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“Those Beautiful Characters of Sense”: Classical Deities and the Court Masque Judith Dundas The flight into the imagination which was implicit in the whole production of court masques took courage from two sources, classical allusion and moral significance. However fan­ tastic the thinly spun plots or however marvellous the stage machinery and costuming, these received some sort of anchoring to reality through recognizable myths and morally sound princi­ ples. The didactic no less than the political function of these myths has been stressed in recent criticism; in the words of Stephen Orgel, the masque fictions served to create “heroic roles for the leaders of society.”! Such an interpretation tends to emphasize the political and ethical goals of the masque, its “Platonic Politics,” at the expense perhaps of the aesthetic purpose, the kind of enjoyment offered by an art that is above all ornamental—an art that, for the sake of pleasure, imposes a decorative form even upon the moral message and makes pattern an imperative. To this requirement, myth itself, without losing dignity, must conform; so Daedalus as dancing master instructs the court in the virtuous life, “And doth in sacred harmony comprise/ His precepts.”2 Perhaps the true purpose of the masques lies not altogether in their political or Platonic significance but in the beauty with which they adorned the lives of king and court. To associate the King with Neptune or Jupiter is not only to supply him with a heroic mould for future action but to enrich the present moment for him and the rest of the audience by allusion to a world of delightful imagination. When Ben Jonson speaks of the “sound JUDITH DUNDAS is Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her publications include articles on Spenser, George Herbert, and Ben Jonson as well as essays on the theory and practice of ut pictura poesis. 166 Judith Dundas 167 meats” and the “more remov’d mysteries” that his masques have to offer,3 he is, like any Renaissance writer, pointing to the meaning of his work. As artist, he sees himself as the servant of truth, but to limit this truth to either political or moral mes­ sages is to engage in an almost commercial literalizing of the value in a work of art. A survey of the classical mythology in the masques could reveal more poetry and less expediency than current criticism is in the habit of discovering. Even the some­ times complex allegories serve for delight; they are the aliquid salis, without which the masque would be vapid. We need, I believe, to redefine the seriousness of the genre, to place in perspective both political and moral goals instead of making them the sole justification for so much extravagance. In other words, we need to recover some of the playfulness involved in this particular type of play-acting, in which gorgeously attired courtiers move in an elaborately choreographed world of fantasy based on that classical past to which the Renaissance had given its heart. We may not fully realize to what extent classical mythology was viewed as the subject matter of beauty, but rhetoricians and poets knew this, as did the great Renaissance painters. Fracastoro, for example, says that the only kind of writing that is absolutely beautiful is about gods and heroes.4 Once freed from the medieval necessity of posing as personifications of good and evil, the mythological figures could appear clothed in their own beauty of form. So it was that Rubens aspired to bring the classical gods to life in his painting, not merely by imitating the ancient statues but by seeing the spirit imprisoned in the stone and depicting that. In a remarkable statement in his De imitatione statuarum, he notes that “many neophytes and even some experts do not distinguish stuff from form, stone from figure, nor the exigencies of the marble from its artistic use. . . . Whoever can make this distinction with wise discretion should indeed welcome the statues in a loving embrace; for what can we, decadent children of this erring century, accom­ plish? What vile spirit keeps us weaklings fettered to the ground, far away from that heroic stature and...


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