope, fidelity and truth, serving men

White: Purity

Red: blood, doctors and cardinals gowns

Yellow:  the sun, wealth (it was costly to produce)

Black: a lawyer

Writing the Masques: Ben Jonson

There were many writers of Stuart court masques, however the most prolific, certainly throughout the reign of James I, was Ben Jonson. He has been labelled by some as the first poet laureate. Jonson did not just write for masques, he wrote poetry, satirical plays, dramas and acted as a literary critic. He had an excellent classical education which strongly influenced his repertoire of works. From 1604 onwards, Ben Jonson regularly wrote for the court and his success lasted until the early 1620s. His collaborative ventures with Inigo Jones were both fabulous and turbulent.

“For the expression of this, I must stand; The inuention was diuided betwixt Mr. Jones, and mee”
Ben Jonson
The Mask of Augurs

Although the two appeared to collaborate peacefully to begin with – Jones’ designs seeming to complement the poetry of the text well – the scrabble to receive the most praise turned against Jonson. Alongside the death of James I and VI, and the rise of his son Charles I (which Jonson believed had left him neglected), his rift with Jones sealed his fate. His refusal to credit Inigo Jones in one of his folios left Jones furious. He used his various contacts at the court to ensure that Jonson did not get the patronage necessary to continue his career there. This was not the end of Jonson’s career, however, and he continued to write until his death in 1637.

Inigo Jones, designer and architect.
Portrait of Inigo Jones

More detailed look at masques:

The first masque at the Stuart Court, it was performed in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace in 1604. It was written by Samuel Daniel, a graduate from Oxford University, who had already written a fair amount of verse and essays before this masque.  In 1603, after Elizabeth’s death, Anne of Denmark appointed him as Master of the Queen’s revels. This piece was a special performance, commissioned by Anne of Denmark, the new Queen, and the performance was put on to some excitement; she featured in the masque as a classical goddess. Ambassadors from many places were at the performance and were very anxious to attend; the French ambassador threatened to kill the Spanish one if he was not able to attend!

There was certainly symbolism in the masque – with one manuscript describing how The Countess of Nottingham played Concordia “with a crimson and white mantle embroidered with figures of hands intertwined to signify the union of England, and would present a white and red rose bush”. The goddesses all symbolised a variety of virtues and carried gifts of symbolic meaning to the temple on stage. The speaking parts are taken from classical mythology – Night and her son Somnus (God of sleep), as well as Iris.

Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger was paid for the songs he created for the masque and some of the musicians even had costumes; the cornet players were dressed as Satyrs (characters from Greek mythology). Costumes are thought to have been taken from the rather extensive wardrobe of the late Queen Elizabeth I. who had left over 500 luxurious gowns. Despite this the masque was not inexpensive, and Anne is thought to have worn thousands of pounds worth of jewels and gems – something which became fashionable at the Stuart masque events.

Performed in 1631, it was the first masque performed following the ascension of Charles I in 1625; since Charles performed in the masque, it was also the first piece in which a reigning monarch had taken part. It is thought that the gap in masquing was due to the fact that Henrietta Maria was too young when she arrived in England to take on the role that Anne of Denmark had in masque culture. It was a Twelfth Night masque, following the tradition of masque performances making up the Christmas entertainments. It was a classic collaboration between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, performed at the Banqueting House; “the masque was performed at the court with great splendour” according to John Pory.

As with many other masques – the characters and settings were taken from classical mythology. One theory sees that the Muses are presented by Neptune at the feet of Heroic Love (played by Charles I) who might be identified as the God Apollo; a hugely complex figure in mythology, Apollo is most often seen as the God of War, although he is also linked with many other sentiments. It also dealt with the idea of platonic love; Callipolis was a city devoted to beauty and virtue, but the antimasque shows that the city had been infiltrated by twelve lovers from continental Europe, who prove to be immoral. These lovers are expelled from the place, which is purified by the presence of the King and his men in their masks.

This masque, the last of the dramatic and turbulent reign of Charles I, was  steeped in politics and  mythology. The title refers to an ancient Greek legend, where the barbarians are pacified. It was intended to convey messages of pacification and peace; this reflects Charles’ need to pacify parliament after summoning them following 11 years of personal rule. Furthermore, Charles cast several members of the court’s Parliamentary Faction in the masque. Despite Charles’ attempts at pacification, the parliament session in 1640 proved disastrous and is known as the Short Parliament.

It was performed in front of Henrietta Maria’s mother, Marie de Médici, the widowed French Queen in exile. Her presence at the time posed a political threat, as she was a pro-Spanish, Catholic presence, therefore undermining relationships with the French and Cardinal Richelieu. He had expelled Marie from France in the first place and her extravagant reception worsened the hostilities between France and England. 

Both Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria, performed in the masque making it unique. They are presented as two parts of a whole with “all [their] virtues in one happiness”. It borrows from both French and Italian productions, with dancing in the style of the French Ballet à Entrée.  The anti-masque presents chaos and discord which, although common in many masques, seems particularly relevant given the tenacious political situation at this time. The King was shown to reform the discord through educational advice provided by a spiritual mentor (the Queen). As with many masques it ponders the influence of corruption.

The dynamic clash between good and evil does not occur as it had in other masques, with the anti-masquers of disorder leaving before the forces of good arrived. Fury’s arrival, “having already put most of the world to disorder”, is highly representative of the renewed warring between France and Spain. Inigo Jones used ship imagery in his scenery which may well have been in connection with the relatively recent Battle of the Downs which had bought the Thirty Years War closer to the shores of Britain. The malignant spirits which threatened the King’s peace are, perhaps, a veiled reference to the Scottish Covenanters of 1639. Although the King and Queen were greatly pleased with the masque,  “disorder” was reported, and it is not thought to have been well regarded by its rather limited audience. The whole masque is one of the last artistic statements on divine rights commissioned by Charles I.

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