In the essay ‘Shakespeare’s Virginian Masque’, John Gillies analyzes Shakespeare’s play ‘Virginian Masque’ in reference to the historical events in South America’s around late 1600s. Specifically, he refers to the problems faced by new European settlers in the West Indies, their attempt to control the native tribes and the integration of European immigrants into the native communities. The purpose of this paper is to provide an in-depth summary of the essay by John Gillies. The discussion also develops a commentary to critically examine the essay with a special reference to the play ‘Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.
In his introduction, Gillies appears to describe a coincidence where William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was performed at the Royal Court at the same time with Chapman’s “Memorable Masque” in February 1613. Historically, the two plays were performed at the court of the princess Elizabeth I of England. John Gillies argues that the coincidence reflects the honoring of the inclusion of new colonies in North America into the kingdom of Great Britain. For instance, Gillies cites a commentary by both Chapman and Shakespeare that the aim of the masque was to ‘courtly honor the invention’. Here, Gillies argues that Chapman’s play seems to expand some issues that seem more peripheral and understated in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.
However, the audience may be confused because Chapman’s work does not mention the specific events in Virginia. In addition, Chapman could be referring to Guiana’s discovery.
The discussion by John Gillies is primarily based on two issues. First, Gillies argues Shakespeare’s motifs in his play are ‘ideas of fruitfulness’ and ‘temperance’. He argues that these are clearly indentified with the colony of Virginia. Gillies’ essay aims at developing an argument that Shakespeare‘s play translates into a pair of rhetoric ‘topoi’ that are important in the development of Virginia’s official portrait. Secondly, Gillies describes the moral aspect of the Virginian landscape by describing the role of Ovid, who leads the audience to the principle of morals in Virginia.
However, in my opinion, Gillies seems to confuse his audience. First, he introduces the reader to a scene in which Ovid leads us away from Virginia. In fact, although the audience can clearly see the importance of morals in Virginia, Gilles seems to confuse his explanations on how Ovid reflects the principle Morals of Virginia, yet she is moving away from the place.
According to the argument, Gillies believes that Shakespeare’s motifs of fruitfulness and tempest must be reflecting the ‘discourse of Virginia’, which took place in 1594 when Queen Elizabeth was successfully petitioned by Raleigh to allow the him use the name ‘Virginia’ in reference to the whole area in North America previously known as the ‘Wingandacoa’.
One would agree with Gilles in his argument that Chapman’s Memorable Masque takes a more open approach to honoring the inventions in America’s by simply being self-consciously Virginian. For instance, Gillies cites a scene in the play where Chapman has described how a company of knights from Virginia (who are apparently Indians) comes to Britain sailing on an island floating in seawaters and commanded by Plutus, their god of wealth. Here, Gillies argues that one of the most important things in the newly discovered lands such as Virginia is their wealth in terms of mines. However, I further agree with the author that the minerals and mines must be obtained after the Europeans deal with the native demands.
John Gillies argues that Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest” is significantly a paradox in its inclusion of the natives’ culture and religion. While Shakespeare’s play uses the theme of ‘power’, Chapman’s Masque uses the theme of ‘law’. Secondly, Shakespeare’s play ‘The tempest’ shows only a ‘dead Indian’ visiting Britain from Virginia. In contrast, Chapman’s Britain is visited by a large delegation of Indians nobles, especially knights and priests. In addition, Gillies describes a difficult scene in Virginia because the Indian natives in Virginia are not willing to give out their land and mines. Shakespeare’s Indians are only willing to share their fish and young scamels from the rock. On his part, however, Chapman’s Indians and knights readily hand over their gold mines to the British.
An important point of Gillies comparison between Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Chapman’s ‘Memorable Masque’ is seen in the event of a shipwreck. Here, Gillies argues that Shakespeare’s depiction of the scene of a wreck is more realistic than the ‘floating island’ described by Chapman. John Gillies argues that Chapman’s island is a fantasy, but Shakespeare describes an imaginary scene that reflects a real life scenario in which a British ship wrecked in the Pacific in 1609. This is shown in Shakespeare’s description of ‘providential deliverance’ and ‘the tempest’. In particular, Gillies proposes that Shakespeare was reflecting the scenes before and after the wreck of the Britain’s ship, the Sea Adventure, in 1609. According to Gillies, Shakespeare seems to refer to the honoring of the discovery of Virginia in a more contemporary manner than Chapman’s idea, which seems to refer to the honoring of Guiana’s discovery around 1596.
In this case, one would agree with Gillies that the events Shakespeare describes in his play ‘The Tempest’ show hardships faced by the colonists in Virginia before and after the wreck of the ‘Sea Adventure’, including diseases, hostility from the natives, poor law enforcement and shortage of foods.
The settlers in Virginia experienced a number of problems such as shortage of clothing and housing. Despite this, Shakespeare shows the significance of temperance in protecting the settlers. For instance, the area remained temperate during winter, protecting the less housed and clothed Virginians. Secondly, the theme of fruitfulness is described in Shakespeare’ play. According to Gillies, this is in reference to the ‘good’ fruits grown in Virginia, but the ‘dreames’ of the mountain gold as well as ‘happy robberies’ would always bring forth ‘fruits of the evil’.
I would agree with Gillies that Raleigh and his fellow colonists were more interested in finding gold (evil fruit) from the Virginian Mountains, which would bring them into conflict with the natives and thus destroy the good fruits.
In conclusion, Gillies argument seems to be predominantly based on Act 4 of the play “Tempest”. Here, Gillies is of the point that Shakespeare must have included temporary induction into the perception of Virginian Colony in North America. He argues that the author must have remolded this aspect into a literal and imaginary Ovidian perception, which was inspired Masque. Throughout the essay, Gillies has attempted to compare the events of the ‘Tempest’ with Chapman’s exotic ‘Memorable Masque’ with an aim of describing how Shakespeare’s play must have been set to reflect the situation in the new colonies in North America and West Indies.