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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 381-398

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The Performing Heir in Jonson's Jacobean Masques

Jean E. Graham

When the Prince of Wales, in the film version of Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George, pleads for "something to do," his father replies: "Follow in my footsteps, that's what you should do." 1 In Prince Henry's Barriers (1610), Ben Jonson presents the young heir to the throne with similar advice: Henry should imitate an earlier prince who acted for his father rather than for himself. In battle, Prince Edward had captured a plume "[f]rom the Bohemian crown," which plume "for his crest he did preserve / To his father's use with this fit word: I serve." 2 This motto and what it represents--the son's virtuous actions undertaken for the credit of the father--may serve as an emblem for the masques Jonson wrote for performance by Henry and, after Henry's death, by Charles. One of the messages encoded in these masques is the voluntary subservience of the future monarch to the reigning monarch. Young Charles was noted, in particular, for his filial obedience. In that Jonson's masques succeed in capturing this virtue, they clearly reflect the perspective of Henry and Charles, Jonson's patrons for these masques. On the other hand, James perceived the father-son relationship in terms of filial obedience in response to paternal love. That expressions of affection are absent from the masques perhaps indicates the demands of decorum, but also corresponds with records of Charles's insecurity in his relationship with his father, suggesting that he intended, in his early masques, to seek recognition and approval. Later, as Charles became more independent and James more ill, the masques retain the theme of obedience, while omitting not only love but also any hint of familial relationship. [End Page 381]

Stephen Orgel describes the masque as "[t]he theatre that was created by royal patronage" and so "uniquely responsive to the minds of its patrons." 3 Although Jonson's responsiveness to his patrons has been debated, it would seem natural for Jonson, a father himself in literal and figurative senses, to identify with the paternal monarch. 4 Yet, these masques had not James but Henry and Charles for patrons; thus, whether or not the celebration of patriarchal authority was originally their idea, the young heirs apparently accepted it as a proper subject for their performances. Since the concept of paternal rule was an explicit part of their society, their complicity in their own subjection must have been conscious. As Caroline Bingham asserts about Henry, the Prince of Wales "would have known that he was taking part in an almost liturgical celebration of the cult of monarchy" and "paying the ritual homage to his father, which every masque offered in some form." 5 Participation in the cult of monarchy was an investment in his own future, since he was the designated heir to the throne. Crucial to the cult of monarchy was the idea of king as parens patriae, father of his people, bearing all the privileges ever granted to fathers in the long tradition of patriarchy.

Although James did not invent this concept, he was the first English monarch since Henry VIII able to exploit it as a father. Kevin Sharpe comments that the "power of this political analogue is demonstrated in its persistence through the reigns of a boy, two women and a virgin queen . . . The succession to the throne after Elizabeth of two fathers underlined the associations of the king's personal and politic families." 6 James enthusiastically accepted the role of father to the nation, transferring power from the patriarchal family to the patriarchal king. The quintessential proof of the Stuart analogy between father and monarch is James's Basilikon Doron, the record of his "fatherly authoritie" published for the nation, but originally written as advice to four-year-old Henry, and sent to the boy with a letter which emphasizes the latter's filial place: "a King...


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