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  • “Love’s Friend and Stranger to Virginitie”: The Politics of the Virginal Body in Ben Jonson’s Hymenaei and Thomas Campion’s The Lord Hay’s Masque
  • Marie H. Loughlin

It has become commonplace in studies of the Renaissance masque to cite the famous definition of this genre’s purpose and function which prefaces Ben Jonson’s Hymenaei, a definition which speaks of the “sense” or material aspect of the masque as that which “or doth or should always lay hold on more removed mysteries” at the same time that it also “sound[s] to present occasions.” 1 However, as the critics Stephen Orgel, Jonathan Goldberg, and Leah Marcus among others have warned, there is an important distinction between taking Jonson’s formulation seriously and allowing it to serve as the neoplatonic critical paradigm within which we define the relationship between a masque’s occasion and its “more removed mysteries.” Indeed, many critics have recently demonstrated a desire to problematize this relationship, indicating that it is crucial to recognize not only the interested nature of Jonson’s definition but also our own tendency to treat the masque occasion as an interpretive master-key rather than as a nexus of discourses and ideologies which itself needs unravelling. While such critical interest has resulted in the examination of how particular masque occasions are informed and shaped by a variety of discourses (such as neoplatonism, James’s political project of Anglo-Scottish union, the internal politics of the period’s aristocratic families, and so on), the more broadly cultural contexts of these occasions remain largely unexplored. 2 Since only a book-length study could hope to delineate in any comprehensive way all of the cultural assumptions and discourses which helped fashion such occasions and the dialectic between a specific masque occasion and its performance, this paper will confine its attention to one facet of this complex and contradictory nexus: how early modern contructions of the body and sexuality inform, complicate and occasionally undermine both Hymenaei’s and The Lord Hay’s Masque’s gestures towards various types of ideal unity between king and country, husband and wife, subject and monarch. Although James’s persistent figuring of monarchical [End Page 833] power in familial terms and his emphasis on individual aristocratic marriages as a means of cementing political ties, especially between England and Scotland, lend themselves particularly well to embodiment in these two wedding masques, the problematic and fissured construction of the female virginal body and its desires in early modern England creates serious problems for these two poets’ differing attempts to use marriage and the wedding night as apt symbols of James’s drive for Anglo-Scottish union.

Hymenaei’s obsession with the fact of marital defloration is perhaps its most unusual feature, and has attracted some critical attention since this emphasis seems to belie rather than illuminate the central fact of the marriage between Frances Howard and Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex: due to the extreme youth of the participants (13 and 15 years of age, respectively) its physical consummation was to be delayed for three years. However, while David Lindley accounts for Jonson’s insistence on the lawful defloration of the wedding night as an embarrassing miscalculation which distorts “the reality of the young couple” in favour of the poet’s aesthetic and political goals as well as his desire to demonstrate his classical “scholarship,” clearly Jonson is also motivated by Frances Howard’s anomalous social and cultural position as virginal wife. 3 He attempts to elide this suspension, the long delay between marital vow and physical consummation, precisely by insisting upon the immediate causal link of marriage ceremony and marital defloration, by using the generically conventional references to defloration which occur in all Renaissance wedding masques and making them the central focus of the action and verse. From the masque’s outset, Reason emphasizes the natural conclusion of the marriage rites in the sexual activity of the wedding night, noting that the major symbols presented (the altar and the fire and water) all refer to the physical union of the couple in marital intercourse. Although the couple are separate at the altar of Juno, “this happy night” they will...

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