Neglected Evidence: Interpreting the Site of an Elizabethan Royal Entertainment
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Neglected Evidence:
Interpreting the Site of an Elizabethan Royal Entertainment

Scholars of Elizabethan performance have analyzed many types of evidence—from literature to visual art to archeological remains of playhouses—but have largely neglected physical evidence from extant multipurpose performance sites. Although, unlike playhouses, these extant sites are not dedicated performance spaces, examining the evidence they offer can give us important insights into the material conditions of Elizabethan performances and the perceptions of Elizabethan audiences. In this essay, I will interpret some of the physical and topographical evidence available at the site of an important Elizabethan entertainment to demonstrate how such evidence can enrich our understanding of performances in this significant period.

In July 1575, Queen Elizabeth I visited Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, at his castle in Kenilworth as part of her summer progress. Progresses were journeys in which the monarch and her court traveled around the kingdom, staying in towns and at the manor houses of nobles. Her hosts typically provided lodging, food, and entertainment for the court. When Elizabeth stayed at Kenilworth in 1575, Leicester spent lavishly to provide her with the most opulent, spectacular entertainment of her reign, including water pageants, mock battles, masques, and other performances. Through these spectacles, he sought to glorify and impress the Queen, but he also sought to glorify himself and impress the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other people in attendance.

Elizabethan progress entertainments had complex audience/performer relationships. The privileged audience member was the Queen: she sat or stood at the best vantage point, the performers often addressed her directly, and most of the dialogue literally or metaphorically discussed [End Page 74] her good qualities. But Elizabeth was a performer as well as a spectator. She performed passively by maintaining an acute awareness that the assembled crowd was watching her during the entertainments and adjusting her composure accordingly. She also performed more actively when pageants incorporated her into their fictions, either as herself or as a mythological character. Her central reason for repeatedly dragging her reluctant court out on summer progress was to engender the loyalty of her subjects by displaying herself to them in a positive light; she dutifully performed the role of majestic and benevolent monarch while the pageant players performed the roles of loyal subjects, admiring mythological figures, and wild villains smitten by the power of the Queen's majestic presence. The assembled spectators watched each of these performances and, in doing so, formed impressions of the Queen and of her hosts who sponsored the spectacles. These hosts—and the writers and performers of the entertainments—were keenly aware that their audience extended beyond the person of the Queen.

Despite this dual orientation toward both the Queen and the non-royal audience, most scholarly studies of Elizabethan royal entertainments focus on the Queen's perception and reception and neglect to examine evidence for other audience members' perceptions. This is partly because the pageant texts have a thematic preoccupation with their royal audience: when you read a dramatic text that keeps talking about and addressing the Queen, you naturally envision the Queen watching and reacting to the performance. But an overreliance on such literary evidence has led to an overemphasis on a single (admittedly important) audience member. Other types of evidence, such as records, maps, and the physical remains of the performance site, can tell us much about what the other spectators would have seen and heard and how they might have received the performances. I will illustrate how an analysis of one type of extant evidence—the physical remains of the castle and estate—can give us clues as to what the diverse audience members at Kenilworth experienced during that hot July of 1575.

The primary sources that scholars have mined most heavily for evidence of the Kenilworth entertainment are two printed texts, both published within a year after the event. The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle was published in 1576 and includes the texts of the pageants held during the Queen's nineteen-day stay.1 The publication attributes authorship to George Gascoigne, but several playwrights actually contributed. Princely Pleasures gives the dialogue and some stage directions for the pageants, which accounted for...


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