Unmasking the Masquers


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The Masque of Muscovites

The ladies begin the scene with a characteristic battle of wits, this time between Rosaline and Katharine; the Queen, listening with amusement, comments: "Well bandied both! A set of wit well played" (5.2.29).

Is there a difference betwen the wit of the ladies and the wit of the lords?

Look at the ladies' discussion of this question, lines 58-72.

How do you interpret the frequent bawdy jokes they enjoy?

Boyet gives them advance warning of the lords' plan to woo them in disguise. They also disguise themselves by wearing masks, exchange favors to confuse the wooers, and enjoy the teasing which follows with each lord swearing love to the wrong person. All the plans of the love-conquered lords go astray--the masque, the set speech of Moth, and even their more direct attempt to attract the ladies, belatedly, to their court. Boyet and the ladies
Boyet and the ladies at the hunt.

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The Lords Woo "In their own shapes"

The lords have certainly come off second best. Look again at the part of the scene when the lords return in their normal dress. Rosaline has proposed that the ladies should "mock them still" (V. ii. 302). The Princess starts immediately to do so by deliberately misunderstanding the King's conventional greeting (see lines 340-341).

Do you think that the Princess is simply mocking when she rejects the King's offer to welcome her to the court?

She replies: "Nor God nor I delights in perjured men," and rejects the King's rationalization (he uses one of Berowne's witty puns), that the "virtue" (used in the Elizabethan sense meaning "power" or "strength") of the ladies' eyes has forced the men to break their oaths. We are close to the argument of Castiglione's courtier, who used his mistress' beauty to inspire him to real virtue, but the Princess realizes that her beauty is being used as an excuse for something not virtuous at all, in either sense of the word. The moment is perhaps more serious than mocking, as she categorically refuses to go with the lords, but the mood quickly changes again as the ladies begin to tease the men about the recently departed "Russians."

Berowne is the first to realize that they have been outwitted. He reponds with a splendid renunciation of the elaborate processes they have adopted in their courtship--the masque, the formal speech Moth was to have delivered, and above all the elaborate, artificial sonnets they have written:

Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical . . .
(V. ii.407-9)

Berowne describes these excesses of language in startlingly graphic terms, as "summer flies" that have made him rotten with "ostentation"--showing off. He vows to use language of simple, rustic fabric, and almost succeeds in his monosyllabic declaration: "My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw," but, as Rosaline unkindly points out, he allows the French "sans" to creep into an otherwise unadorned, Anglo-Saxon sentence.

Berowne has certainly learned something, not from his lady's eyes, but from her refusal to be swayed by wit alone.

What evidence have the ladies that the lords are not merely indulging in conventional flattery, an elaborate game of wit?

The men have, after all, broken their oath not to see women, and seem to treat it all rather lightly. Their lesson continues: the ladies reveal that the men have each sworn love to the wrong woman, misled by the exterior show of the ornaments they wore. It is a powerful symbol of the deceptiveness of appearances. ("The world is still deceived with ornament," muses Bassanio as he rejects, rightly, the gold and silver caskets in The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.74). The lords have trapped themselves in a situation where they have become doubly forsworn.

Once again it is Berowne who realizes what has happened, and he responds with another highly rhetorical speech, this time directed against the mischievous Boyet. Berowne does not like Boyet: look back at his earlier speech, lines 316-335, and the scorn in his present attack on Boyet as a tattle-tale, lines 464-482. There seems to be some real bitterness here.

Could it be that Berowne recognizes in the older Boyet some of the excesses that he himself shares?

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The Worthies

Any bitterness which might be surfacing at this moment is dissipated by the arrival of Costard, and the promise of entertainment. Compare the scene that follows with the very similar play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In both cases the audience-in-the-play makes fun of the actors in the play-within-the-play:

But is there a difference in the way the actors respond?

Compare Bottom's response to the Duke (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.184-187) and Holofernes' rebuke, surely justified, "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble" (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.630). Berowne at any rate has learned something about the need for simplicity in the language of love:

But has he still something to learn about the use of wit when it is hurtful?

Notice how he decides that, after all, he likes Boyet, the "old mocker" (346), when the two combine wits against the same target.

I have already discussed the moment when an uncomfortable truth, Jacquenetta's pregnancy, intrudes on the play-within-the-play, and threatens to provoke a battle. A more startling intrusion in the play-as-a-whole occurs a few lines later.

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.