George Gascoigne Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Both the state of development of drama during the 1560’s and 1570’s and the nature of George Gascoigne’s dramatic efforts, including the masques and plays, mitigated against Gascoigne’s achieving a level of art in drama equal to that in his better poems. His mastery of style may have been sufficient, if the lively prose dialogue of Supposes and the verse of his better poems are accepted as evidence, but the court masque, even at its best in the early 1600’s, has generally been considered a minor form of art, existing primarily to grace a particular occasion and to honor powerful people. As for the plays, when Supposes and Jocasta were first produced in 1566, English playwrights had not yet learned how to combine native and classical traditions in order to create great drama. Indeed, much of the impetus behind the production of plays at the Inns of Court during the 1560’s probably came from the desire of persons educated in the classical tradition to influence the development of English drama. Translations such as Jocasta and Supposes seem to have exerted a timely and beneficial influence, but the lesser art of translation, no matter how well done, does not evoke the sort of praise given creators of good original works of art. Gascoigne’s one original play, The Glasse of Governement, has artful touches but lacks theatricality. An examination of the masques and plays may help to explain how Gascoigne’s contributions to drama have earned for him a permanent place in literary history even though he is not regarded as a great playwright.

A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute

Performed in October, 1572, Gascoigne’s first known attempt at the masque omits many of the conventional elements of the form, which usually included mumming, music, dance, verse spoken by more than one character, spectacular costumes and properties, and mythological characters. Of all of these elements, Gascoigne’s A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute uses only spectacular costumes and verse spoken by a single character.

The writer’s preface suggests a cause for the masque’s peculiarities. Eight men of the Montague family had decided to provide a masque for the Montague-Dormer wedding and had already purchased Venetian costumes. They asked Gascoigne to write something to be spoken by a professional actor that would give a pretext for the Venetian costumes. From the Montague coat of arms he gained information that served his purpose: There was an Italian branch of the Montague family.

In the masque, a boy actor, an imaginary descendant of the English Montagues, tells of his father’s death and his own capture by Turks at the siege of Famagusta and of his rescue by Venetians, who are members of the Italian branch of Montagues. On the way to Venice their ship was driven ashore in England by a storm. After using 348 lines of poulter’s measure to explain the presence of the Venetians, the boy presents them to the wedding party in ten lines, praises the newly married couples in eighteen lines, and speaks a two-line farewell that ends the masque.

It is true, as Ronald C. Johnson points out in George Gascoigne (1972), that the narrative moves well in A Devise of a Maske for the Right Honorable Viscount Mountacute, but except for its flattery of the Montagues, the boy’s tale has little connection with the wedding. Further, the poet has relied too much on words, neglecting the dialogue, physical motion, and spectacle innate in drama, even in a form of drama as static as the masque.

The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle

By July 9, 1575, Gascoigne had learned more about courtly shows. The entertainment of Elizabeth commissioned by the earl of Leicester and later published as The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle was a series of presentations written by Gascoigne and five other men, each of whose compositions was identified as such in the published text. At least two of the five, as Charles T. Prouty observes, had some experience with similar entertainments at court and therefore may have given Gascoigne valuable information.

Gascoigne himself spoke the first section he had written. As a savage man draped in ivy, he met the queen in the forest as she returned from hunting and spoke poetry expressing the natural man’s admiration of the great people gathered at Kenilworth, especially flattering the queen and, fairly subtly, calling her attention to the earl of Leicester, her suitor. Although this performance still relied primarily on recitation of poetry, Gascoigne made clever use of the character Echo, presumably hidden in the woods, to produce a special effect by repetition of endings of lines spoken by the savage man.

The second section composed by Gascoigne is a full-scale masque. It employs spectacular costumes, music, song, elaborate stage effects, and mythological characters that express a meaning. Diana, goddess of chastity, and four of her nymphs are passing through the forest when Diana remembers Zabeta, a favorite nymph who has abandoned her. Fearing that Juno has won Zabeta away from chastity, Diana sends her nymphs to find the lost follower. Through the help of Mercury, Diana learns that Zabeta is not yet committed to Juno. After Diana leaves, content to allow Zabeta to use her own judgment, Iris descends to earth and ends the masque by urging Zabeta to wed. The masque was never performed, perhaps because its meaning was too clear: Zabeta was Queen Elizabeth, and she was being urged to marry the earl of Leicester.

By order of the earl, Gascoigne also wrote a performance bidding the queen farewell. Again Gascoigne relied primarily on recitation, this time a prose tale spoken extemporaneously. As Sylvanus, god of the woods, Gascoigne met the queen as she went out to hunt and told her the story as he walked beside her horse. Sylvanus’s tale concerns the gods’ sorrow at her departure and the good things they will shower on Kenilworth if she remains. An...

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