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Fake News in Early Modern England

Polaris Podcasts: Three Lectures by Rebecca Hasler

[1] Welcome to the latest Polaris podcast, this time a series of three public lectures by Rebecca Hasler at the University of St Andrews. The lectures were this year’s St Leonard’s College Research Prize Lectures in the Arts & Humanities.

[2] In the first lecture, ‘New and Fake News in Early Modern England’, Rebecca argues that ‘in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, there was no clear divide between news and fake news. Instead, both were used as a means of documenting God’s providential interventions in the world’. Covering examples from dragons to spontaneous combustion, we learn that what matters for definitions of fake news ‘depends upon the perspective of the reader’.

[3] In the second lecture, ‘Discovering Crime, Real and Fake’, Rebecca assesses the credibility of reports claiming that London was overrun by a hierarchical underworld of criminal beggars. How does fake news create the impression of real and serious social problems? And what are the parallels between the criminalisation of vagabonds in early modern England and fake news about immigrants today?

[4] In the third and final lecture of the series, ‘Fake News: Satire and Fiction’, Rebecca argues that satire can provide an inoculation against the allure of fake news, taking as her starting point similar language used to condemn early modern news readers and today’s victims of fake news. Both groups run the risk of being accused of gullibility. Taking up examples of satirical news, on subjects ranging from astrology to the plague, Rebecca suggests that the critical reading encouraged by satire, and the self-awareness that this fosters, can train us to be less gullible when we stumble across fake news reports.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Cardsharps (c. 1595) © 2017 Kimbell Art Museum

[5] You can share your thoughts about the lectures in the comments section below. Respond to Rebecca direct with any questions on Twitter @RLHasler. Or feel inspired to respond to the Call for Papers for ‘Pamphleteering Culture, 1558-1702‘, an upcoming conference at the University of Edinburgh. More information can be found at https://pamphleteering2017.wordpress.com.

Zoë Sutherland

‘The Masque of the Olympic Knights’, St Andrews, 11 February 2017

Rachel Horrocks (University of St Andrews)

[1] On 11 February 2017 the University of St Andrews hosted a reconstruction of Francis Beaumont’s 1613 court masque, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn. Funded by the Historical Dance Society, the reconstruction followed a weekend of early dance workshops led by scholar-practitioner Dr Anne Daye, and was attended by students and dance enthusiasts from St Andrews, Dundee, and Inverness.

Promotional poster, The Masque of the Olympic Knights

[2] For the event, the masque was renamed The Masque of the Olympic Knights and billed as a public showcase. The cast consisted of almost 40 dancers, musicians, singers, and actors, and the showcase was attended by 50 members of the university and community. The performance featured three rehearsed dances (choreographed by Daye), 20 pieces of early music involving a dozen musicians and two singers (arranged and conducted by Dr Jane Pettegree), and a cut version of the dialogue (directed by myself). To give audience members a sense of the original scenery and costumes, we projected a series of Inigo Jones’ original sketches from early masques on a screen at the back of the stage.[1]

[3] The project was intended to augment my doctoral research into the evolution of the antimasque form. Much of the research into the antimasque, and the masque as a whole, consists of analysis of the masque as a literary text, or of locating the masque within its historical context. These historical and textual approaches are valuable.[2] However, the fact that the masque was primarily a physical performance—bodies moving in time and space—has largely gone unstudied.[3] I am particularly interested in the relationship between masque and antimasque onstage, and much of my research consists of using texts and eyewitness accounts to imaginatively reconstruct performances. This approach allows me to discover patterns which are not immediately evident from the text, such as the prevalence of circles and crescents in Hymenaei (1606), or the continuous on-stage presence of the comic cupids in The Masque of Beauty (1608). By studying these patterns of movement, we gain a greater understanding of the physical interactions and divergences of the masque and antimasque.

[4] The Masque of the Olympic Knights was a large-scale, practical outworking of this reconstructive method, allowing us to explore the patterns of movements that emerge onstage. During rehearsals, several elements immediately became clear. Firstly, Beaumont’s masque is imbued with a terrific energy: Mercury and Iris enter chasing each other, the second antimasque dashes in and out, and the main masque is composed of the virile Olympic Knights. Secondly, as can be expected for a marriage masque, the performance consistently drives toward male-female pairings.[4] Mercury and Iris’ squabble represents the eventual reconciliation of Juno and Jove, while both antimasques attempt to split into couples, yet in each case the odd number of dancers makes pairing impossible. It is not until the arrival of the Olympic Knights, and their advance to invite the ladies of the court to dance, that the equal pairings are finally achieved. As Daye emphasized during rehearsals, through both the antimasque and the main masque, The Masque of the Olympic Knights celebrates energy and fecundity.

Antimasque of Naiads and Hyades

[5] One element I was particularly intrigued to see in performance was the Revels, the section at the conclusion of the main masque where the masquers “take out” the audience to dance. This segment would often last for hours, including both group dances and opportunities for couples to demonstrate their prowess. For our purposes, we chose two simple group dances, so that the spectators would easily be able to learn the steps, and not be embarrassed by dancing in front of a group. In Pettegree’s introduction to the evening, she informed audience members that there would be an opportunity for participation, and all our publicity also mentioned the interactive nature of the masque. Thus, those who did not wish to participate simply sat further back. The invitation to dance, then, proceeded far more smoothly than I anticipated, as everyone sitting within easy reach of the dance floor was eager to join in. With around twenty masque dancers, we managed to “take out” just under half the audience, which nicely filled our dancing space (as can be seen in Image 3). The Revels are often written about as the fulfillment of the harmony wrought by the early masque, which was certainly the case in our experience.

[6] As a dramatic performance, The Masque of the Olympic Knights was a greater success than we dared anticipate. Our workshop participants, who, for the most part, had no experience with early dance, learnt and remembered the steps with impressive accuracy. The live music imbued the performance with energy, and the songs were emotionally moving. The dialogue, although challenging, revealed an unexpected psychological depth to the characters and held the performance together as a single dramatic entity.[5] Most importantly, both audience and participants genuinely enjoyed the experience. While it was a workshop, rather than a polished performance, respondents to our follow-up survey consistently described the event as both informative and enjoyable. The Masque of the Olympic Knights was designed as an academic project to inform my doctoral research into historical performance, yet ultimately proved that the court masque is still a viable form of entertainment for a modern audience.


[7] The Masque of the Olympic Knights was generously supported by the Historical Dance Society (see https://historicaldance.org.uk/events), the University of St Andrews Music Centre, and the School of English. Choreography was provided by Anne Daye, the music was arranged and conducted by Jane Pettegree, and the dialogue was directed by Rachel Horrocks. For more information you can go to http://olympicknightsmasque.blogspot.co.uk/


[1] Unfortunately, no images from The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn survive.

[2] I am especially indebted to Stephen Orgel, Martin Butler, James Knowles, and David Bevington, among others.

[3] Barbara Ravelhofer notably adopts a performance-based approach in The Early Stuart Masque (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006).

[4] The masque was originally performed in 1613 to celebrate the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick, the Elector Palatine.

[5] Both the actress portraying Iris and I (playing Mercury) found the dialogue more difficult to memorise than other early modern drama.

Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard

Polaris Podcasts: a JNR special by State of the Theory


[1] Welcome to the first in a series of posts showcasing podcasts which will, we hope, be of interest to our readers. State of the Theory is a podcast about power, politics and popular culture by Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri and Dr Hannah Fitzpatrick at the University of St Andrews. In each episode Anindya and Hannah discuss a topical news story or trend in pop culture in light of critical theory. Recent episodes have focused on fascism, sexualities, free speech, the Panama Papers, Hillsborough 1989, and Walter Benjamin.

[2] State of the Theory‘s latest episode, ‘Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard’, was generously made with a JNR/Polaris audience in mind. You can listen here:

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– and you can join a discussion about the episode by posting questions and comments below, and by tweeting at the journal (@JNRJournal) and at Anindya (@DrAnindyaR) and Hannah (@DrHFitz).

[3] Many early modernists object to representations of Shakespeare’s life and works that elide a myriad of messy issues. Offering something in the way of an aspirin to those who had little choice but to RSVP ‘yes’ to the party of the last four centuries, ‘Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard’ takes up the politics of the commemoration of Shakespeare in 2016, on the 400th anniversary of his death. Anindya and Hannah discuss conflicting representations of Shakespeare as distinctively British and universally human, morally instructive and morally relativistic. We hope you will weigh in on these points with arguments of your own and with any thoughts that have been niggling in response to the 400th anniversary commemorations.

[4] Anindya and Hannah give a particularly interesting reading of the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. The well-known Shakespearean actor Sir Kenneth Brannagh played the leading engineer of the industrial revolution, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, reading Shakespeare. Rather than celebrate ‘Great Britain’ with the ‘scepter’d isle’ speech from Richard II, the ceremony’s director, the film maker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), selected Caliban’s ‘the isle is full of noises’ speech from The Tempest. This throws up a range of issues in light of postcolonial readings of The Tempest and of Caliban’s subjugation. As Anindya says, the character of Brunel is here celebrating an industrial Britain which has benefited from a repressive empire, using the words of Shakespeare’s Caliban, who arguably has not.

[5] All this is not to deny the power of Shakespeare’s language, but following Foucault, where there is power there is resistance. And as many of our readers are acutely aware, resisting Renaissance narratives is often a profitable thing to do, at least intellectually.

[6] Listen, let us know what you think, and feel free to continue the discussion about the themes raised in this JNR/Polaris special. As State of the Theory focuses primarily on critical theory, it would also be interesting to know if listeners have any particular thoughts on the role of theory in early modern studies. If in some respects we are now ostensibly ‘post-theory’ – following the more explicit work of poststructuralism in drawing our attention to the production of cultural norms which we seemingly deviate from, even as we live by them – is it worth revisiting theory? Or not? What is some of the work being done in this respect that readers would recommend?

[7] If you make or listen to a podcast that you think we should feature as part of ‘Polaris podcasts’ please let us know at northernrenaissance@gmail.com.

Zoë Sutherland