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Effaced History: Facing the Colonial Contexts of Ben Jonson's Irish Masque at Court

From: ELH
Volume 65, Number 2, Summer 1998
pp. 297-321 | 10.1353/elh.1998.0015

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ELH 65.2 (1998) 297-321

On 29 December 1613, King James I and his invited guests congregated at Whitehall to celebrate Frances Howard's now infamous second marriage to the King's favorite, Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. Ben Jonson's The Irish Masque at Court, commissioned at some considerable expense, provided the evening's entertainment. The fact that Frances Howard was embroiled in sordid divorce proceedings with her first husband, the Earl of Essex, that the King was complicit in obtaining this politically motivated divorce, and that Ben Jonson had presented a masque, Hymenaei (1607), in celebration of the earlier union, did not, on the surface at least, dampen the revelry. Neither, as one might expect, did Jonson's Irish Masque dwell on the incriminating aspects of the scandal. In fact, the masque's effacement of contemporary Jacobean politics endures as its defining characteristic. Moreover, Jonson's decision to fashion his epithalamion for the Somerset wedding around Irish visitors to court, suggests the extent to which Ireland served as an alternative arena into which Jacobean society could conveniently displace compromising realities.

Jonson's masque relates how Irish "imbashators" (206, l. 11), attending the Somerset wedding as a sign of devotion to James, lost their festive dresses while crossing the Irish sea. Four uncouth Irish footmen run into court anxious to explain the Irish ambassadors' mishap to "King Yamish," and -- after squabbling as to who will tell the story, and numerous other digressions and interruptions -- dance their anti-masque to "bagpipe and other rude music" (210, ll. 121-22). The aristocratic ambassadors come forth, supposedly naked under Irish mantles, and dance "to a solemn music of harps" (210-11, ll. 125-26). Unlike the footmen, who were professional actors from James I's "Gentlemen, the King's Servants" (206), Jonson's Irish ambassadors, we know, were played by five English and five Scottish Jacobean courtiers. This alliance of England and Scotland might appear coincidental, but it reflects precisely the bifurcated nature of King James's sovereignty. In addition, it parallels exactly the ethnic make-up of the New English colonizers just then enforcing the Ulster Plantation in Ireland. Jonson's masque represents colonial Ireland by utilizing persons complicit in the colonizing program, and in the process, again suggests a capacity to contain cultural dislocation within James's nation state by means of its displacement to Ireland.

Ultimately, a "civil gentleman of the nation" (211, l.127), who is accompanied by an Irish Bard, silences the footmen and drives them from the stage, "Hold your tongues! . . . begone!" (211, ll. 134-36). The gentleman then solicits compliance to James's colonial plantation of Ireland, and the bard, symbolizing the King's divine power, effects a transformation in keeping with masquing etiquette. The Irish ambassadors, their "slough let fall" (212, l. 165), come forth arrayed in orthodox masquing apparel, offering an idealized portrait of Ireland's incorporation into the nation state. Such idealized portraits are the stuff that masques are made of. Meanwhile, non-conforming realities were ready to expose the masque's fictional content. Jonson's Irish ambassadors do have an historic equivalent, and the real-life delegation to James's court was not preoccupied with celebrating the Somerset wedding. In fact, while the Irish Masque was entertaining those gathered at Whitehall, a delegation of Old English, Ireland's earlier colonial settlers, was anxiously awaiting James's decision on a petition which, amongst other things, charged the King with allowing their New English rivals to gerrymander the 1613 Dublin Parliament. Needless to say, when James summarily dismissed the Old English petition at his royal adjudication in April 1614, the gap between real-life politics and Jonson's idealized alternative proved conspicuous.

Too often this Irish context is ignored or passed over in examinations of Jonson's Irish Masque. Traditional readings tend to comment on Jonson's device, outline the comic aspects of the anti-masque, and conclude by designating it yet another compliment to King James's royal power. Only David Lindley's essay, "Embarrassing Ben: The Masques For Frances Howard," illustrates the extent to which contemporary Irish politics provide the "occasion" for Jonson's Irish Masque. Lindley interrogates Jonson...

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