Epiphany masques

Best wishes for the new year! To remain in the festive spirit a little, although most of us have probably returned to work by now, I thought I would write a little on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which in the early modern calendar was the culmination of the season’s festivities at court. The theatricals on Twelfth Night (6 January) were especially spectacular: “the fancifully disguised masquers entered unexpectedly, bursting into the hall, often bearing gifts of the monarch and chief guests, danced prepared measures before the company, and then drew members of the court into the dances” (Graham Parry in A New History of English Drama, edited by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, 1997, 197).

The tradition of these seasonal masques at the English court came into existence early in the sixteenth century. Edward Hall describes one of the first masques to be danced in England, on the evening of Epiphany (that is, tonight!), 1512: “the kyng with a XI other wer disguised, after the maner of Italie, called a maske, a thyng not seen afore in Englande; thei were appareled in garmentes long and brode, wrought all with gold, with visers and cappes of gold, and after the banket doen, these Maskers camein, with sixe gentlemen disguised in silke, bearing staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce, some were content, and some that knewe the fashion of it refused, because it was not a thyng commonly seen.”

Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Masques and Triumphs” prescribes some of the visual, auditory and indeed, olfactory, pleasures of the masque:

Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied; […] Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed. The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory. […] But chiefly, let the music of them be recreative, and with some strange changes. Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.

Queen Anna was especially fond of masques, and she brought the tradition to a whole new level at Whitehall Court. Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ Masque of Blackness, performed on 5 January 1605, was the first of these revolutionary new and technically complicated masque, in which Queen Anna and her ladies appeared as “blackamoors.” The new historicism has devoted much attention to the dramatic genre of the masque, and analyses the form as a device of power in absolutist monarchy (see Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power, for example). Graham Parry also writes that “it was a felicitous coincidence that the most magnificent event of the court year usually took place on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, for a god was ineed revealed among men, and a succession of miracles occurred in the Banqueting House to suggest the presence of divinitiy in the person of the king” (202). Recently, however, Barbara Lewalski in her wonderful book Writing Women in Jacobean England has revised this view, and has stressed the subversive feminist potential of Queen Anna’s masques.


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