Monday, April 11, 2011

Shakespeare and Renaissance Festivities

At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert's Day;
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate.
       --William Shakespeare from Richard II (1.1.204-206)

Knights clashing in Knightdale, NC

The Book Phantom took a Shakespearean field trip this weekend to the NC Renaissance Faire in Knightdale (how appropriate is that location?).  The best feature of the fair is always the jousting.  In Shakespeare's time, jousting had become less about martial training and more about pomp at court.  On Queen Elizabeth I's Accession Day, tournaments were held for courtiers to honor the queen and to entertain the masses (even the public was admitted for a small charge).  The queen had her own champion at these events.  For 30 years, Sir Henry Lee fought for Her Majesty's honor.  In later years, her champions were Sir George Clifford (who wore her token glove pinned to his hat flap) and Robert Dudley.

Knights lancing the rings
Participants in the tilts would arrive in disguises and present the queen with an impresa, a pasteboard insignia that represented their tournament personae.  These knights would read a poem or speak prose which explained the impresa and the "theme" of their costumes.  Some nobles went to great pains and expense to hire artists and playwrights to devise these themes.  For the Accession Day of King James I on March 24, 1613, Francis Manners, Sixth Earl of Rutland, hired William Shakespeare to design his impresa for 44 shillings.  Shakespeare's friend Richard Burbage constructed and painted it for the same pay.  This wasn't the first impresa Shakespeare was known to design.  For his play Pericles, he designed the impresa his protagonist used in the joust scene.  (see Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography and Samuel Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: a Compact Documentary Life)

As the Renaissance progressed, jousting declined in importance, especially in England.  The reasons are likely twofold:  1) the invention of the musket and use of gunpowder became more widespread, changing the skills a knight required in battle, and 2) the theater, with its costumes and pageantry, became the more popular form of entertainment for the people. 

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