Shakespeare, The Tempest and the Masque

Shakespeare, The Tempest and the Masque :

Prospero’s Insubstantial Pageant


David Hurley

A Presentation for the Shakespeare & Modern Authors Society


September 2016

In this presentation I will discuss Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the masque culture of the Jacobean court which is reflected in the heart of the play. The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last “romance,” may be described as a pastoral comedy informed by a Neoplatonic idealism that also acknowledges within limits the necessity of Machiavellian statecraft for the realisation of peace and reconciliation through politico-magical control. As such, The Tempest represents the culmination of Shakespeare’s engagement with prudence, integrity, and fortune (reconfigured as “therapeutic providence”) that I discussed in my paper, Machiavellian Prudence & Integrity in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays in September 2015.

In today’s presentation, I will focus on the function and significance of the betrothal masque in Act 4, Scene 1 of The Tempest, which fuses Neoplatonic idealism with “pastoral vision” (McFarland) in a festive marriage dance. At the same time Prospero’s masque may be seen as an example of a prince enacting his will through the “arcana imperii” or “mysteries of statecraft” in which awe-inspiring display serves to embed the ideology of the prince in the minds of the viewers.

Indeed, the metatheatrical device of staging a representation of a masque within the play, and effecting its sudden removal in a moment of recollection of danger – when Prospero remembers that Caliban is conspiring to murder him – (an apprehension which proves ironically illusory thanks to the decisive foresight and preventative action of Ariel) serves as a commentary on the interplay between the fox-like utility of political pageantry as an edifying display of princely virtù, and the necessity of a leonine, or peremptory, political action, “behind the scenes” and ideally at a remove, through the office of a minister, servant, or secretary of the prince.

The 17th Century Court Masque

The masque was a form of courtly entertainment that had its origins in Italy and reached its fullest form of expression in the courts of King James 1st and King Charles 1st in the early 17th century.

Whereas plays were plot driven, the plots of the court masque were simple and subordinate to the spectacle, which was achieved through elaborate costumes and costly stage designs, with static settings giving way to swift and astonishing changes of scenery.

Performances included a combination of poetry, music, dancing, singing and acting, often by members of the court and the royal family themselves, such as Queen Anne and Prince Henry.

Each masque was designed as an allegory, usually drawing on Neoplatonic philosophy and classical sources such as Greek mythology, pastoral settings, classical architecture and so on, and intended as a compliment to the monarch or the aristocratic couple in the case of betrothal allegories. The allegory was completed when, at the end of the masque, the masquers and the audience would come together in a concluding dance.

Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones And The Jacobean Masque

The masque reached its apogee as a courtly entertainment in the fruitful, though tempestuous, collaboration of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, whose first collaboration was The Masque of Blackness, created for Queen Anne and her ladies, and performed by them before King James at the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, on Twelfth Night 1605.

Jonson wrote the script, Inigo Jones designed the costumes, sets and stage effects, and this division of responsibilities led to an argument over which aspect of the masque should have precedence.

According to Jonson, the poet should have precedence because poetry is an art that is for all time, and is the “soul” of the masque, whereas the scenery and stage effects are its material form, and as such, the products of an ephemeral mechanical skill which will disappear from view as soon as the masque is over and the scenery destroyed. Typical of Jonson, his argument, informed with considerable jealousy and ill-feeling is biting in its satire:

What is the cause you pomp it so? I ask,
And all men echo, you have made a masque.
I chime that too: and I have met with those
That do cry up the machine, and the shows!
The majesty of Juno in the clouds,
And peering forth of Iris in the shrouds!
The ascent of Lady Fame which none could spy;
Not they that sided her, Dame Poetry,
Dame History, Dame Architecture too,
And Goody Sculpture, brought with much ado
To hold her up. O shows, shows, mighty shows!
The eloquence of masques! What need of prose,
Or verse, or sense to express immortal you?

(Ben Jonson: An Expostulation with Inigo Jones, Works VIII, pp. 402-8)

Having Juno appear in the clouds was a feature of several Jacobean masques, such as Samuel Daniel’s Vision of the Twelve Goddesses of 1604, and Ben Jonson’s betrothal masque, Hymenaei of 1606; it is in the preface to Hymenaei where Jonson explains his view of the masque:

IT is a noble and iust advantage, that the things subjected to Vnderstanding have of those which are objected to Sense, that the one sorte are but momentarie, and meerely taking; the other impressing, and lasting: Else the Glory of all these Solemnities had perish’d like a Blaze, and gone out, in the Beholders eyes. So short-liv’d are the Bodies of all Thinges, in comparison of their Soules. And, though Bodies oft-times have the ill lucke to be sensually preferr’d, they find afterwards, the good fortune (when Soules live) to be vtterly forgotten.

This it is hath made the most royall Princes, and greatest Persons, (who are commonly the Personaters of these Actions) not onely studious of Riches, and Magnificence in the outward Celebration, or Shew; (which rightly becomes them) but curious after the most high, and hearty Inventions, to furnish the inward parts: (and those grounded vpon Antiquitie, and solide Learnings) which, though their Voyce be taught to sound to present Occasions, their Sense, or dooth, or should alwayes lay holde on more remov’d Mysteries.

The key word is “Inventions” because, for Jonson, in the tradition of humanist rhetoric, “invention,” or “inventio” is the primary part of a poet’s work and involves finding suitable subjects for presentation in the work of art, whether a poem, a play or a masque.

However, Inigo Jones, deeply influenced by Italian theories of architecture, specifically those of Andrea Palladio, as well as by the stage designs of Alfonso and Guilio Parigi, also claimed the role of invention – and “design” – for his part in the creation of the court masques:

invention belonged to him (Jones) too, and so did a newer and grander word, design, which meant the idea, the first mental act, of which any structure was only the embodiment.

(D. J. Gordon, The Renaissance Imagination, p. 19)

Interestingly, Jonson and Jones agree that the “idea,” or “Understanding” or “Soule” of a work of art has primacy over the “Sense” or “Body,” both in accordance with the technical meanings that define the functions of emblems, their images and mottoes, and as a reflection of Neoplatonic, hermetic and Christian thought, which permeates Jonson’s masques and Shakespeare’s play.

What Jonson found objectionable in Jones’s claims was the elevation of architecture and stage design from the status of a mechanical craft or trade to that of an art. Even so, the comparison of the verbal to the visual is a commonplace of Renaissance thought, which took the Horatian comparison of poetry to painting in the formula,

ut pictura poesis

(Horace, Ars Poetica)

and often expressed it in terms of equivalence so that painters might be described as poets and poets as painters, each of equal dignity. In his Defence of Poetry, Sir Philip Sydney uses commonplaces of Aristotle, Plutarch and Horace to offer a typical definition of poetry as,

an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word “mimesis” – that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth – to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture – with this end, to teach and delight.

(A Defence of Poetry, ed. J. A. Van Dorsten, p. 25)

In Jonson’s opinion, however, the primacy of poetic invention also fulfills the ultimate purpose of the masque, which is not only to convey the “Glory” of the monarch, and to place him within a Neoplatonic universe, but also to serve as a theatrical “specula principum” – a mirror of princes – into which princes can look (both during the performance, and afterwards, in the printed text of the masque) to “furnish the inward parts” with the solid, though “remov’d” mysteries of princely rule.

Masques, then, in this view, have a didactic purpose, which is to educate the prince while delighting the audience with a demonstration of his power and glory and of the peace, harmony and good order that flows from his reign. The didactic purpose of the masque is that part which “lasts” through the poetry, of which the visual is merely a fleeting illustration; in this respect at least, Jonson and Shakespeare are probably in agreement, as suggested by Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech (Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 148), prefigured in part by the opening couplet of his 55th sonnet:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

The Kings Men And The Jacobean Masque

The influence of the Jacobean masque was quickly felt, if not by the king, then certainly by Shakespeare and his fellow players, whose acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was renamed The King’s Men and came under the patronage of the new king in 1603..

The King’s Men would most likely have acted in the antimasques and in those speaking parts of the masques that were not performed by the aristocratic masquers. According to Andrew Gurr, their plays began to show the influence of the masques from 1610 onwards (Philaster, ed. Gurr, p. xxxix-xi) with the betrothal masque of The Tempest being the most conspicuous example, although it should be noted that masque scenes occur in Shakespeare’s earlier plays too, such as the brief wedding masque in Act Five, Scene Four of As You Like It (written circa 1599).

According to Janette Dillon,

What Shakespeare presents in Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest is close to what Jacobean masque presents: spectacular and conclusive moments of clarity and confirmation shown in the descent of gods and goddesses or the seeming resurrection of the dead. There is, in sum, a move away from revels and towards revelation. At the same time, however, we should note that there is no clear break with the older forms of masking, either in Jacobean masque or in Shakespeare’s late plays. Jacobean court masques retain many elements of Elizabethan mask, including the entry of formal groups of exotically costumed dancers; and The Tempest scripts a masque of nymphs and reapers alongside the descent of Juno.

(Janette Dillon, From Revels to Revelation: Shakespeare and the Mask, SS 60, p.67)

The Evocation of the Pastoral in the Betrothal Masque

One of the functions of the betrothal masque in Act Four, Scene One of The Tempest is to evoke a feeling of pastoral innocence. In the opening speech of the masque, Iris devotes approximately nine of her sixteen lines to an evocation of the pastoral landscape which Ceres inhabits:

Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas
Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease;
Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,
And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep;
Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,
Which spongy April at thy hest betrims,
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom-groves,
Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,
Being lass-lorn: thy pole-clipt vineyard;
And thy sea-marge, sterile and rocky-hard,
Where thou thyself dost air…

(Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 60-70)

Of the eight lines of Ceres’ reply, approximately five and a half are given over to pastoral allusion:

Hail, many-coloured messenger, that ne’er
Dost disobey the wife of Jupiter:
Who, with thy saffron wings upon my flowers
Diffusest honey drops, refreshing showers,
And with each end of thy blue bow dost crown
My bosky acres, and my unshrubbed down,
Rich scarf to my proud earth…

(Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 76-82)

In her sung verse to the bridal pair, Ceres blesses them with a pastoral vision bucolic plenitude:

Earth’s increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines and clustering bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burthen bowing;
Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest!
Scarcity and want shall shun you;
Ceres’ blessing so is on you.

(Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 110-117)

Ferdinand is charmed, as indeed Prospero intends him to be, and sees in the masque, the island those who inhabit it a vision of the earthly Paradise,

Let me live here ever;
So rare a wonder’d father and a wife
Makes this place Paradise.

(Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 122-124)

This reminds us of Gonzalo’s evocation of the golden age (drawn from Montaigne) in response to his experience of the goodness of the island in Act 2, Scene 1:

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

I would in such perfection govern, sir,
T’excel the golden age…

Whereas for Montaigne, the utopian vision is bound up with a retreat from world, for Shakespeare, it ultimately underpins the necessity of a qualified (re-)engagement with the world of affairs for both Prospero and Ferdinand. Indeed, the pastoral evocation of the golden age in the masque within the play marks a key stage in the Neoplatonic ascent of Ferdinand who progresses from being a (supposedly) drowned soul, to being washed up on the island, forced into indentured labour as a log-bearer, but already a young admirer of the idealized feminine, to marriage or symbolic union of royal souls (as in the game of chess), and is ultimately “prospered” in his ascent to a kingly crown.

The goddesses of the masque are idealized feminine equivalents of Prospero (Juno), Ariel (Iris) and the earthly energy of Caliban apotheosized into a bountiful mother goddess (Ceres). They govern the pastoral setting and restore both mankind and nature to prelapsarian innocence. Love is true and leads to marriage. Cupid’s lustful arrows are broken. There is no rape or abduction (Proserpina carried off by Dis, Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda). Nature blesses mankind with abundant harvests and no winter season; man and nature coexist in harmony (symbolized by the dance of the Naiads and reapers) and Lear’s storm is transmuted into Prospero’s harmless tempest.

As Thomas MacFarland observes,

The abundance poured forth from such a cornucopia of comic and pastoral benignity elicits from Ferdinand, as it must from all audiences everywhere, the judgment that “This is a most majestic vision, and / Harmonious charmingly.”

(Shakespeare’s Pastoral Comedy, p.167)

Enraptured, Ferdinand cries out,

Let me live here ever

(Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 122)

The meta-theatrical conjuring of the masque freezes the action of the play even as it conveys to Ferdinand an allegorical message that is made explicit in the 53rd Sonnet:

And you in Grecian tires are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison of the year:
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear.

And yet, Ferdinand’s education is not yet complete. The masque is after all, a metatheatrical device on Shakespeare’s part, and a conjuring “trick” a “vanity” of Prospero’s art that enraptures the viewers almost as much as Prospero’s secret studies “transported” him when Duke of Milan:

The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported,
And rapt in secret studies.

(Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2, 76-77)

Prospero has learnt that magic cannot usher in the golden age (for “Thought is free” – Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2, 126) except as an insubstantial masque to enchant and edify those who are open to its charm, and only then at the expense of their taking action in the world of affairs.

Prospero, enraptured by the dream of magic, loses his dukedom; it is only when he realigns magic with statecraft that he is able to regain his dukedom, achieve his dynastic ambitions and a measure of grace through forgiveness, even if he is unable to change the heart of his brother.

In conjuring up the betrothal masque, which seems to come into being on the “short grassed green” right before the eyes of his audience, Prospero has induced in them and in himself the same enraptured lassitude that is so inimical to political action . Hence his “distemper” when he remembers Caliban’s plot (which, ironically, has been forestalled by Ariel).

We are reminded that although no harm will ultimately be done death also lurks in Arcadia – et in Arcadia ego – and although Prospero works his magic in the Tempest and the masque to bring about a happy resolution worthy of a pastoral setting, the island, for all its enchantment, obdurately appears to be in accordance with the predisposition and imaginative capacity of each of the characters who encounter it, and as such, it has its fair share of stinking marshes, toothed briers, sharp furzes, pricking gorse and thorns.

Magic cannot affect the heart of man without his consent, but it may operate as a form of political artifice that enables the prince to achieve his ends. Those ends – the improvement of the state of mankind – are achieved through work rather than leisure, “labor” as opposed to “otio,” as Francis Bacon would also affirm. Shakespeare’s masque in The Tempest, while alluding to the extravagant luxury and profligacy of the Jacobean court ironically sanctifies and idealizes the work of the reapers, agricultural labourers who enjoy a holiday to celebrate a bountiful harvest and blessed marriage.

However, the blessings offered by the goddesses are not to be enjoyed in an otiose Arcadia, as Ferdinand imagines, but back in Italy. Ferdinand and Miranda must return, as must Prospero and Alonso, to perform their royal duties for the benefit of their subjects, the union of their kingdoms. Ariel’s last commission is to provide calm seas and auspicious gales.

The Tempest and the masque: Our revels now are ended.And yet, all the trappings of royal power, symbolized in the “baseless fabric” of the stage sets of the court masques, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself (which, in Jonson’s betrothal masque, Hymenaei, hangs suspended over the stage from a wire invisible to the audience and splits open to reveal the masquers), and the racks of clouds that move across the painted sky, all shall disappear as surely and swiftly as one masking scene dissolves into another before the whole insubstantial pageant disappears into the oblivion of time and universal sleep.

A Conditional Machiavellian Statecraft

Though our lives may ultimately be the stuff of dreams and rounded by a sleep, The Tempest does not end there. There is work to be done here and now. For a king or a duke, the necessities of government require an engagement with the “arcana imperii” or “secrets of state” which resemble in their theatricality the tricks and deceits of magic; the Machiavellian and the magical occupy a similar territory, but the ends to which they are put are the key: Prospero’s enraptured lassitude, his fascination with magical studies, causes him to neglect and therefore lose his dukedom; but then, being removed from affairs by force of circumstance, and putting his knowledge to work, he finds the means to conjure up his own restoration to power and the settlement of the dynastic question and with it, perhaps achieve Machiavelli’s dream of a unified Italian republic ruled by a virtuous Prince, through the marriage of the Milanese Miranda and the Neapolitan Ferdinand.

Magic is therefore the cause of both loss and recovery, for Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and for all the Italians washed up upon the island, upon whom Prospero exercises his powers. The movement of loss and recovery is alluded to allegorically in Ceres’ loss and recovery of Proserpina.

Prospero discovers the proper use of white magic for political purposes in the Tempest and the masque; such a use places him virtuously between the vices of the goetic magic of Sycorax and the Machiavellism of Antonio in a reaffirmation of the kind of therapeutic providence that I discussed in my presentation in September 2015.

One question remains: does Prospero actually renounce his magic, or merely engage us in a final act of Machiavellian dissimulation?