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ELH 68.4 (2001) 763-793

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"Counterfeit Egyptians" And Imagined Borders:
Jonson's The Gypsies Metamorphosed

Mark Netzloff

Upon his initial entrance in Jonson's masque, The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621), the figure of the Patrico (or "hedge-priest") calls the audience's attention to himself, "that am bringer / Of bound to the border." 1 The concern for control of borders was an appropriate one in Jacobean England. At the local level, vagrant groups, including gypsies, defied antivagrant legislation that attempted to limit their geographic mobility and keep them within their home parish. 2 But the neighboring counties of England and Scotland known as the Borders were particularly notorious in the Jacobean period as a haven for gypsies and vagrants, groups who could evade prosecution within an area already populated by cattle raiders (or "reivers") noted for a similar disregard of the Anglo-Scottish border. 3 The border counties presented a threat to civil order and ideas of cultural unity because of the ease with which the cultures of gypsies, vagrants, and reivers could interact and mix together, even forming the possibility of an alternative community. The border region was therefore defined by the fluid character of its boundaries, the lack of distinct barriers between regions and constituent cultures. And while the Patrico characterizes the Borders as an area specifically beyond social control, he defines his role, like that of James VI and I during his joint rule of Scotland and England, as being able both to define and control that border.

Jonson's The Gypsies Metamorphosed replicates the evasive character of gypsy cultural difference through its own remarkable lack of aesthetic boundaries. The masque frequently blurs traditional distinctions between masque and antimasque, most exceptionally by giving many of its main speaking roles to courtiers rather than professional actors, who instead direct the performance in their gypsy roles as the Patrico and the Jackman (or "educated beggar"). In addition to casting the king's favorite, George Villiers, the Marquis of Buckingham, as Captain of the Gypsies, members of Buckingham's [End Page 763] family and circle impersonate the remaining gypsies, including William, Baron Feilding (Buckingham's brother-in-law); John, Viscount Purbeck (Buckingham's eldest brother); the courtier Endymion Porter; and Sir Gervase Clifton, a baronet from a nearby Nottinghamshire family. 4 The Gypsies Metamorphosed was Jonson's most popular masque, a work performed on an unprecedented three occasions: at Buckingham's new estate at Burley-on-the-Hill on 3 August 1621; at Belvoir, the estate of Buckingham's father-in-law, the Earl of Rutland, two nights later; and finally, a month later at court in Windsor. 5

The most substantial analysis of the masque, Dale B. J. Randall's book-length study Jonson's Gypsies Unmasked, argues that the lack of differentiation between masque, antimasque, and court audience produced by the gypsy disguise enabled Jonson to express more safely the potentially subversive comparison of the king's favorite and his followers to a band of gypsies. 6 Several episodes in the performance demonstrate how the masque's use of the gypsy image undermines traditional aesthetic boundaries of the genre. Buckingham, as Captain of the Gypsies, is given a role that is likened to gypsy leaders (or "Kings") from antivagrant literature--such as the figure of Cock Lorel, whose feast for the Devil is described in the masque--comparisons that would seem to place Buckingham as a figure similarly outside civil society and inimical to the court. The masque is also notable for the degree to which it breaks the diegetic frame of the masque, further implicating its coterie audience in the gypsies' actions as the gypsies read the fortunes of members of Buckingham's family (in the Burley and Belvoir versions) or court officials (in the Windsor production). The division between masque and antimasque is further blurred as the courtier gypsies mingle with the four clowns (Cockerel, Clod, Townshend, Puppy) and even rob them during a country dance.

Randall's analysis, which emphasizes the subversiveness of the masque's portrayal of Buckingham, nonetheless does not fully explain either its...


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