Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Hardin Aasand
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The Winter's Tale: Introduction


32Jacobean Culture and Royal Absolutism

In the midst of the sheepshearing festival in Act IV, a group of artisans perform a gallimaufry of gambols," a dance of satyrs that resounds for the court audience who witnessed Ben Jonson's earlier Masque of Oberon. The masque entertainment—a spectacle of dance, song, and elaborate scenic devices by Inigo Jones—is a trademark of King James's court and James's own penchant for "spectacles of state." Though the dance of satyrs is often seen as a detachable interlude inserted into the play by Shakespeare to take advantage of the King's Men role in Jonson's entertainment, the presence of the dance and the spectacle clearly reflects both a Jacobean aesthetic influence and the courtly venue of the Banqueting House, site of the November 5th performance and the later December and February 1612-3 performances arranged for the festivities surrounding the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Frederick the Elector Palatine, later King of Bohemia.

33Masques were allegorical extensions of the royal court in which panegyric praise of the monarch performed an embellishment of courtly power:

Masques were essential to the life of the Renaissance court; their allegories gave a higher meaning to the realities of power and politics, their fictions created heroic roles for the leaders of society. . . . In form they were infinitely variable, but certain characteristics were constant: the monarch was at the center, and they provided roles for members of the court within an idealized fiction. (Orgel, Illusion 39)

34The ascension of James I to the kingship of England provided not only the patronage of court masques but also more importantly a domestic and political break from Elizabethan rule, in which dynastic succession remained a public fear. As David Bergeron (Royal Family) has noted, James I brought with him a family of potential successors who provided a stability that was desirable to a country ruled previously by the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. James's reign provided, thus, a domestic economy that made him not only pater patriae at the national level but also pater familas of the domestic family. Despite the promise of orderly succession, the relationship between James and Queen Anna of Denmark, and more specifically between the monarch and his children, Prince Henry and Prince Charles, engendered a public display of familial rivalries and domestic discord, a theme that is prevalent in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The promise of succession and the potential ruptures between father and son are profoundly relevant in the relationships between Leontes and Mamillius and between Polixenes and Florizell.

35While the Jacobean family may not be responsible for the dynamics reverberating within the The Winter's Tale, their presence reminds us of the power of theatre to reflect its cultural milieu. As Jonathan Goldberg has observed, James I frequently applied domestic metaphors to the promulgation of regal doctrine. In his 1597 Trew Law of Free Monarchies, James I writes "as the Father of his fatherly duty is bound to care for the nourishing, education, and virtuous government of his children even so is the king bound to care for all of his subjects" (James I Political Works 55). In the more intimate Basilikon Doron addressed to Prince Henry and intended as a royal handbook for a future monarch, James reminds his son of his "fatherly authority" (4) and the need to regard his future subjects in patriarchal terms. More dramatically, Leontes' extended discussion with Mamillius over their physical resemblance is itself a representation of the very real need for monarchs to guarantee their legitimacy through dynastic succession and a visual, emblematic imprinting of the royal patriarch upon his children. The dialogue between Mamillius and Leontes is worth citing in full, for its content is nothing less than the patriarchal need to guarantee a succession that duplicates the legitimacy of its ancestry:

[LEONTES]
How now, you wanton calf,
Art thou my calf?
MAMILLIUS
Yes, if you will, my Lord.
LEONTES
Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have
To be full like me, yet they say we are
Almost as like as egg -- women say so
That will say anything. But were they false
As o're-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters? False
As dice are to be wished by one that fixes
No bourne 'twixt his and mine, yet were it true
To say this boy were like me? Come, Sir Page,
Look on me with your welkin eye, sweet villain,
Most dearest, my collop.
(1.2. 126-39, TLN 201-213)

36In a famous double portrait of 1583, James and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, are captured on canvas in a pose that asserts their visual resemblance: face, gestures, and posture are exactly duplicated, and mother and son mirror each other. James's authority is affirmed by his physical resemblance to his mother, a fact not lost on Leontes as he looks on his own progeny.