Devices and Desires

“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

The Book of Common Prayer

In the spring of 1579, Gilbert Talbot wrote his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury: “It is but vain to trouble your Lordship with such shows as were showed before Her Majesty this Shrovetide at night. The chiefest was a device presented by the persons of the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Surrey, the Lords Thomas Howard and Windsor. The device was prettier than it happened to have been performed; but the best of it, and I think the best liked, was two rich jewels which were presented to Her Majesty by the two Earls.”

Not exactly a rave review: Talbot thought it a pretty conceit which the performers failed to carry off. He says nothing of speeches nor speakers, nothing of the storyline, stage effects, music, dance, nor finery. Nothing dazzled the beholders but the jewels: the stars of the show were lumps of corundum.

Talbot

George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
"Why the long face?"

One (or maybe a coterie) of the nobles who presented may have thought of the device—the knacky notion—but he or they would almost certainly have engaged a professional poet to compose the few lines needed for a masque. A dabbler in poetry perhaps might write them.

As presenters, their lordships would have stood, turned, walked, like models on a runway as professional actors described their allegorical virtues and professional musicians sang their praises; they would have knelt to offer up their gifts; they would have danced before the court, then with it. They would have been, in essence, moving jewellery: their value to the masque their rank.

But Oxfordians, in the deep desire of their hearts, have imagined Oxford in this piece as actor; Oxford as author. They’ve turned the pretty device to a five-act play; turned that imagined play into another, more substantial one, acted that same Shrovetide. Following Ogburn, they speculate that the device was really The History of Murderous Michael that was played at Whitehall by (they think) the Lord Chamberlain’s servants. Having launched into fantasy, it’s nothing then to triple somersault and catch the next trapeze. For Ogburn, Anderson, and their flock of parrots, it seems a fair surmise that Murderous Michael was an early draft of the anonymous Arden of Faversham (1592).

How did we get from two rich jewels to domestic tragedy?

Is a device even a play?

If “device” was ever used for “stage-play,” the OED does not record it. They define a play as “a literary composition in the form of dialogue, intended for performance before an audience.” A device, on the other hand, is “something devised or fancifully invented for dramatic representation; ‘a mask played by private persons,’ or the like.” In short, a play is dialogue; a device is spectacle and declamation. A device may be whimsical or witty—a “conceit”—or even sinister: a clever, underhand contrivance, a stratagem, a trick. An heraldic device is a coat of arms:  “an emblematic figure or design ... usually accompanied by a motto.” The presenters in a masque are precisely that: emblematic figures, with their impresas spoken by others. Masquers are drawn from the armigerous; players from the common folk.*

Neun-gute-helden

Neun Gute Helden.
Nine worthies in the Rathaus in Koeln.

The OED gives three examples of Shakespeare's usage of "device." The first describes the ludicrous pageant of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labour’s Lost; the second, "the ryot of the tipsie Bachanals" which Theseus declines to hear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the third, “Cupid with a mask of Ladies as Amazons” in Timon of Athens. (That banquet scene is now thought to be Middleton’s work.) As was customary, only Cupid speaks; the masquers (being Ladies) are silent. All three are brief, emblematic, courtly entertainments. All three are mocked. “Hoyday, what a sweep of vanity comes this way! / They dance! they are mad women.”

 Blake Fairies

Heere follow the Speeches of the Water Nymphes, which should have bin shewed upon the Thurseday, had not evill weather hindered the same.

The first Nymphe's Speech.
We Water Nymphs have time to sport and skip in every place,
When days are long, and nights be short, and Phoebus hides his face.
And hearing that there came a Queene along this water-side,
So long as we poore silly Nymphes on land dare well abide,
We daunce, we hop, and bounse it up, in honor of hir name,
To whome Diana and hir trayne doth give immortall fame.

The Seconde.
We shun the Sunne, yet love the Mone, and hate the open light,
We hide our heads amid the reedes in blustring stormy night.
In calmest weather do we play, yet seldome seene we are,
We watch our times, and flee from those that still doe on us stare.
We harme no wight, yet fearefull be to those that have no spreete,
We are, some hold, of women's sexe, and gladde with men to meete.

The Thirde.
The Phayries are another kind of elfes that daunce in darke,
Yet can light candles in the night, and vanish like a sparke ;
And make a noyse and rumbling great among the dishes oft,
And wake the sleepie sluggish maydes that lyes in kitchen loft.
And when in field they treade the grasse, from water we repayre,
And hoppe and skippe with them sometime as weather waxeth fayre.

The Fourth and last, that called them into their cave.
What rule is this, what tales tel you, what bable do you make?
Will you tel secrets out of schole ? Beware ; if bugges awake,
You will be shent, come hye you hence, can yee abide the viewe,
The gaze and staring such a whyle, of all this noble crue ?
Though that we came to honor hir that gods on high have blest,
It is a shame for Water Nymphes on earth so long to rest.

Thomas Churchyard wrote a dozen of these entertainments in the 1570s. His “Mercury”—sole speaker, with a hundred lines—arrives in a flying coach, hailed by infernal sprites, satyrs, water-nymphs, fairies, hags of hell. His “Show of Chastity” has nine speakers and 264 lines. His “Show of the Nymphs” stars twelve pretty boys in white smocks, with waist-length golden hair and timbrels (the good folk of Norwich mistook them for girls), in a purpose-dug pit; they have 24 lines (fourteeners, couplets).  Rained out on the day, the determined water-nymphs waylaid the Queen's coach on the road, and leaping from the bushes, they began "to daunce (as neare as could be ymagined) like the Phayries."

Churchyard called these works devices, or shows, or comedies.  Shakespeare's Don Armado offers to "present the princess ... with some delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or antique, or firework."  What these court shows most resemble (as Thomas Reedy has noted) is the welcome to Munchkinland: dancing emblematic figures offer gifts to a honoured guest, to Dorothy or the Queen. For Munchkins, read presenters; for lollipops, read jewels.

Note that word “comedies.” In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham praises “th’Earl of Oxford ... for Comedy and Interlude.” Very probably the sort of comedies that Oxford wrote were actually devices: little 100-line playlets with fabulous production values. Ostentations.  No doubt he had his secretaries help him out when he got bored, as ladies had their waiting-women finish off the duller bits of their embroideries.

All of my information on Churchyard’s shows comes from Martin Wiggins’ magnificent British Drama: A Catalogue: Volume 2: 1567-1589. (September 2012) which is nothing less than “an enumerative, descriptive, and analytical catalogue of identifiable dramatic works, both extant and lost, written by English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish authors, during the 110 years between 1 January 1533 and 31 December 1642.” (v. 1, ix) As Brian Vickers writes in the TLS (21 June 2013): “Wiggins [with Catherine Richardson] gives the date of performance, the original performers, and a summary of the plot. He lists both the roles and the speaking parts, the setting, the sources, the verse forms, music and sound effects, props, costume and make-up, early stage and textual history, and modern editions ... To sustain this level of documentation over what will be several thousand entries is a remarkable scholarly achievement.” There are three volumes out so far from Oxford University Press, bringing us to 1597. They are £85 each (ouch!); but the authors have promised an accessible database someday. May it be soon.

So what does Wiggins have to say about Murderous Michael? “The Works Account refers to the content of the Shrovetide Revels as ‘plays, tragedies, and bear-baiting’. Since neither The Knight in the Burning Rock ... nor Loyalty and Beauty ... was self-evidently a tragedy, this play in all likelihood was (in which case Michael’s murderousness presumably bore bitter fruit).”The players were not Lord Chamberlain’s but Sussex’s Men. And it was originally John Payne Collier’s [!] “fanciful speculation that the plot was the same as that of Arden of Faversham ... with one of the less effective murderers implausibly promoted to title character ... [T]here is nothing to rule out any other Michael from western history. The story of the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Leo Armenus, indeed, turns on the issue of which Michael is the murderous one."

There follows an early stage history, with an account of the painters, props, costumes, and struggles with lighting. “The performance took place in the evening and finished very late; in consequence Thomas Strong (Thomas Blagrave’s servant) had to tip the porters of the watergate to let him out.” He paid 2s. (v. 2, 222-223)

Now that’s scholarship. I am faint with admiration.

And what of the pretty device with Lord Oxford?

Lullaby League

The all-knowing Wiggins has found a second source beside Gilbert Talbot: a letter from the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de Mauvissiere, to King Henri III, 8 March 1579. That’s what I call credentialled evidence.

And?

Well, he calls the thing a “ballet.” So what struck him most was the dancing. What struck Talbot was the bling. This does not sound literary. “Chiefest” here does not mean most poetic.

(“We represent the Lullaby League, the Lullaby League, the Lullaby League...”)

Yes, and—?

The cast included the Earls of Oxford, Surrey, and Sussex (one poor tiger didn’t get a carcanet), Frederick, Lord Windsor, and Lord Thomas Howard. All of them are in the story.

Yes, and—?

I’m getting to that. The ambassador, says Wiggins, “states that the entertainment followed a comedy, whereas the Tuesday play [Michael] must have been a tragedy.” (v. 2, 223) That dates it to either Sunday 1 or Monday 2 March. There were three days of performances, and three full plays—Mauvissiere reports on all of them—so the device must have been an afterpiece. If it followed a proper play in one evening, it would have to be pretty short. Well, it must have been, given the storyline—

Damn you, what was the plot?

Oh, the plot. Wait for it.

{drumroll}

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

{cymbals}

“A ship sails into Whitehall Palace and is wrecked in the middle of the room. Sailors emerge, bearing gifts for the Queen and the ladies of the court.”

A Shrovetide Tempest! In 1579!


Pirate Device from Elizabeth (Polygram:1998)


Good heavens, that puts Titus Andronicus back to Gorboduc, and the author up past his bedtime.**

Except that the theme here is not redemption but booty.  Even then the legendary Drake was busy plundering New Spain.  His piratical exploits were the talk of the court and country.  Indeed, on the very night of the performance, 1 March 1579, Drake attacked the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora del la Concepción (known to her crew as the Cacafuego, the Shitfire) off the coast of Ecuador.  Took her.  As no one was texting from the deck, the court wouldn't know this until much later, but they were all afire with expectancy, with hopes and fears of tidings from the New World.  I suspect that the presenters—Oxford, Surrey, & Co.— fancied themselves as sea dogs, and told off the carpenters and poets of the Revels crew to build them a shipwreck. Being Earls, they were indulged.  Arrrr!

This is not a play at all but a device, an extravagant throwaway, a firework: it’s cloth-of-gold of tissue wrapping paper for the two rich jewels. Its plot is scenery; its point is flattery; its poetry, if any, in the dancers’ legs. And they bungled even that. One can only wonder what disaster is implied in “prettier than it happened to have been performed.”

As a court wag might have said, Parturiet navis, nascetur ridiculus bos. (The ship will labor and bring forth a ridiculous Ox.)


Two Jewels

 

Nat Whilk

*“Shakespear the Player, by Garter” struck some as transgressive.
**Having burnt out in a blaze of impalpable glory, he then spent 25 years brooding on tin.

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Comments (5)

  • alfa-16's picture

    Awesome! A great ox is standing on my tongue. A bit of a handicap on Ham Nite.

     

    A great glimpse at the sort of thing Oxford might have written. Had he been a writer. If only there was some way of finding out.

    Dec 30, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture

    Over at the Thread That Ate Amazon, the initimable Lu A. Lewellen has conveniently posted Mark Anderson’s version of Shrovetide 1579 from Shakespeare By Another Name.  It is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike what actually happened.


    The following Shrovetide (March 1-3, 1579), de Vere and his cousins and in-laws performed in a masque for the court at Whitehall.


    They did indeed present an entertainment, which Gilbert called a “device” and the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, sieur de Mauvissiere, a “ballet.”  The plot is rudimentary:  a ship sails into Whitehall Palace and is wrecked.  Sailors emerge, bearing gifts for the Queen and the ladies of the court.


    The palace's Great Hall, or perhaps its more intimate Great Chamber, was the site of this interlude...


    Wrong.  As above, it was a “device” or a “ballet.”


    ...that did not impress...


    Right!


    ...the one audience member who recorded his reaction.


    Wrong. Not one but two observers wrote this up. Mauvissiere reviewed this in a letter to King Henri III of France, 8 March 1579.


    'The device was prettier than it hap to be performed,' the courtier Gilbert Talbot succinctly noted in a letter to his father. 'But the best of it—and I think the best liked—was two rich jewels which was [sic] presented to Her Majesty by the two earls [of Oxford and Surrey].'


    Slightly wrong.  Nelson has transcribed this as “The devyse was prettyer than it had happe to be performed.”  To have hap is have (good) fortune.


    Shrove Tuesday (March 3) was undoubtedly the evening in question, since it was the only night of the three that featured a masque.


    Wrong.  


    The bill as performed was:


    Sunday, 1 March:  The Knight in the Burning Rock, by Warwick’s Men


    Monday, 2 March:  Loyalty and Beauty, by the Children of the Chapel Royal  


    Tuesday, 3 March:  Murderous Michael, by Sussex’s Men


    The only masque-like afterpiece was the shipwreck, Talbot’s device and Mauvissiere’s “ballet,” which followed what he called a “belle comédie.” The plot of The Knight in the Burning Rock is known and is a romance; Loyalty and Beauty features Bacchus and a garland of roses.  A tragedy is listed in the accounts, which leaves the suitably titled Murderous Michael to fill that place.  Therefore the device must have been performed on the Sunday or Monday.
       

    The professional troupe performing that night was the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who presented the play The History of Murderous Michael.


    Wrong.  They were Sussex’s Men.  Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex was then Lord Chamberlain, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were not founded until 1594, under the patronage of quite a different bearer of that title, Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon.


    De Vere, Surrey, and associates handled the other item on the evening's bill, A Moor's Masque.


    Wrong, wrong, and wrong.


    A piece called The Moors’ Masque had been planned for 3 March 1579, but was never performed.  In late February, Edward Tilney, Master of the Revels had consulted with Lord Sussex about designs.  Neither Oxford’s nor Surrey’s name is anywhere in the records.  We don’t know why The Moors’ Masque was cancelled.  It is conceivable that Oxford and Surrey got excited about their shipwreck device, and pushed to have it done instead of this.  Perhaps a last-minute replacement and lack of rehearsal accounts for the device’s being “prettier than it had hap to be performed.”


    The History of Murderous Michael was probably later revised and reprinted (in 1592) as the anonymous Elizabethan drama Arden of Feversham.


    Poppycock.  Sheer fantasy.


    Arden is based on a true story about a wife who conspires to kill her husband with the treacherous assistance of a servant named Michael.


    If Mr. Anderson had ever read the play, he might know that the actual murder was done by Arden’s wife Alice and her lover Mosby, and their hirelings, the two desperate ruffians Shakebag and Black Will.  All of these appear on the title page:  Michael does not.


    A Moor's Masque, conversely, may have been an extremely rough version—a 'masque' was then what one might today call a skit—of what later became Shake-speare's domestic tragedy about a husband who conspires to kill his wife with the goading of a servant named Iago.


    Grotesque nonsense.  Even the ass Anderson dimly recognizes that a masque is something sort of vaguely like a “skit.”  Except that a skit is burlesque and impromptu and a masque is formal and most exquisitely designed.  They do, however, have about the same amount of plot:  which is minimal.   A masque cannot be a “rough version” of a tragedy, any more than a marmoset can be a “rough version” of a tiger.  They have entirely different purposes, designs, shapes, structures, and moods.


    Othello is not a domestic tragedy, which would concern the small affairs of English common folk, but about the downfall of an exotic Moor, a great Venetian general.


    And of course, Iago was not a servant but an ancient.


    Lu A. Lewellen explains to the unbelievers:  “The identification, of course, is with de Vere's servant, Rowland Yorke, who apparently barred Anne Cecil from her husband's chamber and may have been the one who planted doubts about her fidelity in Edward's mind.”


    This, of course, is absolute balderdash.

     

    Nat Whilk

    Jan 02, 2014
  • natwhilk's picture

    And here is what the elder Ogburns have to say:

     

    Gilbert Talbot, in a letter written during the late 1570's to his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, spoke of the shows given before the Queen on Shrovetide, of which 'the chiefest was a device presented by the persons of the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Surrey, the Lords Thomas Howard and Windsor. The devise was prettier than it had hap to be performed,' he wrote; 'but the best of it, and I think the best liked, was two rich jewels which were presented to Her Majesty by the two Earls.'

     

    They might have dated the letter more exactly, to 5 March 1579, but at least they got "had hap" right.



    Elizabeth's rapacity was not only feminine but catholic; she was a true Tudor in her appetite for self-gratification.

     

    Stripped of the rhetorical curlicues, this means she liked the two rich jewels.

     

    In this case, however, it would seem that the Queen had objected to the subject-matter of the 'device,'

     

    Unfounded conjecture:  the device was "best liked."

     

    for thereafter Lord Oxford wrote no more plays

     

    His device was no play at all but a spectacle.  It is doubtful that Oxford ever wrote an actual play, with a story and dialogue.  No evidence of one exists.

     

    based upon simple domestic tragedy.

     

    {facepalm}

     

    The genre didn't yet exist.  The device was a shipwreck.

     

    This seems to have been the one recorded in the Feuillerat Documents as 'The history of murderous mychaell...

     

    That is, it seems to the Ogburns and their followers.

     

    ...shewen at Whitehall on shrovetuesdaie at night by the Lord Chamberleynes servauntes furnished in this office with sondrey things.'''

     

    As we've seen, these servants of the Lord Chamberlain's were formally Sussex's Men.  A careful scholar would distinguish this company from the later Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company.  The Ogburns, of course, want the reader to make the false equivalence.

     

    The plot was taken from a recent account in Holinshed of the murder of Arden of Feversham

     

    Mad supposition.

     

    by his wife Alice (spelled 'Ales') and her willing servant Michael; the play, later revised, was entitled Arden of Feversham.

     

    The Ogburns haven't read the play.  Or Holinshed.  Michael, as I've said, was not one of the murderers but an accessory.  You might as well suppose that a device called "Seyton" was a first draught of Macbeth.

     

    Nat Whilk

     

    Jan 02, 2014
  • alfa-16's picture

    So Oxfordian! Attributing authorship of a play on the basis of internal evidence without actually reading it!

    Jan 03, 2014
  • anon

    So Stratfordian! Prooving authorship by the very words of the real author, from his very works, written by his very hands. Stay tuned.

    May 15, 2014