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Fertile Visions: Jacobean Revels and the Erotics of Occasion
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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.2 (1999) 327-356

The past two decades have seen a remarkable renaissance of interest in the court masque, due largely to the pioneering mythographic studies of D. J. Gordon, Stephen Orgel, and Roy Strong, and equally importantly, to the recent vitality of politically inflected historical criticism. And for good reason: the masque is something of a New Historicist's dream come true, a genre exemplary of literature's direct engagement with the micropolitics of English court culture, or, as Ben Jonson puts it in his preface to Hymenaei, a genre preoccupied with "sound[ing] to present occasions" (line 17). In the wake of detailed studies by Dale Randall, Orgel, Jonathan Goldberg, Stephen Kogan, Leah Marcus, Jerzy Limon, David Lindley, and Martin Butler, to name just a few, detailed readings of masques within their specific occasions have become plentiful, more attentive to political subtleties, even, I daresay, compulsory. In the process, we have largely left behind the work of an earlier critical generation, work associated with names like E. K. Chambers, C. R. Baskervill, and Enid Welsford, work concerned with tracing the continuities between the masque and traditional folk drama and ritual. This neglect is not entirely undeserved, for this critical generation, working on a much longer time scale and concerned to portray masques as more than merely royal propaganda, tended to paint in rather broad and depoliticized strokes. This approach, with its links to the comparative mythology of James Frazer, sought to assimilate the masque (indeed all of literature) with a unified field theory of myth and folk ritual, and by so doing, it tended to elide the dynamics of region, gender, class, historical moment, and political affiliation. In their hands, the masque became yet another example of long-lived rituals rooted in agricultural and seasonal cycles, rather than, to borrow Leah Marcus's terms, a "local" form.

Even so, we may have been too hasty in discarding the insights of this earlier critical generation, insufficiently nuanced though they may have been. One area where they retain their usefulness for masque criticism is in assessing the meaning of the dance. Scholars interested in political topicality have tended to focus on the masque text (particularly on the antimasque) and, to a somewhat lesser degree, its staging. This focus is easy to understand, since these elements are the most fully documented and, not incidentally, of most interest to theater scholars. But our stress upon text and scenic design is arguably a distortion. Evidence suggests that the Jacobean masque's raison d'être is its culminating dances, the revels, dances which eventually included much of the audience and typically lasted for more than half of the evening. The point can be expressed schematically: masques are not theatrical texts with dances appended; they are dances with theatrical texts appended. Typically, Jacobean masque dances follow a relatively stable pattern: at the completion of the antimasque, itself often punctuated with comic or grotesque dances, the masquers first process from their seats within the masque scene to the dance floor and there perform one or more sets of single-gender dances for the audience. These carefully choreographed solo or ensemble dances are designed to display the prowess, beauty, and virility of the individual members of the court. After these dances, the masquers invite members of the court to join them in a general dance, the revels proper, which often lasts for much of the remaining night. Typically the song prefacing the general revels stresses the special efficacy of the single-gender dances: it is those dances, so goes the fiction, that motivate the court to join in the general dance. Equally typical is a final song that announces the end of the evening, sometimes linked to a final dance (or, in later masques, to added comic or "antic" dances), at which the masquers exit in an elegant processional.

It is in the context of the revels that the wedding and Twelfth Night masques of the Jacobean court typically announce their status as aristocratic fertility rites. The Jacobean masque describes the ritual effectivity of its masque dances in terms of their generation of erotic energy that culminates in...

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