A Masque, A Mask, and a Mystery

A Masque, A Mask, and a Mystery

Although she bore no child, Queen Elizabeth I midwifed a number of bright achievements during her reign which persist to this day; among them a settled religious faith, a healthy national commerce, and a nursing of the fine arts, specifically, the development of theater. London still has one of the finest, if not the premiere, theater districts in the world. But in truth, the English love of drama began much earlier than the 16th century.

Theater—A Crash Course by Rob Graham states: “During the 12th century, non liturgical vernacular plays based on biblical stories were performed at festivals, such as Christmas. These were called the Mystery Cycles (the ‘mystery’ was redemption…). Local lads from the crafts guilds and companies performed those ‘passions’ on rough wagons in procession through the streets or on fixed circular stages.”

These plays, staged locally, were mostly enjoyed by the lower classes. The upper class enjoyed theater, too, especially when they put it on themselves. To plays based solely upon Scripture, courtiers added topics such as Greek and Roman gods, comedy, tragedy, and life as they (and their countrymen) knew it. Henry the Eighth was well known as a person who loved to sponsor and act in masques and disguisings. He preferred, of course, to play the valiant knight, or sometimes, what else? the sun itself!

Later in the sixteenth century, plays, playwrights, and performers came into their own and the love of theater spread. The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode, shares that poets and playwrights depended on aristocratic patrons for support. Many of the most highly titled men in Elizabeth’s court sponsored their own troupe, known by the sponsor’s name. For example, The Earl of Leicester’s Men were sponsored by the queen’s favorite, and later, The Queen’s Men were sponsored by Her Majesty herself.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Public Domain, Wikimedia

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Wikimedia, Public Domain

 When the queen finally sponsored her own troupe, the cloudy reputation of players and playwrights finally lifted. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were sponsored by Baron Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin by Mary Boleyn. William Shakespeare wrote many of his plays for the troupe sponsored by The Lord Chamberlain, including Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. Others were writing and performing too. Kermode tells us that, “between 1558 and 1642 there were about three thousand (plays), of which six hundred and fifty have survived.”  
Shakespeare was not only a playwright, he sometimes acted in secondary roles and later, when partnerships began to sponsor performances for financial gains, he was an investor. He was among those who received a grant of arms and a great deal of money for his talents. Some of his better known colleagues and competition weren’t so lucky. Christopher Marlow was stabbed to death at 29; Ben Johnson was often in jail and ended up with a branded thumb.

Plays were also used for political purposes, even against the queen who allowed them to flourish. Historian Simon Schama tells us that the traitorous Earl of Essex sponsored a special production of “Richard II – which deals with the murder of an incompetent king … to gee up his supporters against Elizabeth…” Elizabeth herself approved a play written by Sir Henry Lee, The Hermit’s Tale, which celebrated a woman who chose her father’s dukedom and duty over her own love. She used the tale, masterfully, to signal to her courtiers and her people that she would always put her true husband, England, first.

 Then, and now, drama allows us to explore our lives, our problems, our hopes and dreams, and our loves and losses. In fact, we, too, are players, for as William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and entrances and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

{Main photo credit: By David Gee – Image scanned from first edition of the Chambers Book of Days (1864) by Robert Chambers (died 1871)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=235897}

{Robert Dudley photo credit: By Formerly attributed to Steven van der Meulen – http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/images/Dudley,Robert(ELeicester)03.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1583840}

{Old Globe Theatre photo credit: By Wenceslas Hollarderivative work: Old Moonraker – This file was derived from:The Old Globe.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20070574}

6 Comments On This Topic
  1. Andi
    on Jul 15th at 11:16 am

    So cool! I love them! Thanks for the opportunity!

  2. Jennifer Dow
    on Jul 15th at 1:05 pm

    Are you going to set a tale in the theatre? A story depicting a playwright would be marvelous. You’ve done so much research into this time period and lives of the queen and her contemporaries, you could be a “leading authority” on the subject.
    What a subject it is…royalty, deception, religion, war, love…. 🙂

  3. Lori Thomas
    on Jul 15th at 1:18 pm

    Great post, learned something new. Thx 4 the chance !! Beautiful necklace.

  4. KC Frantzen
    on Jul 15th at 5:15 pm

    So interesting, Sandra.

    I always learn from you, in so many ways.
    Did you see the recent (to me) article about the possibility of Queen Elizabeth being a man?

    Fascinating theories abound about her.
    Love how the Lord used her strength and leadership to help bring about His will for the world. Amazing really.

    Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  5. Donna
    on Jul 29th at 3:13 pm

    I wonder if Elizabeth 1 ever tried writing a play?

  6. sandrabyrd
    on Sep 23rd at 9:51 am

    Hey all! Andi is the winner of the necklace; Andi, I sent an email to you. Please check back soon as I’ll have new blogs … and giveaways!