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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 6. Introduction of the Antimasque

There were no court masques in the beginning of 1606 and 1607; but Jonson was a second time requisitioned for the masque of 10 January, 1608. The queen wanted the daughters of Niger again, with “their beauties varied according to promise,” and four ladies added to their number. The Masque of Beauty, therefore, is a continuation of The Masque of Blacknesse. Master Thomas Giles “made the dances,” which were exceptionally elaborate, and personated the river Thamesis. The six steps before the throne were occupied by the torchbearers—“a multitude of Cupids, chosen out of the best and most ingenious youth of the Kingdom, noble and others.” Here, unconsciously, the device of the antimasque is anticipated. As in some other masques, the torchbearers wear a distinctive dress, which makes them at once a kind of antimasque. Moreover, The Masque of Beauty, in itself, is a contrast to The Masque of Blacknesse, and their relation must have helped Jonson to reach that theory of the antimasque which is fully developed in his third court masque, The Masque of Queens. But, before going on to this, we have to consider two masques written for weddings.

Jonson’s share in the solemnities which celebrated the marriage of the earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, and Frances Howard, on 5 January, 1606, was the masque Hymenaei, printed with a careful account of the whole arrangement of the dresses and spectacle in the same year. This, therefore, is the first full-grown masque as distinguished from an entertainment which he published. The introductory note shows the high ideals with which Jonson took up the composition of masques. It braced and encouraged his genius to feel that he was producing work to be presented by the highest notabilities of the realm, the queen herself taking the lead.

  • “It is a noble and just advantage,” he says, “that the things subjected to understanding have of those which are objected to sense; that the one sort are but momentary and merely taking; the other impressing and lasting: else the glory of all these solemnies had perished like a blaze, and gone out, in the beholders#’ eyes: so short-lived are the bodies of all things in comparison of their souls.”
  • This consideration has made “royal princes and greatest persons, who are commonly the personators of these actions,” not only “studious of riches and magnificence in the outward celebration or shew,” but, also,
  • curious after the most high and hearty inventions to furnish the inward parts, and those grounded upon antiquity and solid learning; which though their voice be taught to sound to present occasions, their sense or doth or should always lay hold on more removed mysteries.
  • This is an admirable statement of what we find in Jonson’s earlier masques. The splendour and ingenuity of the spectacle set forth some central idea, the characters are taken mainly from classical literature, and the details of their dress and equipment are all minutely accurate—that is to say, Jonson is ready to quote the passage which sanctions his choice. Six masques—the three already named, the second wedding masque, The Masque of Queens and The Masque of Augures—are elaborately annotated by him. In the dedication of The Masque of Queens to prince Henry, we are told that the prince asked for this annotating and, accordingly, it is in this instance that Jonson is most copious. It has, he says, proved “a work of some difficulty to me to retrieve the particular authorities to those things, which I writ out of fulness and memory of my former readings.” We can hardly believe, though Jonson would seem to hint as much, that he composed these masques without a most diligent ransacking of all the classical authors within his reach; but, after making this deduction from his claim, his annotations remain astonishing, and of special and unique interest as an exhibition of the scholarship of an Elizabethan man of letters. Jonson did nothing carelessly; and these notes set a standard of style and establish annotation as a branch of English literature. It is hardly necessary to add that they throw a flood of light upon the culture of the time. The introduction to Hymenaei denounces the folly of those “who squeamishly cry out that all endeavour of learning and sharpness in these transitory devices, is superfluous.” This, doubtless, is a grid at Daniel, who, in his Twelve Goddesses, had spoken slightingly of “whosoever strives to shew most wit about these punctilios of dreams and shews.” Jonson insists that the masque is to draw its types and personages from classical mythology, and considers “a few Italian herbs, picked up and made into a sallad” a meal much too light for a scholar. Hymenaei begins with a bridal procession, very carefully arranged according to ancient Roman ritual, and conceived as a sacrifice of the bride and bridegroom to the goddess Juno or Unio. It is ushered in by Hymen, who is said to have been personated by Jonson himself. Hymen, having addressed the royalties seated in the state, “the first masque of eight men,” appears out of a microcosm or globe marvellously planned in its movement and adornment. These nobles personate the four Humours, and the four Affections, who propose to disturb the marriage ceremonial; whereupon, Hymen invokes Reason’s aid to curb the rudeness of the masquers. They are, therefore, a kind of antimasque. Reason descends from the summit of the globe, and, at his admonition, the Humours and Affections sheathe their swords. Then, the upper part of the scene, “which was all of clouds and made artificially to swell and ride like the rack,” began to open. Juno is discovered with eight of her nuptial powers, each bearing one of her surnames, as used by classical writers. The eight nymphs dance out in pairs led by Order, who is Reason’s servant. These ladies form the second masque. After dancing alone, they pair with the men masquers, and the whole sixteen dance, “with this song provoked”:
  • Now, now begin to set
  • Your spirits in active heat,
  • And since your hands are met,
  • Instruct your nimble feet,
  • In motions swift and sweet,
  • The happy ground to beat.
  • Jonson had prepared an epithalamion of fifteen eight-lined stanzas, admirably translated from Catullus; but “only one staff was sung,” the company being exhausted by the length and elaboration of the performance. The poet, however, “sets it down whole” when he prints—“and I do heartily forgive their ignorance whom it chanceth not to please.”

    While this masque does not reach the highest level of Jonson’s achievement, it is yet a beautiful and dignified composition, only less charming than his next marriage masque, produced for the marriage of lord Haddington on 9 February, 1608, at which Venus, instead of Juno, is the presiding goddess. She appears in her chariot at the top of the scene, and, descending on foot with the three graces, declares that Cupid has disappeared and that she must have him cried, “and all his virtues told.” The verses in which the three graces “cry” Cupid, “Venus’ runaway,” are the perfection of grace and lightness: a sprightlier opening to a masque could hardly be imagined. As the verses end, Cupid discovers himself, “attended with twelve boys, most antickly attired, that represented the Sports and pretty Lightnesses, that accompany Love.” Cupid gives the order to his “little jocund Sports”—“with your revel fill the room”; whereupon

  • they fell into a subtle capricious dance to as odd a music, each of them bearing two torches, and nodding with their antic faces, with other variety of ridiculous gesture which gave much occasion of mirth and delight to the spectators.
  • But these boys are not the masquers. In the forewords of his next masque—The Masque of Queens—Jonson calls them “an anti-masque of boys”; but his first conception of them made them a dance of antics, who perform no true measures but a “revel” of “ridiculous gesture.” A dance of antics, in which the performers wore absurd or monstrous masks, was not unknown in Elizabeth’s time. This, however, means only that Jonson does not reach a full realisation of the antimasque until The Masque of Queens. The torch-bearing Cupids of The Masque of Beauty, the contrast between this and The Masque of Blacknesse, the contrast of the two sets of masquers in the masque Hymenaei, and, finally, the twelve boys in antic attire of The Hue and Cry after Cupid, are the gradual steps by which the idea of the antimasque was reached in Jonson’s mind. After the dance of the twelve boys, Cupid is about to explain what he has been doing when Hymen intervenes and introduces the king to Venus as the modern pius Aeneas, relating how the bridegroom of this great wedding has saved his monarch’s life, and expatiating upon the virtues of the bride. Venus is further overwhelmed by the appearance of Vulcan, at whose command the red cliff at the end of the hall is cloven apart, revealing the wonderful globe in which are the masquers as the twelve signs of the zodiac. All the twelve are ingeniously explained as
  • Sacred powers
  • That are presiding at all nuptial hours.
  • Inasmuch as in the 18th book of the Iliad, Vulcan’s gifts for Thetis were “twenty tripods or stools with golden wheels to move of themselves miraculously,” Jonson, regarding this passage “a most elegant place and worthy the tenth reading,” makes the dances of the masquers signify the magic stools of Vulcan. Two Cyclopes, as the masquers danced, “beat a time to them with their hammers.” An epithalamion of seven verses comes at the end; and, this time, the poet insured the recitation of the whole of it by the device of putting four dances by his masquers “full of elegancy and curious device” between the verses. “The two latter dances were made by Master Thomas Giles, the two first by Master Hier. Herne,” who were the Cyclopes. “The tunes were Master Alphonso Ferrabosco’s. The device and act of the scene Master Inigo Jones’s.” The epithalamion is a noble lyric, which prepares our ears for the more wonderful music of Milton. Again and again, in the verse of Jonson’s masques, we find workmanship afterwards elaborated and improved upon by Milton, between whom and the Elizabethans Jonson is the true link. His ardour and idealism prepare us for the deeper spiritual sublimity of the puritan poet. These two wedding masques have a special charm of their own, and the second of them is the finest of its kind in the language.

    We come now to The Masque of Queens—the third masque written for queen Anne—in which, as we have said, the idea of the antimasque is fully reached by Jonson and definitely stated by him in his commentary. It was presented at Whitehall on 2 February, 1609, and immediately printed by prince Henry’s command. The dedication to the prince is worthy of comparison with the dedication, two years earlier, of Volpone to the universities. The same lofty note is struck; “poetry, my lord, is not born with every man, nor every day”; and the poet goes on to explain that because “the nobility of the invention should be answerable to the dignity” of the persons taking part in the masque, he

  • chose the argument to be A celebration of honourable and true Fame, bred out of Virtue, observing that rule of the best artist, to suffer no object of delight to pass without his mixture of profit and example.
  • This combination of the moralist and idealist is characteristic of Jonson in all his art, but it forms the very soul of his masques and gives meaning and dignity to all their glitter and mechanism. He now gives us his definition of the antimasque.
  • And because her majesty (best knowing that a principle part of life in these spectacles lay in their variety) had commanded me to think on some dance or shew that might precede hers and have the place of a foil or false masque, I was careful to decline, not only from others, but mine own steps in that kind, since the last year I had an anti-masque of boys; and therefore now devised that twelve women in the habit of hags or witches,… the opposites to good Fame, should fill that part; not as a masque but as a spectacle of strangeness.
  • To make a band of witches the foil or opposite of a band of heroines is a striking thought, and interesting from the light it throws upon the general conception of the witch in Jacobean times. The idea took a strong hold of Jonson’s mind and, in his masque, he worked it out with energy. The witches of the masque hold their own beside even the weird sisters of Macbeth. They are the witches of popular superstition, and Jonson’s exceptionally elaborate annotations show the close agreement between these superstitions in ancient and modern times. Jonson’s witches “with a kind of hollow and infernal music came forth” from “an ugly Hell.” There were eleven, with their dame. After a dance, each one relates her misdeeds to the dame, who proposes that they shall try to blast with their wicked incantations the glory of the masque that is beginning:
  • Darken all this roof
  • With present fogs: exhale Earth’s rot’nest vapours,
  • And strike a blindness through these blazing tapers.
  • They fall into “a magical dance, full of preposterous change and gesticulation.” The loud music of the real masque interrupts them, driving the witches back into hell and disclosing the magnificent house of Fame in which the twelve true masquers are seated. Heroic Virtue, “in the furniture of Perseus,” explains the heroines, who are twelve great queens, beginning with Penthesilea and ending with Bel-Anna. The lyric at the close, “Who Virtue can thy power forget,” influenced the ending of Comus. In the witch scene, Jonson’s wonderful power of specialising as a dramatist—of “getting up” a particular trade, or profession—is shown to perfection. Elsewhere, we occasionally miss in him the fire of imagination required for blending the accumulations and observation of his intellect into a vitally artistic product; but, in the present instance, his imagination is at its height, and he puts out his full strength. The third charm conveys powerfully the horrid thrill that was the soul of the witch superstitions, and that depended for its force upon all things ugly and foul in nature.
  • The owl is abroad, the bat, and the toad,
  • And so is the cat-a-mountain,
  • The ant and the mole sit both in a hole,
  • And the frog peeps out o’ the fountain;
  • The dogs they do bay and the timbrels play,
  • The spindle is now a turning;
  • The moon it is red, and the stars are fled,
  • But all the sky is a burning:
  • The ditch is made and our nails the spade,
  • With pictures full, of wax and of wool;
  • Their livers I stick with needles quick;
  • There lacks but the blood, to make up the flood,
  • Quickly, Dame, then bring your part in,
  • Spur, spur, upon little Martin.
  • Jonson, having reached a clear idea of the antimasque, did not go back upon it. But this antimasque quite eclipses its masque. The queens are mere wax-works after the witches. Jonson’s imagination concentrated itself upon the first half of his work. Perhaps he left it to Inigo Jones to supply, by the magic of his scenery, the necessary contrast; in Jonson’s own work, certainly, this is not done. If the second part had been carried out with the imaginative intensity of the first, this masque would have formed the prototype of an artistic species of great and enduring significance.

    In 1610, Daniel supplied the masque for the court, and his Tethys’ Festival shows no advance upon The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses. In 1611, Jonson is again at work: on 1 January, 1611, he produced Oberon at Whitehall for prince Henry, and, in the beginning of February, Love freed from Ignorance and Folly for queen Anne. Oberon is a most delightful masque. The opening is written in dainty octosyllabic verse and elaborates into a charming antimasque the part of the satyr in the entertainment already described. This antimasque made a distinct impression upon the literature of the day. Oberon may be taken as an almost perfect example of the first kind of Jonsonian masque, in which the antimasque is not so much “a foil or false masque” as an antic-masque, something lighter and less dignified than the main masque, but in keeping with it rather than in contrast, and not yet, in any true sense, dramatic. The grace, balance and finish of the whole composition are beyond praise. Unfortunately, this is the last masque annotated by Jonson for the 1616 folio; his notes stop in it halfway, before he reaches prince Oberon. The only later masque which he annotated was The Masque of Augures, specially printed as the first masque presented in the new banqueting hall at Whitehall. Love Freed is a companion piece to Oberon, but inferior to it in conception and workmanship.