The Illusion of Power:A Review of the Politics of Renaissance Theater The Renaissance needs to be defined as a renaissance of something. Claims that it is a renaissance of “clear thinking” or “empiricism” know little about the Middle Ages.
But the Renaissance was about something: it was about the Renaissance of Plato and neo-Platonism in both a Christian and pagan guise. The resurrection of Plato and Platonism from the rather arid logical Aristotelianism is central to the sense of self of the Renaissance. But this sense of self is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in the life of the royal courts.
The courts were redefining themselves both to the new science as well as to the “new” philosophy. Medieval monarchy was a rather simple affair, based around a king and an retinue who held, with a few exceptions, only a nominal control over a subject population. In the middle ages, politics was local, as was revenue collection and culture. As this may be overdrawn, but it is basically clear that the Renaissances introduced the western world to the concept of centralization. But with centralization came a slew of new concepts to define the political: Pythagorean, ordered, geometric and formal (in Plato’s sense). It is this manifestation of the new sense of political order that The Illusion of Power concerns itself with.
The Illusion of Power, as a brief work in social history, cannot be considered in isolation from the authors other work, other literature in the field, as well as, more importantly, the philosophical approaches that were resurrected in the 14th and 15th century. What might seem rather arid logic hides within it a new look on life, the great chain of being and the life of the royal court, now possessed of a bureaucracy that can read and write and keep accurate accounts. Renaissance courts had more power than any medieval king ever possessed, and this book concerns the self-presentation of social and political power that drama and symbol brought to the court of the Renaissance kings.
Medieval kings, as a matter of course, did not deal in drama. This was a legacy of the Renaissance. Renaissance kings and queens manifested their glory in theatric performances. Marriages, battles, laws and deaths could all find their symbolic manifestation in drama, the theatrical performances that accompanied any of these things, that were put on to “entertain” the aristocracy and their guests.
Therefore, the masques performed to this select audience were put together for a specific occasion. But entertainment was the last reason for these shows to be put on. They were rituals. They were manifestations of the power and glory of the royal house and its achievements. They were metaphysical rituals that showed the royal house as a social, political and spiritual entity in and of itself. This is the entire point of Orgel’s work. Two works manifest this trend in the writings of Stephen Orgel, and that is The Illusion of Power as well as Inigo Jones.
Both these works overlap, and in the very preface of the former., the author claims that, in essence, they are one work, the former taking over from the latter. Orgel’s work is fanatically uniform: the politics of the literature of the Renaissance. All of his work seems to overlap one to another, teasing out the subtle manifestations of the political and spiritual in the world of Renaissance writers and artists. His role, it seems, is to fully recognize how the basic Renaissance ideals were manifested in such political drama. It would be a vulgar oversimplification to merely claim that the “illusion of power” was the sycophantic performance of the Jones’ type, that such performances were merely designed to prove to the captive aristocratic audience that the king was of divine origin and that his policies manifest law and justice. While it is these things, such objects do not fully appreciate the fulness of the Renaissance drama dn its political coloration.
It not only manifested the biases of a court audience, it created them, an in-group, a tradition that is manifest by the royal house and its political/military manifestations. Orgel likes the concept of “mediation.” There is a mediation between art and power, between portraiture and power, between the royal person and the Platonic form, between regularity and order, between order and the royal house: the list can continue.
The concept of mediation is central to all of Orgel’s works, but, importantly, in The Illusion of Power. The performance is a mediator, a mediator between many different and diverse objects, but objects with the same aim: to manifest a personification (Orgel, 1975, 40). There is a strong sense of purification, a sense of a separation from the higher from the lower (O’Rourke, 2002, 45), where classes exist from the very foundation of justice in Plato’s sense and that the king acts as the ultimate mediator among classes, among rungs on the ladder of being. Since purity and goodness existed in the Platonic schema as a distance from matter, it made sense that there were two kinds of theater, one for the “masses” and the other for the upper classes. Plato is central here. To keep things simple, Plato and his followers created a universe of forms, of timeless and changeless entities of perfection, similar to the Aristotelian categories, under which all created things stood (the literal definition of hypostasis).
Significantly, the late middle ages was dominated by Aristotle, who held that these forms existed as purely instantiated in objects. But the rediscovery of Plato, so to speak, resurrected the Platonic heaven: the world of disembodied forms, of essences such as goodness or justice, separate from all that is created in time and space. This resurrection was important to Renaissance politics in that the king or queen was either a mediator between goodness and the population, or was the manifesting of the form of goodness. Either way, the platonic world was maintained intact. The neo-platonic synthesis fo Plotinus was even more used among Renaissance alchemists, where the unknown unity of all manifested itself through emanations, emanations from which could then be embodied in solid things, such as a royal house or a set of laws.
But this is exactly the nature of the illusion. The very act of claiming that the royal house, or royal laws, or royal marriages were an element in the physical manifestation of the Idea of Goodness needed a dramatic manifestation. This manifestation was the very nature of the drama that was performed right within the royal hall itself (Orgel, 1981; Orgel, 1975; Greene, 1987). What was being manifest in these plays was manifold: first, the separation from the higher reality of justice from the lower.
Second, the idea of Justice itself. Third, the life of the chivalrous warrior (Orgel, 1975, 65), and lastly, the monarch as the personification of the historical process (Orgel, 1975, 54). In his (1981) essay “The Renaissance Artist as Plagiarist” Orgel expands on the concept of portraiture that is only touched on in Illusion (cf. 1975, 40-1). In portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, as time went on, took on more formal shapes.
She was less and less an individual, and what took her place as a private person was a “public persona.” That is, a mask in the literal sense, as a public person. But the formality was done to manifest the Platonic form’s instantiation in a person, objectified by the office itself, as well as military victories and the crown as an emblem, an emblem of justice and goodness. Orgel deals with the “universal man” theme so common within the Renaissance not to claim that a man could be all things, but that the ruling power can manifest the very nature of goodness and justice. Furthermore, in nearly all of Orgel’s writings, the monarch is not a person in the private sense, but a public object. It was considered a fact that the portrait of the sovereign was the presence of the sovereign. Hence, awe given to the portrait is awe given to that which is personified (Orgel, 1981, 488). Hence, taking his work here and applying it to Illusion, one sees that the performance was part of a “mirror of princes” theme, showing in dramatic form the instantiation of goodness within the royal court, and by association, the aristocratic courtiers also seeing the performance.
But what makes this era different from others is the presence of machinery. Orgel spends a great deal of time in this short work dealing with the concept of the mechanization of such court performances. It had been done before, especially in Byzantium, but it was taken to a new level in the early modern era. Machinery came into its own as a manifesting of the “music of the spheres.” Mechanization was not merely something to dazzle the eye, but was to manifest the orderly movements of the universe (cf detailed discussion, Orgel, 1975, 30-7). The renaissance of Plato meant, to some extent, the renaissance of Pythagorean ideas of number, order and regularity as manifesting and symbolizing reality and justice.
Hence, the more esoteric nature of renaissance science penetrated the royal courts, giving it new weapons against republicanism and Machiavelli (Orgel, 1975, 40-42). Hence, we get to the heart of the matter. Both in his Jones and Illusion, Orgel deals with the question of mechanization. Mechanization was really the brainchild of Inigo Jones, as it both increased the dramatic impact of the performance as well as began to manifest the geometry so important to Plato, Pythagoras and their resurrection in the renaissance. One might say (cf. Gatti, 1995, 810ff) that the dramatic performance was a ritualization of geometry, or of order and regularity found n the universe, symbolized in the person of the monarch.
The masque was always ritual, almost by definition. The masque is itself a public person. But the concept of public is not mediaeval, but Roman, in that the sovereign is the very nature of public space and justice, he exhausts the public space.
The rediscovery of Plato did not breathe new life into these performances, it created them, since now, the playwright is something that Plato would never have accepted: the very mediator between political power and their access to Platonic justice, the world of forms. Gatti (1995) expounds on this theme in the court dances that he analyzed. In full agreement with Orgel and others, he holds that the geometric patterns of the masque was quite deliberate in an ideological sense. For Plato, relations of space are the very essence of the form. They are the regularity that manifests itself in space as geometry. But law partakes of this.
Law does for human relations what geometric relations do for nature: provides it with regularity and predictability. If the law was in accord with Justice, it partook of the heavenly life. Hence, if the king is the lawgiver, and the law is just, then the king himself is the mediator between heaven and earth. This is medieval, and lies at the very heart of the Investiture Controversy.
The king can defeat the pope in ideological battle in that law, the manifestation of the divine in human affairs, derives from him, not the priesthood. Law exists in nature, and hence, the king is now the mediator between heaven, nature and the population. The equation equals to justice. The dramatic performance, according to Orgel, is to manifest the Platonic form of Justice in harmony. Thomas Greene (1987) makes it clear that the scale of the performances in question could never have existed without the reemphasis on Plato and the forms (637). In fact, he holds, to some extent with Orgel, that the rediscovery of the autonomous heaven of the forms assisted in creating a sense that the royal house was the center of magic. If anything, the very nature of magic was the ability to act as a medium: to instantiate the forms in matter. Matter here is to be taken expansively, to refer to law or culture as well as the more prosaic definitions.
Hence, the performance is to manifest this instantiation, and therefore, provide some sense of magical abilities. But, since the monarch is human, himself instantiated in matter, the magical process exists at the material level, that is, on the level of space and time (Orgel, 1975, 55-56). Hence, the movements of the masque manifested the laws of nature, including the “music of the spheres.
” The movements themselves crate harmony in the way the kings laws create social harmony. The second kind of movement is the historical movement. This is manifest in the reality that such performances often used mythical characters and themes, both Greek and Roman, to symbolize this order. The resurrection of the much older Greek and Roman forms of knowledge provided the royal houses of western Europe with new models: that of the great emperors and lawgivers of antiquity.
But this antiquity is not dead, it lives on in the historical process that kings and queens are heir to (Orgel, 1975, 54).Hence, we have discovered the basis of the argument:1. The rediscovery of Plato and the neo-platonic tradition meant that the king could now portray himself as an instantiation of justice itself. His role was magnified as mediator not only between things divine and human (legal) but also between the order of society and the order of nature.2.
All things that exist (and hence, all things that are good) exist in an un-instantiated manner in heaven (the world of forms). Therefore, the king is necessary, in his capacity of law giver (or better, “law manifestor”) to bring the heavenly down to earth. This is the very purpose both of the court spectacle, as well as the development of mechanization.
Orgel makes it clear that mechanization was able to have movements go in unnatural ways, showing angels descending to wait on the monarch, etc.3. This movement was, at its center, one that is magical. The role of the king is one of conductor (in the physical sense). He conducts the movement in the same way metal conducts electricity (Orgel, 1975, 48-49).
While he did not create the masque itself, and the masque was not about “him” per se, the archaic symbolism could not be mistaken by the audience.4. In a more vulgar way, one can merely hold that such performances, regardless of their philosophical and arcane content, were propaganda pieces that wedded the elite to the king, that the elite, the aristocracy only partook of the Plotinian One by derivation, while the monarch participated it in directly, making the monarch more than human. This, of course, would be right. Therefore, we all might want to say that the “person,” at its root, is a theatrical metaphor, and this person is developed on the stage of the temporary theater within the royal hall. Several things are now occurring: first, the persona of the monarch and the movement of the masque are conjoined, and second, this conjoining is itself conjoined to the blessed event that is taking place.
The synthesis is a powerful and effective tool of creating “in-group” community among the aristocracy, but an aristocracy whose power exists as a derivative of the monarch only insofar as the monarch himself partakes of the Plotinian goodness (Orgel, 1975, 75ff). This requires several things. It requires that the actors be not individuals. They are persons. They cannot manifest individuality insofar as individuality equals, in this schema, arbitrariness. There can be no arbitrariness in a performance of this type, since the performance is about the manifesting of law in the king and his forbears. Thus, it also requires a stiff and purely automatic series of motions. This reflects the eternal truths of geometry, a truth so dear to Plato (Orgel, 1975, 40).
But these motions are to be stiff in that the laws of nature, including the movement of the spheres, is itself automatic. This movement, to add a third element, includes the newly developing ideas of mechanization that simply exist to increase the sense of the actors as automatons. Lastly, then, the conclusion: the king is not an individual, he is a persona.
So are the courtiers, among whom are the court actors. The persona is a public face. The king is a purely public figure, and hence, the term sovereign makes more sense than king, since the king/queen is the public space (cf. Orgel, 1975, 75-77). The performance in the court, therefore, manifests this public vision using classical mythic elements to show the kings role as mediator. Mediation is the central idea not merely in Illusion, but in all the works cited and consulted in this essay. It is a worthwhile subject matter because it shows the Renaissance for what it is: the resurrection of Plato and the idea of a heavenly realm of forms, the very existence of which provides the blueprint for harmony in nature and harmony in social life. The king is the mediator, he is the magi.
References:Orgel, Stephen. The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance. California. 1975_____.
Inigo Jones: Theater in the Stuart Court. Sotheby, 1973_____. “The Renaissance Artist as Plagiarist.” ELH 48. (1981) 476-495Greene, Thomas.
“Magic and Festivity at the Renaissance Court.” The Renaissance Quarterly 40. (1987) 636-659Gatti, Hilary. “Giordano Bruno and the Stuart Court Masques.” The Renissance Quarterly 48. (1995) 809-842.O’Rourke, Marjorie.
“Pure of Heart: From Ancinet Rites to Reniassance Plato” The Journal of the History of Ideas 63. (2002). 41-62