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[Portrait of 
Philip Sidney. National 
Portrait Gallery.] National Portrait Gallery

IN his Defense of Poesie Sir Philip Sidney avails himself of many arguments, but perhaps the most convincing is that the poet, unlike the scientist or social scientist, need not specify his referent:

The astronomer, with his cousin the geometrician, can hardly escape, when they take upon them to measure the height of the stars. How often, think you, do the physicians lie, when they aver things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of souls drowned in a potion before they come to his ferry? And no less of the rest, which take upon them to affirm. Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false. So as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies.
Though all human activity constructs with unknown materials toward an unknown end, the construction of texts in which no referent to a given particular need be specified releases the author from the charge of libel. This is a significant advantage in Sidney's cultural setting.

The Elizabethan courtiers, trained in "rhetorique" and provided with great store of tropes from classical and biblical sources, found ready employment for their craft in seeking that most desired and most dangerous prize: preferment. Preferment was understood to be a reciprocal arrangement; the Queen might shower her favourite with gifts and lands, but she could and did expect competent, and in the case of favourites, superior service. Yet, to serve, one could not offer only flattery. Dangerous as it might be to advise an absolute autocrat, it was necessary to show that one could exercise competence and judgment in affairs of state. The courtiers learned to create, or if they could not create, to commission, texts in which they might approach the Queen to offer competence while at the same time implying that all competence and judgment was hers alone. In Parliament this was almost impossible to achieve. Hence the proliferation, in Elizabeth's time, of "entertainments": masques, pageants, and dramas offered by well-to-do subjects at the Inns of Court and at great country houses throughout the realm. On these occasions Elizabeth was in a sense already "on stage":

Her regal chair, in full view of the audience, surmounted by an embroidered canopy, was known simply as 'the state'. Even when it was unoccupied, as it was when Leicester celebrated St George's day in Utrecht in 1587, the Queen's presence was assumed and ceremony performed as though she were seated on it (Axton 48).
Thanks to her constant use of allegory in interpreting herself to her subjects, Elizabeth's presence as audience heightens the distinction between her "two bodies"; as herself, she is assailed by the same thoughts and emotions as any other, and with her access to power, the danger of these variables is very great; but as Prince of the realm, she embodies eternal verities and virtues through a host of known and popular symbols. The courtier-players can play to this heavily idealized representative of the Ideal even if the Queen is not physically present. When present, she is constrained within the bounds of decorum set by her own symbolic presence, thus affording a safe arena for the display by her courtiers of, not independent judgment, but allegorical depictions of independent judgment. In the Elizabethan entertainments, surrogate courtiers court a surrogate sovereign. "If you like this semblance of my service," they might be heard to say, "think how much more you stand to gain from true service from me, your humble servant."

Sir Philip Sidney's The Lady of May was originally, perhaps, an untitled bit of masque thrown together for an evening's entertainment at his uncle the Earl of Leicester's estate of Wanstead to honor Queen Elizabeth's visit. He may or may not have been working on behalf of Leicester's penchant for wild escapades, particularly a secret marriage which earned the Queen's displeasure. The masque would have been a relatively safe approach to the problem of reintroducing the new wife of the Earl to Court and seeking to turn aside royal wrath. At the same time, Sidney could point out, rather obliquely, his own fitness for service to the Queen, and perhaps even offer (from a relatively safe distance) some criticism of her tendency to accept the courtship of men who might appear to have much to offer (foreign money and connections), but who could not be expected to have her best interests at heart (due to the same foreign money and connections). At this point the dangerous foreigner was the Duke of Anjou. Alan Haynes remarks that French envoys, whose work in hand was the pressing of the Duke's suit, were on hand for the presentation of Sidney's entertainment (The White Bear 134).

For each of these purposes Sidney's text faces the danger that a direct public statement may bring about the opposite effect to that which is intended. During the performance of The Lady of May at least two texts unfolded: that of Sidney's script, and that of the Queen's reaction to it. Elizabeth must have been carefully scrutinized throughout by members of Leicester's party, the opposition party, and that of the French ambassadors. Each text consisted in part in that which was said and that which was left unsaid. Each partook of personae in ways that recognize the expendability of these surrogate selves, images woven in the air of May in a magician's struggle for mastery of the moment. In such an atmosphere of risk, a masque -- an allegorical performance in which one thing may be understood to stand for another -- is a suitable vehicle, for the objects of potential royal wrath are "masked" as fictions, and their actions "masked" as fictional actions. The word "play" works equally well for this distancing, for what might be taken as an affront in earnest may be taken lightly in "play," the imitation of life by actions understood to be fictions. How can anyone, even a great Queen who "even with her eye can give the cruel punishment," be willing to break decorum to punish a clown? The courtier-players are accordingly transformed into rustic shepherds and foresters. The question at hand is that dangerous one of marriage, but it is not the supplicant whose marriage is in question, merely her daughter's. If the Lady of May is played by Penelope Devereaux, Leicester's new step-daughter, she would be a child of eleven or twelve, and might well expect her efforts to be kindly received.

The supplicant who begins the action is on the scene for one short speech only, and makes a hasty (and probably quite wise) exit. Yet she is present even in her absence, first, by leaving with the Queen a verse Supplication, and second, by her having asked the Queen to judge of matters addressed by the remainder of the play. The Supplication sets the tone for the entire piece with its praise that is, in Camille Paglia's words, "secular prayer:"

To one whose state is raised over all,
Whose face doth oft, the bravest sort enchant,
Whose mind is such, as wisest minds appall,
Who in one selfe these diuerse gifts can plant;
How dare I wretch seeke there my woes to rest,
Where eares be burnt, eyes dazled, harts opprest?

Your State is great, your greatnesse is our shield,
Your face hurts oft, but still it doth delight,
Your mind is wise, your wisdome makes you mild,
Such planted gifts enrich even beggers sight:
So dare I wretch my bashfull feare subdue,
And feede mine eares, mine eyes, my hart in you.

Although protected by the fiction in which the Queen is not recognized by the rustics, the Supplicant here boldly presses upon the boundary of fiction by identifying her as one whose "state is great," and offering fealty. This offer is choral in its effect, and carries the voices of the entire Leicester party in one presumed persona. The question in the first sestet is answered in the second: how dare I address myself to one so powerful? I dare, because that power is vested in you for the protection of your subjects, of whom I am one. Elizabeth is addressed here, not as the jealous woman who would have her courtiers never marry, but as the Queen of the second body, the embodied State, who must know that matrimony is for the good of that same State it is her sworn duty to uphold. "Your mind is wise" may be taken as pure flattery, but "your wisdom makes you mild" maneuvers the addressee into a position in which a display of pique must seem indecorous. As the Supplication is presented, but not necessarily read aloud, the maneuver is the more compelling in that it need not be obvious to all present. The Queen's noblesse oblige is heavily drawn upon without bankrupting her good will.

The rest of the company now make their appearance: the Lady of May, half a dozen shepherds and as many foresters, and a comic schoolmaster, Rombus. After a bit of symbolic slapstick in which neither the shepherds nor the foresters succeed in pulling the Lady among them, Rombus emerges as the would-be emcee of the proceedings. But from his first sentence, spiked with inkhorn terms, he establishes that he is, or is to be taken for, a great fool: "Now the thunderthumping Jove transfund his dotes into your excellent formosity, which have with your resplendent beams thus segregated the enmity of these rural animals." In case we have missed the point, he begins to enmire himself in alliterations: "pulchra puella perfecto... crafty coward Cupid...dire doleful digging dignifying dart." And the May Lady underscores all by plainly labeling him a "tedious fool" of "foolish tongue." Yet, like so many fools, including those of Shakespeare, Rombus is entrusted with many of the masque's more penetrating insights. His indiscretions are Sidney's discreet handling of inflammatory material. This absent presence of Sidney in Rombus is so strong as to lead easily to the speculation that here may be the role played by the author in his creation. Although none of the rustics is said to know the Queen, Rombus is on the mark in recognizing that her "resplendent beams" have parted the fray, and offers her the quite appropriate title of Potentissima Domina.

The May Lady, cutting Rombus short, presents to the Queen her suitors as combatants in a singing contest. Espilus, a shepherd, is richer than Therion, a forester, but Therion has served the Lady as best he can while Espilus has but recorded her name "in doleful verses." So the Queen is to judge "whether the many deserts and many faults of Therion, or the very small deserts and no faults of Espilus be to be preferred."

Sidney gives Therion the first real word, by having him challenge Espilus to sing; the challenge itself is however the first verse. It contains a compliment to the Queen: "Great sure is she, on whom our hopes do live/Greater is she, who must the judgement give." Espilus might be expected to respond to the challenge in kind, and with a better compliment, but rather rudely launches into the contest itself, like one who begins a race before his opponent has had a chance to dig in. This confusion of beginnings masks Sidney's maneuver in giving also the last word to Therion. Espilus expresses himself in terms of property, transaction, commodity: "Sweet soul, to whom I vowed I am a slave" -- a slave is property; also Espilus explicitly says that he has said this, not that it is true, that is, he's reserving an escape clause in the fine print. "Two thousand sheep I have" -- this is mercenary; "All this I give, let me possess thy grace:" -- signed and sealed into the bargain. Therion, on the other hand, speaks of freedom, significantly not merely his but hers as well: "Them I can take, but you I cannot hold." Even the direct appeals to the arbitress show the distinction, for Espilus emphasizes that to Elizabeth beauty's force is but lent, while Therion calls on her to judge of love as the embodiment of ideal love itself, with the implication that she is beyond the reach of mercenary considerations and should be able to recognize and come to the aid of a fellow traveler.

A judgment is anticipated at this point but put off by further controversy among the contestants' supporters. A shepherd, Dorcas, rudely usurps the Queen's prerogative by proclaiming Espilus the winner. This presents one of the foresters, Rixus, an opportunity to once again praise the Queen while apparently praising Therion. The new impasse leads to a new opportunity to distinguish shepherds from foresters. Dorcas and Rixus are to meet in rhetorical combat; a formal debate on the familiar topos of the active versus the contemplative life is proposed, with Rombus as umpire. Dorcas, like Espilus, goes first, so that Rixus may have the chance to demolish him. But again, there is a confusion introduced to put the scent off Rixus, as before it was put off Therion. For Rombus steps in, as an over-officious umpire might do, and does the demolishing himself. Dorcas is accused, quite accurately, of employing the fallacious enthymeme a loco contingentibus: "that which is found in the same place is the same." Nature is good; shepherds are found in natural surroundings, ergo shepherds are good. Elizabeth has had a life of training in spotting weaknesses in arguments of this kind, and hardly needs Rombus to explain it to her. That he should try is part of the comic effect.

Rixus thus escapes the work of tearing down, and is allowed to build up. He makes his case, not from position, for the forest is not all good, but from equivalence, using a penetrating metaphor:

O sweet contentation to see the long life of the hurtlesse trees to see how in straight growing up, though never so high, they hinder not their fellows; they only enviously trouble, which are crookedly bent.
That is, in beholding the forest one may read it as a text, give it meaning, and see in it the way to rightly read the meaning of men's lives. It is a direct and audacious instruction to the Queen, and the climactic sentence to which the entire effort of The Lady of May is bent. Your best servants, Sidney/Leicester/Therion/Rixus informs Elizabeth, are those of us who seek freedom of action so that we may exercise our natural abilities the more effectively on your behalf. One who is more mercenary may be more useful to you in the short term, but he has his own profit to consider, and will therefore be a slave to two masters. An adventurer, on the other hand, having the less to lose, can offer all the more. Yes, this is risky, but it will be worth the small risk for the great advantage you stand to gain through our freedom. This is a very large claim, and one which later events hardly supported. Sidney's own end illustrates that the risk was not small. Drake had better results on the Pacific coasts of the New World, but in singeing the King of Spain's beard at Cadiz might easily have set England ablaze; Raleigh fared poorly overall and Essex would have done much better to have stayed home. But none of this could have been predicted in 1579. The Queen has only her conservative instinct to guide her, honed by the terrifying political education afforded by her father's, brother's, and sister's reigns. Always an astute critical reader of the timing of literary events ("I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?"), she sees the game at once, and when the moment comes to judge between Espilus and Therion, she takes the May Lady quite at her word that "in judging me, you judge more than me in it." She chooses, against the best that Sidney can do, in favor of the shepherd. In this, she is very like the deer described by Rixus as craftily conserving her strength by remaining near her pursuers, not to keep them company, but to "take breath to fly further from them."

Sidney is prepared for the possibility, for Espilus now sings "tending to the greatness of his own joy," but the god whose joy he compares to his own is Silvanus, a forest deity, while his opponent's defeat is compared to compared to that of Pan, a pastoral deity. The song is so written that it can convey the appropriate sentiments regardless of the choice made by the Queen, and so helps to smoothe the abrupt transition, required by her choice of the shepherd, from obedient willfulness to willing obedience. Immediately following the music, the May Lady concludes the festivities in glowing praise of the sovereign:

Lady your selfe, for other titles do rather diminish then add vnto you. I and my little company must now leaue you. I should doo you wrong to beseech you to take our follies well since your bountie is such, as to pardon greater faults. Therefore I will wish you good night, praying to God according to the title I possesse, that as hitherto it hath excellently done, so hence forward the flourishing of May, may long remaine in you and with you.
A chorus of voices are packed into this farewell speech. The sense in which the Lady is a young woman of the Court in a mask appears in the conventional hyperbole of the player's plea for pardon. Since the Queen's bounty is such as to pardon those greater faults that occur, not in the controlled world of the masque, but in that larger world of dangerously free men, the May Lady is also, perhaps, Lettice Knollys; certainly she is Sidney and Leicester. There is, as there has been throughout, nothing whatever of the rustic bumbling in the May Lady that we see in her companions. She has about her a certainty that authenticates her claim to be the Lady of May. This is a clue to at least one of the Lady's identities, for as she is the Lady, not only of one May, but May forever (as the title is, like any title, the sign of the second and eternal body), so is she the sovereign -- Queen Elizabeth herself. The Lady relinquishes to her the title, and in fading away into the woods at this moment, leaves the new May Lady in possession of the stage.

This benediction is the proper ending, surely, and it is so found in printed versions (including this e-text) of the masque. But from the Helmingham Hall manuscript we learn that Master Rombus, in what must have been a risky move, carries the ball for the losing team long after the goal posts have been torn down. In his determination t be heard, he is somewhat reminiscent of George Gascoigne's improvisations on Leicester's behalf even as the Queen was riding away from Kenilworth in 1575.

Sidney employs a thin fiction in which the absent rustics, still present in Rombus, retain possession of the grove, and the schoolmaster refers to Master Robert of Wanstead as a neighbor. Leicester is thus present in his naming yet absent as the fictional owner of a nearby estate. He is depicted as a beneficial force in the community but hampered by adherence to the hated Catholic religion (a patent falsehood but suitable for explaining the gift which Rombus now offers to the Queen). The gift, an agate necklace, apparently resembles a rosary:

I have found unum par, a pair, papisticorum bedorum, of Papistian beads, cum quos, with the which, omnium dierum, every day, next after his pater noster he semper saith 'and Elizabeth', as many lines as there be beads on this string (Duncan-Jones 13).
The phrase-by-phrase translating retains some of Rombus' ineffectual pomposity, for Elizabeth is quite fluent in Latin herself. At the same time, some of those present might miss the point without it; although no other audience is addressed than the Queen, this is a convention; the same technique which is used to establish the character of Rombus serves also to make him accessible on multiple levels.

Master Robert's "religion" is an idolatry (which is the Protestant idea of Catholicism). When he prays over his beads he always adds "and Elizabeth" after the "our Father." This likely means that he has expanded the in nomine to "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and Elizabeth." A less likely but not impossible interpretation, made possible by the difficulties presented by the scribal text, is that he adds "an Elizabeth," (Duncan-Jones 337), that is, an ave Elizabeth in place of an ave Maria. Either choice comes near to blasphemy; either is rich in possibility. By adding Elizabeth to the Trinity, Master Robert shows that he regards her as a proper object of praise, worship, and obedience, and as the intermediary between his soul and salvation. By saying an ave Elizabeth he steals the archangel Gabriel's lines -- with a difference: "Hail, Elizabeth! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb...." This arrogation of the cult of the Virgin Mary was one that Elizabeth herself was not above using. Leicester had by this time given up his hope of marrying Elizabeth and siring a line of kings; so the implication here need be no more than that Elizabeth is the "mother" (by means of her body of State) of her people.

Rombus refers to the Queen, not as the eternal May Lady of the benediction, but in the terms Leicester has preferred for many years: Juno, Venus, Pallas, the three among whom Paris judged by awarding the golden apple. They were common personae for the Queen during the early decades of her reign (Axton 38-40). Pallas, goddess of wisdom, is the second body of the Queen, concerned with matters of State. Venus, goddess of erotic love, is the first body, the woman who is desired for herself. Juno combines both bodies in one presence, as Goddess of empire and of, significantly, marriage. Although Diana has by this time made herself thoroughly at home in Elizabeth, the huntress' name is not yet current among the courtiers; this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Elizabeth that underlies the consistent "failure" of the propaganda in their entertainments. Leicester and Sidney, well versed in the classics of antiquity and the allegorical uses of their own faith, have great mastery of the available personae, and The Lady of May retains even today much of its persuasive power, though many of its allusions are lost to us. But their comprehension of the problem of gender and the throne of England falls short. Critics refer to The Lady of May as a failure, but no other result was possible. Elizabeth was exposed to a steady stream of entertainments in which she was invited to play a game with the dice loaded, as it were, against her policies, yet held her own. She "showed a marked prediliction for freeing pageant virgins whose deflowering would produce heirs" (Axton 66). The Spanish Ambassador, De Silva, described attending a Gray's Inn entertainment with the Queen in 1565:

...we went to the Queen's rooms and descended to where all was prepared for the representation of a comedy in English, of which I understood just as much as the Queen told me. The plot was founded on the question of marriage, discussed between Juno and Diana, Juno advocating marriage and Diana chastity. Jupiter gave the verdict in favor of matrimony after many things had passed on both sides in defense of the respective arguments. The Queen turned to me and said, 'This is all against me' (Axton 49).
We might add yet another name to the long list of the Queen's identities: Penelope. The Virgin Queen, like Penelope, unweaves each day's seeming promises, so that the suitors -- whether Leicester or Anjou -- who might eat up her substance may attend an endless round of entertainments but must return empty-handed. In a world in which power naturally gravitated to men, subterfuge is often a woman's only means to faithfulness. And Elizabeth, as everyone was always forgetting, was already married:

...I am already bound unto an Husband, which is the Kingdome of England, and that may suffice you: and this (quoth shee) makes me wonder, that you forget yourselves, the pledge of this alliance which I have made with my Kingdome (And therwithall, stretching out her hand, shee showed them the Ring with which shee was given in marriage...) (William Camden, Annales, qtd. in Axton 35).

Elizabeth has no more personae to work with than her courtiers; but, in some ways a greater artist than any of them, she knows which images to use when. What historians call her sense of timing or political balance is often no more than her matchless capacity for returning the "answerless answer." She makes of her presence as Queen an absence by simply returning "no" to every expectation of "yes," leaving the ambitions of great men of power to twist slowly in the wind. That is the power of protective coloration in a fiction: if you give to others no more of yourself than a text, whether acted, spoken, or written, then they have no more of you than their own interpretation. This was her means to her own freedom of action and the key to her greatness.

Queen Elizabeth may have fashioned herself to suit national and international exigencies, and her subjects may have fashioned themselves to the exigencies of her Court, but their environment predates them and their behaviors have origins lost in that social antiquity in which our progenitors fashioned themselves to their surroundings as as naturally, as necessarily, as unthinkingly as any butterfly. There are critics who find the posturing in courtier poetry distasteful, either because it appears to them to consist in cynical dissembling, or appears to them as unconscious masking of a self- serving teleology of temporal power. Either the cynicism perceived in the text calls forth in these critics a value judgment, or the value judgment perceived in the text calls forth in the critics a cynicism. More is required of the text than it can deliver, because the ideal that poesy should embody undying truths is a chimera. Every poetic text is rhetorical, that is, its nonspecificity of reference is a consciously employed strategem for misdirecting that first and final reader whose name is Death.

R.S. Bear

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