Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Masque, A Mask, and a Mystery

by Sandra Byrd

Although she bore no child, Queen Elizabeth I mid-wived a number of bright achievements during her reign which persist to this day, among them a settled religious faith, a healthy national commerce, and a nursing of the fine arts, specifically, the development of theater. London still has one of the finest, if not the premiere, theater districts in the world. But in truth, the English love of drama began much earlier than the 16th century.

Palace Theater, London
Theater—A  Crash Course by Rob Graham states: "During the 12th century, nonliturgical vernacular plays based on biblical stories were performed at festivals, such as Christmas. These were called the Mystery Cycles (the 'mystery' was redemption...). Local lads from the crafts guilds and companies performed those 'passions' on rough wagons in procession through the streets or on fixed circular stages."

Early Chester Mystery Play

These plays, staged locally, were mostly enjoyed by the lower classes. The upper class enjoyed theater, too, especially when they put it on themselves. To plays based solely upon Scripture, courtiers added topics such as Greek and Roman gods, comedy, tragedy, and life as they (and their countrymen) knew it.

Henry VIII was well known as a person who loved to sponsor and act in masques and disguisings. He preferred, of course, to play the valiant knight, or sometimes, what else? the sun itself!

Later in the sixteenth century, plays, playwrights, and performers came into their own and the love of theater spread. The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode, shares that poets and playwrights depended on aristocratic patrons for support. Many of the most highly titled men in Elizabeth's court sponsored their own troupe, known by the sponsor’s name. For example, The Earl of Leicester's Men were sponsored by the queen's favorite, and later, The Queen's Men were sponsored by Her Majesty herself.

When the queen finally sponsored her own troupe, the cloudy reputation of players and playwrights finally lifted. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were sponsored by Baron Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's cousin by Mary Boleyn. William Shakespeare wrote many of his plays for the troupe sponsored by The Lord Chamberlain, including Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. Others were writing and performing too. Kermode tells us that, "between 1558 and 1642 there were about three thousand (plays), of which six hundred and fifty have survived."

Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon
Shakespeare was not only a playwright, he sometimes acted in secondary roles and later, when partnerships began to sponsor performances for financial gains, he was an investor. He was among those who received a grant of arms and a great deal of money for his talents. Some of his better known colleagues and competition weren't so lucky. Christopher Marlow was stabbed to death at 29; Ben Johnson was often in jail and ended up with a branded thumb.  Plays were also used for political purposes, even against the queen who allowed them to flourish.

Sir Henry Lee

Historian Simon Schama tells us that the traitorous Earl of Essex sponsored a special production of "Richard II - which deals with the murder of an incompetent king ... to gee up his supporters against Elizabeth..."

Elizabeth herself approved a play written by Sir Henry Lee, The Hermit's Tale, which celebrated a woman who chose her father's dukedom and duty over her own love. She used the tale, masterfully, to signal to her courtiers and her people that she would always put her true husband, England, first.

Then, and now, drama allows us to explore our lives, our problems, our hopes and dreams, and our loves and losses. In fact, we, too, are players, for as William Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and entrances and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages."   

Please visit Sandra Byrd's website, here, to learn more about the Ladies in Waiting series, and her blog, here, for Elizabethan themed giveaways!

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