Arthurian Masques in the Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson and John Dryden (27th June)

This month we are looking at two Arthurian masques from either end of the seventeenth century. The first is Ben Jonson’s Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610) and the second is the masque that ends John Dryden’s Arthurian semi-opera, King Arthur; OR The British Worthy (1691).

Jonson and Dryden were among the preeminent writers of their days, with both writing for their respective kings, James VI of Scotland and I of England and Charles II. Both also wrote dramatic Arthurian texts, though neither was written for the king you might expect. Jonson’s Speecheswas written on the occasion of James’ eldest son, Prince Henry, being invested as the Prince of Wales, while Dryden’s semi-opera was eventually performed for William III, of whom Dryden disapproved, despite the text originally being meant to honour Charles II, and then James II.

Jonson and Dryden had both held ambitions of writing an Arthurian epic, but neither succeeded in their endeavour. Indeed, it does not seem as though either got very far in their designs, both pleading a lack of funds as the greatest barrier, though Dryden did lay out how he imagined his epic would be constructed. Instead, they channelled their Arthurian efforts into musical spectacles. Both were assisted by a prominent artistic name of the period; Inigo Jones designed the set and costumes for Jonson’s masque, while Henry Purcell wrote the music for Dryden’s semi-opera.

Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Jonson was commissioned to write this masque at the behest of Henry and his mother, Anne of Demark, to celebrate his investiture as Prince of Wales, at the age of sixteen. Before this, Jonson’s royal commissions had generally come from James, and it is possible to see him trying to please two masters within the masque. Henry’s ideas of kingship were far more militaristic, and protestant, than James’, who favoured a more diplomatic, some would say passive, form of kingship, which leant further towards Catholicism. Henry was viewed by many of his contemporaries as the best hope of protestant Europe, and the court that grew up around the young Prince has been linked to the old Elizabethan war party. Henry had an interest in Arthurian matter, and it is said to have been at his request that Jonson made the masque’s theme Arthurian.

The masque features Arthur as a star, bestowing a shield on Meliadus, played by Henry, who is called forth by Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, to find the House of Chivalry in ruins. Meliadus is then treated to a brief sketch of British history by Merlin, which is supposed to teach the young Prince how to be a good king. Merlin’s history features both great military kings, but also has a focus on the economic and social benefits of peace and sound domestic governance.

As the title suggests, the masque was the prelude to Barriers, which lasted much of the night and saw Henry take a great many blows. These barriers represent the last time Arthurian drama and martial spectacle would be linked together, a tradition that stretches back to the Round Table Tournaments first held during the reign of Edward I. It seems likely that these particular barriers were staged, at least to some extent, so as to ensure Henry was not humiliated by too successful a challenger. The barriers were contested on foot, as James had refused his son’s request for horses on the ground of cost.

King Arthur; OR The British Worthy

Dryden’s wroteKing Arthurin 1685 to praise Charles II, but the Duke of Monmouth’s invasion cut its premier short, and Charles II died before the performance could be rearranged. It was then meant to be performed for James II, but he was deposed by William III and Mary II before it could be staged. Dryden claimed that by the time it was finally performed in 1691, with William III on the throne, much of the pieces’ beauty had, had to be cut because it was too complimentary towards the deposed royal house of Stuart. Dryden had no love for William, remaining a Jacobite until the end of his days, and actually resigned the Poet Laureateship because he refused to swear allegiance to the new king.

The semi-opera deals with Arthur’s final battles against the Saxons as he drives the last of them from England’s shores, and also with his romantic pursuit of the fair, blind Emmeline, whose sight Merlin returns. The text is full of spirits and magic, most of which Arthur must fight, with Merlin presiding over all things in his flying chariot. The text culminates in a dual between Arthur and the Saxon king Oswald, which Arthur of course wins. After this victory, Merlin prophesises England’s future, in masque form, detailing the kings who will follow Arthur in a not dissimilar way to Jonson’s Merlin.

The semi-opera was, at the time, the most expensive production ever put on the London stage, and the actor who played Emmeline refused to face the audience when she sang because she feared people would judge her for the faces she had to pull in order to reach the right notes.

7d25d4fc3abb060950fc5f3752b61f5aInigo Jones’ design for the House of Chivalry from Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Questions/Discussion Points

  • How does Jonson navigate the differing models of kingship held by James VI and I, and his son and heir Prince Henry?
  • Do we think that the Barriers could be taken wholly seriously? Is there something inherently comic about people pretending to joust whilst inside?
  • How is James VI and I constructed in Jonson’s masque? Compare him with Prince Henry’s Meliadus.
  • Can we see any criticism of William III in Dryden’s masque? Is there anything overtly pro-Stuart?
  • What purpose do we think Dryden’s masque plays at the end of the semi-opera?
  • Can the medieval Arthurian tradition be spied in either of these texts? How medieval are they? Are they more classical? Or are they not concerned about aping a particular style?
  • What is the role of Merlin in these texts? How is his character constructed?
  • How do the two versions of history constructed by the two Merlins interact? Where they disagree, what might the significance be?
  • How do you imagine the staging of these two masques? How would these work as dramatic pieces?
  • How much do either of these texts draw on the Arthurian legend?
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