in the sorts of small assignments/weekly preparation I do for class, here is the Spenser position I posted for this week’s discussion (I feel better posting it now the class is finished for the week)
Stephen Orgel argues concerning court masques:
In a theater employing perspective, there is only one focal point, one perfect place in the hall from which the illusion achieves its full effect. At court performances this is where the king sat, and the audience around him at once became a living emblem of the structure of court. The closer one sat to the monarch, the “better” one’s place was, an index to one’s status, and more directly, to the degree of favor one enjoyed. (10-11)
The king’s position as privileged gazer gives him authority: his eyes view the masque’s entire spectacle. This gaze that signifies his power also opens the king’s body to the gaze of the other spectators who read the “living emblem” (allegory) of the room, noting who shares the king’s gaze. James’s power depends upon these other gazes being present. Orgel’s metaphor models how gazes work in early modern court (Elizabeth’s or James’s): attending a masque or conducting court business, the monarch’s body occupies the central position, and nearness to their gaze determines the power of bodies around them.
Britomart occupies the privileged position of gazer in Cupid’s masque in III.xii, though her body is vulnerable in a way that Elizabeth’s and James’s are not; their bodies may be the object of courtiers’ gazes, and open to malicious “readings” (gossip), but those monarchs maintain control: it is their body, their gaze which sets in motion the flow of other gazes at court.
Britomart in III.xii is not the subject of a visible gaze: she is alone for most of the masque. Yet following her viewing of the masque her body is physically opened: “The wicked weapon […] strooke into her snowie chest” (III.xii.32). The moment recalls III.ii, when Britomart’s gaze renders her vulnerable (as she looks into the mirror and falls in love with Artegall). Add in the narrator’s description in III.xi.53, as Britomart views the tapestry: “The warlike Mayd […] could [not] satisfy / Her greedy eyes”. The gaze is among Britomart’s greatest weaknesses.
Unlike Orgel’s monarchs, Britomart’s body does not possess any inherent authority. Authority resides in the body of the absent Busirane, the narrator who describes Britomart, and the reader who, unknown to Britomart, watches her body watching the masque. Britomart’s position in Spenser’s poem mirrors her position in the histories of Britain: Britomart has no control over her future, or whom she loves. Her gaze as she looks into the mirror in III.ii is controlled by an invisible author of history [God?]: little wonder this gaze is displaced by a mirror!
Stephen Orgel. The illusion of power: political theater in the English Renaissance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.
4 November 2009 ~ Hamilton