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RANDALL MARTIN Elizabethan Civic Pageantry in Henry VI At the point in Henry VI Part One where the private quarrel between Somerset and York is about to turn into open conflict marking the start of the Wars of the Roses, their respective supporters Vernon and Basset ask the king to arbitrate between wearing either red or white roses as badges of dynastic superiority. Henry spurns their dispute as frivolous, however , and demonstrates his point by casually plucking the closest rose to hand: rsee no reason if I wear this rose, That anyone should therefore be suspicious I more incline to Somerset than York: Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both ... But your discretions better can persuade [Putting on a red rose.] Than I am able to instruct or teach. ". (1 Henry VI, IV.i.152- 9)' He calls upon the rival factions instead to unite against the French and then departs with his counsellors, leaving Warwick to soothe York by explaining that Henry was trying to be conciliatory and really intended no show of partiality by his choice. York cuts short an angry outburst and exits with everybody except Exeter, who remains on stage to interpret as any 'simple man' would the dangers implied by Henry's performance and York's reaction: 'Tis much when sceptres are in children's hands; But more when envy breeds unkind division: There comes the ruin, there begins confusion. (192- 4) The interplay among characters at this crucial moment in Shakespeare's historical trilogy - Vernon and Basset presenting rival political claims under apparently trivial guises, Henry replying unwittingly in a symbolic act, Warwick and York watching and judging both performances, and Exeter commenting on all - recalls the typical dramatic relationship among stage-performers, actor-watchers, and general spectators of Elizabethan civic pageantry. Shakespeare's audience, familiar with the conventions of contemporary figures performing in city pageants as part UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 2, WINTER I990/t ELIZABETHAN CIVIC PAGEANTRY 245 of their general political consciousness, would have recognized Henry's mistake in abdicating the leading role that Vernon, Basset, and the others expect of him. His ignorance of the power of political gesture and naive attitude towards audience interpretation stand in contrast to Elizabeth's calculated and well-publicized reactions to civic pageants. As an actorwatcher progressing through the city, she would encounter various shows and respond to them in ways that left no doubt among spectators about either the single-mindedness of her policies or her willingness to assert them. During the 1559 coronation procession, for example, Elizabeth encountered five scaffold-stations on her way to Westminster. At the third of these, after watching a pageant depicting two commonwealths , one flourishing, another decayed, Elizabeth was presented with an English Bible by a figure representing Truth. Reception of it was clearly intended to signal her attitude towards reformed religion and thus indicate which commonwealth her policies would promote: 'as soone as she had receiued the booke, [sheJkyssed it, and with both her handes held vp the same, and so laid it vpon her brest, with great thankes to the cities therefor." Here, as at all other stations, Elizabeth signified her agreement with the pageant's message by her conspicuous gestures and extemporaneous responses, as noted with approval by the recorder of the day's events and, apparently, the street audience. This is one of several places where Shakespeare draws on civic pageantry 's characteristic style of scenic choreography, and in this paper I wish to study his use of it in the three parts of Henry VI. At some points Shakespeare's borrowings represent straightforward approaches to staging historically recurrent public rituals. As such these scenes gratify an audience's familiar association of certain symbolic roles and gestures with conventional political and social meanings. But at other times Shakespeare dislocates this association by using pageant forms to enact historical events which are neither predetermined nor predictable. The resulting clash between apparently assured form and spontaneous action challenges the idea of inherent meaning in the forms themselves, and perhaps an audience's received understanding of the event as well. Moreover, Shakespeare found in pageantry's representational language, officially designed to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 244-264
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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