Court Spectacle in Stuart England

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Court Spectacle in Stuart England

Rising Splendor.

Under the Stuart kings James I and Charles I the celebration of court entertainments and spectacles rose dramatically. The Tudor queen Elizabeth I had always been relatively restrained in the staging of court spectacles when compared to the grandiose continental standards of France, Italy, and Germany. To keep royal finances in check, Elizabeth had practiced a strict economy, and while the scale of the Tudor court was grand, it paled in comparison with that of France or of her later Stuart cousins. During the first years of James I's reign, the court's expenditure on clothing, food, and entertainment rose dramatically. James and Charles both admired masques, a complex entertainment that emphasized dancing and that had been introduced into England by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century. The masques continued to be celebrated throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), particularly at Twelfth Night (that is, Epiphany, the final celebration of Christmas) and on Shrove Tuesday just before the beginning of Lent. Masques combined singing, poetry, and dancing, and they employed both members of the court as well as professional dancers, players, and acrobats. The core of these productions always lay in the masked dances that littered them, and oftentimes the choreographed figure dances that occurred in the staging of a masque lasted several hours. The masque was thus a hybrid theatrical spectacle, and one that Elizabeth I's successor, James I, transformed into a major tool of royal glorification. His spectacles served important propagandistic purposes, both domestically and abroad, as the masques staged at court increasingly supported James's theory of the divine right of kings. In James's reign, the number of such productions rose steadily. In Tudor times the masques had been used primarily as a diversionary entertainment at Christmas and before the onset of Lent, but now they were performed at the conclusion of marital alliances, at royal births, and at the signing of treaties. Gaining entrance to one of the spectacular productions mounted at court was a highly sought honor among the foreign dignitaries who lived in England during James's reign. The texts and scenarios of many of these productions still survive, but the literary and dramatic impact of these spectacles always paled in comparison to their theatrical values. Inigo Jones, chief architect to both James I and Charles I, designed the scenery for many productions, and his great Banqueting Hall, constructed between 1619 and 1622 near Whitehall Palace in London, was built to provide a suitably grand venue in which to stage the court masques. To entertain his royal patrons, Jones kept abreast of the latest advances in theatrical machinery that had been developed in recent times in France and Italy, importing the tools of his trade from abroad or building anew machines from continental designs. Besides the many high-quality masques that Ben Jonson wrote and Inigo Jones staged for the court, a number of other Stuart playwrights also were commissioned to produce masques, including Thomas Middleton, George Chapman, and Francis Beaumont. As the tide of lavish productions rose in England during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, many playwrights, including Shakespeare, inserted smaller theatrical masques into their own plays. Thus in this way the fashion of the court for spectacle exerted an influence over the commercial theater.

The Masque Under Charles I.

The scale of royal productions of masques continued to rise during the reign of James I's son, Charles I (r. 1625–1649). Charles's wife, Henrietta Maria, was a daughter of King Henri IV and Queen Marie de' Medici of France, and as such she brought with her to the English court a taste for dance and elaborate spectacles. During the first few years of Charles's reign, a taste for new French styles of dance flourished in the court masques, and the cost and scale of these productions increased to new, unheard-of levels. At the same time, Puritan dissatisfaction with Charles's religious policies as well as those of his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, steadily mounted. One of the most outspoken of these critics was William Prynne, who detested the lavish ceremonialism of the Church of England's rituals and was also a vociferous opponent of the theater generally and of court spectacle especially. Prynne's pamphleteering against these "popish," or Roman Catholic, influences began soon after Charles I's accession, and by 1527 he was already being tried for sedition. Trained in the law, Prynne beat these first charges on a technicality, but from 1630 onward he was under almost constant threat by the royal government for his opinions and publications. He continued to write, however, and in his Histrio Mastix (1633) he attacked the contemporary theater, dancing, and the court of Charles I as well as the king's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. By any standard, Prynne's more than 1,000-page attack on theatrical spectacle was extreme, since it accused any woman who took part in dances and theatrical productions of whorishness. It was a daring charge since Prynne well knew that Henrietta Maria was an avid lover of both the theater and the dance. Yet Puritan distaste for these arts ran deep, and Prynne's onslaught against the stage continued even during the seven years he was imprisoned, and his determination encouraged others to speak out against the theater as well. Beside imprisoning Prynne, Charles I's reaction to the Histrio Mastix was swift and determined. Prynne had been a member of Lincoln's Inn, one of the four guilds of lawyers who practiced in London's courts. Charles immediately demanded that London's law guilds provide him with a suitably grand theatrical to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. The members of the law guilds thus were required to stage The Triumph of Peace, a production that cost them more than £21,000 to mount—a prodigious sum when most Englanders survived on less than £100 per year. The production of this masque and the many hours of processions and pageantry that preceded it in the streets of London set new standards for profligate royal display and did little to heal the growing enmity between the Crown and Puritan Londoners. Thus the theater played a role in the rising sentiment that was to produce the Puritan Revolution in England, and ultimately result in King Charles I's execution in 1649.


David Bevington and Peter Holbrooks, eds., The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Skiles Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).

David Lindley, ed., The Court Masque (Manchester, England: University of Manchester Press, 1984).

see also Dance: Dance in Court Spectacle

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Court Spectacle in Stuart England

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