Elizabethan period

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The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin_Nunes,_official_color_photo_portrait
Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

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King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

Bacon's Essays: Of Masques and Triumphs

Masques were a very popular form of entertainment at court in the Jacobethan period (James + Elizabeth. Bacon pretends to think little of them, but he wrote several and must seen many. By our standards, they sound fairly static, pompous, heavy-handed on the morality front, although apparently often including half-naked noblewomen.

Wikipedia has a clear definition: “A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron.”

Great state and pleasure

oceania
Oceania, design by Inigo Jones, for Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, 1605.

Bacon begins by apologizing for including such a trivial topic in his collection of essays, which are generally about weightier matters. “But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost.” If you must do it, do it right.

Then he seems to contradict himself, and I can’t resolve it. Whately’s no help here. First Bacon says, “Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure.” Then, after specifying some features, like singing in quire (chorus), he says, “Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing).”

So which is it, Frank? State and pleasure, or mean and vulgar? We’re standing here with our foot lifted, ready to trip it feetly.

A little farther on, he says, “Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity.” Here I think he means pantomime, a widely-shared opinion.

Bit of a digression: Inigo Jones, whose lovely designs for costumes have survived, was mostly an architect. He was appointed Surveyor-General of the King’s Works (King James I) in 1615. This was an age of tremendous building of fantastically lavish prestige houses, as they’re called — many of which you can go and visit today. Jones participated in the design of masques because everyone who could contribute, did so, to gain the favour of King and court. Francis Bacon was a philosopher and a great legal scholar, for pity’s sake, and he wrote the silly things.

Petty wonderment

That’s almost an oxymoron for me, but not for Bacon. I think he means things that are flashy or too obvious. “[T]hose things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense”; not things that force your attention.

daughterofniger“Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied.” I think masques were usually performed indoors, at night, so light would indeed be a part of the spectacle that could be designed. I don’t know for sure, but colored light can be produced by putting a candle or torch behind a piece of thin colored silk. “The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory.” Os and spangs must be spangles – bits of reflective material.

“Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed.” We don’t want mealy-mouthed music. Let it ring out!

On the costume front: “As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.” That’s good cost-saving advice there. Don’t embellish to no effect! “Let the suits of the masquers be graceful, and such as become the person, when the vizors are off.” Vizor is a mask. Certainly your want your costumes to flatter the wearer, especially when the wearer is someone like Queen Anne.

He considers the olfactory sense as well – Jacobean sensurround. “Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.”

“But all is nothing except the room be kept clear and neat.” Yes, indeed.

The antimasque

An antimasque (also spelled antemasque) is a comic or grotesque dance presented before or Tempest-masque-1between the acts of a masque, a type of dramatic composition. It’s usually a spectacle of disorder, to contrast with the performance of divine order in the masque proper. You need to know that for Bacon’s advice to make sense.

“Let anti-masques not be long; they have been commonly of fools, satyrs, baboons, wild-men, antics, beasts, sprites, witches, Ethiops, pigmies, turquets, nymphs, rustics, Cupids, statuas moving, and the like. As for angels, it is not comical enough, to put them in anti-masques; and anything that is hideous, as devils, giants, is on the other side as unfit.”

Bacon was raised by a strict Calvinist, remember. He doesn’t approve of putting angels in a scene of discord.

A brief word about Triumphs

These are grand public displays, most likely processions of some kind. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is a sort of Triumph, with floats representing this organization or that tradition.

“For justs, and tourneys, and barriers; the glories of them are chiefly in the chariots, wherein the challengers make their entry; especially if they be drawn with strange beasts: as lions, bears, camels, and the like; or in the devices of their entrance; or in the bravery of their liveries; or in the goodly furniture of their horses and armor. But enough of these toys.”

This float with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is so Jacobean, it’s absolutely perfect. No strange beasts, but it’s big and colorful and an expression of the government’s military might.

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An example

A tiny taste of the sort of thing that went on in a masque, from Ben Jonson’s 1605 The Masque of Beauty, found at Luminarium. They’re usually mythological in nature, and might have a moral — or not so much. They will usually include a fair amount of thinly-veiled flattery for the monarch, his queen, and any other major patrons who might be around.

B O R E A S.

W

 Hich, among these is AlbionNeptunes Sonne? 
  
  I A N V A R I V S.

W

 Hat ignorance dares make that question? 
Would any aske, who Mars were in the wars? 
Or, which is Hesperus, among the starres? 
Of the bright Planets, which is Sol? Or can 
A doubt arise, ‘mong creatures, which is man? 
Behold, whose eyes do dart Promethian fire 
Throughout this all; whose precepts do inspire 
The rest with duty; yet commanding, cheare: 
And are obeyed, more with loue, then feare.