Mere Gestures? Dance and Renaissance Kingship

Harry McNamara 26 February 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Will Kemp, an actor, danced from London to Norwich in 1600. It was an eccentric gesture from a man who had, the year previously, fallen out of the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s troupe, after a sometime-starry career as a clown. Kemp was the original Dogberry in Much Ado and Peter, the Capulet servant in Romeo and Juliet, who sings badly. He cut an irritating and likeable figure of uneducated loquacity and threw forward his words which, with comic design, often fell short.

Kemp’s dance to Norwich is the working of a peculiar character’s imagination, a man from the bawdry theatre underworld of sixteenth-century London, who needed money and knew only foolery to get it. He published an account of his escapade in Nine Days Wonder. More than an amusing insight into Kemp’s curious habits, the dance represents the culture of mirth that would grow in James I’s reign and become codified into a system of governance constituted through state revelry.

The Jacobeans ensured submission to royal authority by licensing festival freedom, a method of renewing royal authority by systematising regular disorder. A state-sanctioned calendar of festive days allowed the release of social tensions, an instrument of power that evolved into William Laud’s techniques of ecclesiastical governance in the later Stuart period (Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury, executed in 1645). Laud privileged ecclesiastical space (reviving the rituals of church consecration and keenly elevating and railing the altar). He remediated this exclusion of lay village communities by actively encouraging an inclusionary community politics of mirth and festivity.

The court then that arrived in the years after Kemp’s dance was ablaze with revelry, expressed in the grand profligacy of Inigo Jones’s spectacular set designs for James’s court masques (the silkman’s bill alone for the Masque of Queens in 1609 was £1,984, extraordinary when it was customary to limit the overall budget to around £2,000.) Masques were occasional pieces of theatre packed with a system of mythological and allegorical reference that acted to represent the ideals of the court. Their profuse designs – costumes, stage machinery, sets – were coupled with accompanying verse penned by various playwrights in that period, most prolifically Ben Jonson, Samuel Daniel, and others.

John Harrington watched on with polite embarrassment at a masque in 1606, performed to welcome the King of Denmark to the English court: ‘Most of the presenters went backward, or fell down; wine did so occupy their upper chambers.’ An inebriated court spirit literally deformed the state performance. It was a vivid disruption of choreographed order in a spectacle designed to represent the King’s divine authority. The significance of this disfigured routine should not be underestimated: dance owned a profound cultural significance earned from an ancient philosophical tradition that saw cosmological order expressed in the harmonious motion of the human body through dance. It is a Pythagorean inheritance, which orders all things into numbers, and works out space and proportions from that base.

Plato, who relays his vision of the cosmos in the final chapter of The Republic, is a Pythagorean heir in his vision of dance’s heavenly significance. In Plato’s ideal State, the educated man sings and dances well. Dancing is a stately characteristic, without levity or gestural insignificance. Dancing’s theorisers in late Medieval Italy erected defences for the art against its staid opponents: in Rinaldo Corso’s 1550 ‘Dialogue on Dance’, printed in Venice, it is claimed that, ‘He who dances well is a poet’. Corso’s is a powerful metaphor, uniting the arts into a single vision; the body’s balletic motion is at once a physical and a poetic gesture. Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, describes poetic fluency thus: ‘True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.’ With the metaphor of dance, Pope figures navigation through the mind as physical agility, a choreographed art.

The disturbed configuration of the performance Harrington recounted assumes, by accident, the deformed shape of the antimasque, a Jonsonian innovation that prefaced the main masques. These episodes were displays of spectacular disorder, littered with the vocabulary of ‘strangeness’ and underscored by ‘wild’ or ‘rude’ music – usually indicating percussion or wind. They are in part a structural technique which, in their extremity, serve to reinforce the antithetical extreme that the main masque triumphantly presents. The improvised fall into disorder that Harrington watched rings with shrill irony then as the Court’s vision of divine order, carefully choreographed, is spoilt, undermined by revelry and wine. On display to Denmark’s King is a system of order far from stable.

When this is put in the Pythagorean and Neo-Platonist context that saw choreographed motion as representative of a universal system, a worldview that pressed on medieval and Renaissance imaginations, the significance of the disruption is profound. The structural projection of kingship is mangled, it as Ophelia solemnly meditates, ‘Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.’ (3,1) James was emblematised as Neptune in Neptune’s Triumph for the Return of Albion (1624): the tamer of the horse. Horsemanship offered the reining of the wild, tuning the world, choreographing it, a symbol of reason from Plato. James’s horse though is, as we see, far from eternally tame.

The last scene of Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall (1603) – one of his two Roman plays, both of which were embarrassingly unsuccessful in their debuts – sets the Senators into motion as they dance around the Senate with brusque fickleness to be proximate with whoever, at that moment, stands in favour. It is a vividly energetic scene: ‘The places grow hot, they shift.’ (5, line 597), Arruntius narrates. As the Senators lumber to new places Jonson sets up a system of proximity as the index of power and favour, reconfiguring the court to a new shape of political authority. The reconfiguration is acted out in the metaphor of dance: Arruntius narrates for us again, ‘Your dancing shows a tempest.’ The dance, like an antimasque, is a storm of political unease as Sejanus falls from favour.

Configuration then forms the display of state authority. Stephen Orgel has plotted the translation of Italian scenic developments onto the early-Stuart stage and notes that perspective settings were introduced after 1605, settings in which there is a single focal point. The implication is that there is only one seat in the audience with a perfect vision; vision, literally, would be impaired as favour depletes. It is a highly symbolic component of the visual technology of Renaissance spectacle. Jonson has it in mind in his treatment of the senators in Sejanus, ‘Look, look! Is he not best / That gets a seat in eye-reach of him?’ With his compound – ‘eye-reach’ – Jonson physicalizes the act of seeing, activating the significance of the position of the body in relation to others, their choreography, in the court’s order of the world.

The end of Sejanus surely sets a model in parallel with James’s court choreography. The mingling of the theatrical world with the courtly world is striking, as senior members of James’s court danced in his masques. James himself never performed after his coming down from Scotland, but his wife, Queen Anne, appeared on the occasion of six masques between 1604 and 1611. The two worlds socially blend and engage in a transaction of actors and symbols. The mingling is inscribed in Jonson’s texts: ‘the masquers descend’, a dramatic direction for the breaching of the audience, as the two parties dance together. As Orgel observes, ‘what the noble spectator watched he ultimately became.’ It is a supreme metamorphosis of the theatrical imagination.

The great example of a virtuosic dance into courtly esteem was the startling dancer, George Villiers. James took a fancy for the athletic young man whom he would, after a matter of years of easy court manoeuvring, elevate to Duke of Buckingham, to profound influence beside the young Prince Charles. Bishop Goodman describes the Duke’s physicality indulgently: he was ‘the handsomest-bodied man in England; his limbs so well compacted and his conversation so pleasing and of so sweet a disposition.’ The charmed movement of the body works alongside eloquence in speech. An account by Orazio Busino, a chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador, describes one remarkable manoeuvre of the young Buckingham:

Last of all they danced the Spanish dance, one at a time, each with his lady, and being well nigh tired they began to lag, whereupon the King, who is naturally choleric, got impatient and shouted aloud: ‘Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take you all, dance.’ Upon this the Marquis of Buckingham, His Majesty’s most favourite minion, immediately sprang forward, cutting a score of lofty and very minute capers, with so much grace and agility that he not only appeased the ire of his angry lord but moreover rendered himself the admiration and delight of everybody.

It is a startling episode of improvisational charm and calculated obsequious energy that saw, in gestures like this, Villiers leap to the very centre stage of King James’s court.