Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Masque of Queens

Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens was first performed for James I and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, on February 2, 1609. The piece is particularly flattering to Anne, who performed in it, as well.

Anne was not alone. She was accompanied by the Countess of Montgomery, the Countess of Arundel, the Viscountess of Cranbourne, the Countess of Derby, Lady Elizabeth Guilford, the Countess of Huntingdon, Lady Anne Winter, Lady Windsore, the Countess of Essex, and Lady Anne Clifford. Because royalty and nobles were participating in the performance, Jonson wrote that it was his intention "to see that the nobility of the Invention should be answerable to the dignity of their Persons."

To better show off the beauty of the ladies, Jonson began with "an Anti-masque of Boys" who were dressed "in the habit of Hags, or Witches, sustaining the Persons of Ignorance, Suspicion, Credulity, &c. the Opposites to good Fame." This prelude provided "a Spectacle of strangeness," according to Jonson. The set designer Inigo Jones also built an image of Hell for the witches to make their entrance from, accompanied by "a kind of hollow and infernal Musick." The witches then called for their leader with this charm:

      Dame, Dame, the Watch is set:
      Quickly come, we all are met.
      From the Lakes, and from the Fens,
      From the Rocks, and from the Dens,
      From the Woods, and from the Caves,
      From the Church-yards, from the Graves,              
      From the Dungeon, from the Tree
      That they die on, here are we.
            Comes she not yet?
            Strike another heat.

Sound a bit like a certain Scottish play by one of Jonson's contemporaries? The witches' second charm does, too, perhaps even more so:

      The Weather is fair, the Wind is good,
      Up Dame, o' your Horse of Wood:
      Or else, tuck up your gray Frock,
      And saddle your Goat, or your green Cock,
      And make his Bridle a bottom of Thrid,
      To rowl up how many Miles you have rid.
      Quickly come away;
      For we, all, stay.
            Nor yet? Nay, then,
            We'll try her agen.

The Dame who leads the witches finally does arrive, and leads them all in "a magical Dance, full of preposterous change, and gesticulation." This was supposed to be an inversion of the customary rules of dance, with the witches "dancing back to back, and hip to hip, their hands joined, and making their circles backward, to the left hand, with strange phantastick motions of their heads, and bodies." Jonson credits the choreographer Hierome Herne with coming up with this spectacular stage business.

In the middle of the dance, "on the sudden, was heard a sound of loud Musick" and then "not only the Haggs themselves, but the Hell, into which they ran, quite vanished." In place of Hell "appeared a glorious, and magnificent Building, figuring the House of Fame. The twelve ladies, including the Queen herself, were arrayed on this arch. Jonson knew better than to give these noblewomen a bunch of lines to recite, so instead they just had to present themselves in costumes designed by Jones, representing famous Queens from history.

An actor dressed as Perseus representing "masculine Vertue" descended to the stage and said:

      So should, at Fame's loud sound, and Virtue's sight,
      All dark, and envious Witchcraft flie the light.
      I did not borrow Hermes Wings, nor ask
      His crooked Sword, nor put on Pluto's Cask,
      Nor on mine arm, advanc'd wise Pallas shield,
      (By which, my Face avers'd, in open field
      I slew the Gorgon) for an empty Name:
      When Virtue cut off Terror, he gat Fame.

He then introduced the women who adorned the House of Fame. Eleven of them were queens of the past: Penthesilea the Amazon, Camilla of Volscia, Thomyris of Scythia, Artemisia of Caria, Beronice of Egypt, Hypsicratea of Pontus, Candace of Ethiopia, Voadicea (Boudica) of Britain, Zenobia of Palmyra, Amalasunta the Goth, and Valasca of Bohemia. On top of this pyramid of fame sat Queen Anne herself, in the person of "Bel-anna."

Fame personified then appeared, "attir'd in white, with white wings, having a collar of gold about her neck, and a heart hanging at it." She said to Virtue:

      Vertue, my Father, and my Honour; thou
      That mad'st me good, as great; and dar'st avow
      No Fame, for thine, but what is perfect: Aid,
      To night, the triumphs of thy white-wing'd Maid.
      Do those renowned Queens all utmost Rites
      Their states can ask. This is a night of nights.

The queens then mounted chariots and bound up the witches. The masque ended with this song:

      Who, Vertue, can thy power forget,
      That sees these live, and triumph yet?
      Th' Assyrian Pomp, the Persian Pride,
      Greeks Glory, and the Romans di'de:
            And who yet imitate
      Their Noises, tarry the same Fate.
            Force greatness all the glorious ways
            You can, it soon decays;
            But so good Fame shall never:
      Her Triumphs, as their Causes, are for ever.

Jonson's masque didn't last forever, and the Stuart monarchy itself collapsed within a generation. We do have some of Jones's sketches of the costumes, though. Here's his design for Artemisia, as played by Lady Elizabeth Guilford:

You can also watch video of a 2016 production of the masque at New College Chapel in Oxford. They clearly didn't have the budget of James I's court, but hey, they gave it a try!