On a trip to the archives back in 2009, after a day of wallowing in dust, I made an exciting discovery: a documented moment of women’s speech in masque.
Masque—which became popular during the 17th century—allowed women to dance on stage as long as they remained silent. For years, scholars have argued a separation between women masquers (who were silent) and male actors (who could speak). But the Entertainment at Theobalds troubles these categories by asking what counts as on-stage speech. Must lines be scripted? Can they be impromptu? What if they result from intoxication?
Though masques were formal events, they were also extremely decadent. In 1606, when Queen Anna’s brother Christian IV of Denmark visited England, debauchery was the entertainment du jour. According to attendee John Harrington, “the Danes brought with them their habitual propensity for drinking, and James and his Courtiers complimented the strangers by partaking” (Nichols n.1). Not only were men involved; for the “Ladies abandon[ed] their sobriety, and [were also] seen to roll about in intoxication” (72).
By the start of the Entertainment at Theobalds, Danish liquor had saturated the court. King Christian, interrupted the performance, slurring a request to dance with the lady playing the Queen of Sheba; he then “fell down,” while fellow courtiers “went backward […] from wine” (Nichols 73). Describing the female masquers, Harrington says:
Now did appear, in rich dress, Hope, Faith, and Charity; Hope did assay to speak, but wine rendered her endeavors so feeble that she withdrew, and hoped the King would excuse her brevity […] Charity came to the King’s feet […] but said she would return home again, as there was no gift which Heaven had not already given his Majesty. She returned to Hope and Faith, who were both sick and spewing. (Nichols 73)
Adding to the melee, Peace “rudely made war with her olive branch,” beating her companions’ heads, while Victory committed “much lamentable utterance” (Nichols 73). Thus the masquing women literally spoke—repetitively and freely.
The Entertainment at Theobalds is the earliest recorded instance of women speaking in masque. It was a thrill to find because it encourages a reconsideration of women’s performance history.
Other W&M articles by Miranda Nesler:
Miranda Nesler is an assistant professor of early modern literature at Ball State University in Indiana. Her current book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama examines how Renaissance women strategically used household entertainment to represent themselves as dramatic authors. She is also the editor at Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.
Image: Inigo Jones. Costume Design, “The Masque of Augures.” London, 1622. (The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire)
John Nichols. The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James I, and His Royal Consort, Family, and Court, Collected from Original Manuscripts. Vol. II. London: Society of Antiquaries, 1828.