"Measure is Treasure": Financial and Political Prudence

in John Skelton's Magnificence

Tai-Won Kim


John Skelton's Magnificence (ca. 1515-21), the only extant play of the English poet laureate and "orator regius," stages the ways in which the lack of self-control and temperance renders Magnificence unable not only to manage his personal wealth but also to fulfill his obligations as a governor. With its primary focus on Magnificence's financial mismanagement and the political and economical consequences of his willful conduct, Skelton's play calls for a royal balance between extravagance and parsimony and thereby links the arts of political and personal government. "In the physical interaction of monarch, courtiers and anti-courtiers," Greg Walker suggests, Skelton's Magnificence "provides a symbolic representation of the theory of conduct in the early modern court" (Plays 90). Drawing upon the traditional literature of advice to the prince, he takes pains in this morality play to speculate on "the proper management of the royal household, especially in relation to finance" (Scattergood 22). With the shrewd fusion of economic and ethical principles, Magnificence supplies the early Tudor audience--mainly, the monarch and courtiers--with practical advice on how best to conduct themselves and how to govern their households and subordinates. In Magnificence, as I will show, Skelton offers a revisionary idea of sovereignty when he implies that Magnificence becomes a truthful sovereign by shifting his allegiance from the feudal relationship with aristocrats to his intersubjective one with his counselors.

Some critics have suggested that Skelton was a poet-priest or Christian poet addressing his religious concerns through the poems and, thus, we should see the portrait of Magnificence in terms of the tradition of speculum principis:

In Magnificence Skelton aims at putting the young Henry VIII on his guard against the evils that associating with wicked counselors can bring in its train, and he exhorts the sovereign to practice the virtues of fortitude and liberality according to the particular tradition of specula principum that Lydgate and Hoccleve belong to. (Anna Torti 118)

Undoubtedly Skelton's play, as well as his major poems, taps into this long revered literary tradition, according to which Magnificence is cast in the image of the fallen prince in the mirror-for-magistrates literature. Without losing sight of the possible referential points of this mirror-for-magistrate on contemporary political and social events, this paper will investigate how the play goes beyond its immediate political context and how Skelton takes advantage of the morality play tradition in envisioning humanist ideals for governors and princes to cultivate. In so doing, I would suggest that the play stands as a representation of the humanist idea of government -- in both senses of statecraft and self-mastery. In this dramatic representation of courtly life, Skelton underscores the need for the monarch to negotiate between prodigality and frugality, and medieval hospitality and coordinated monetary management. With such subtle alternations between mastery and submission, and between freedom and subordination, Skelton registers the shifts in societal definitions of government, both in terms of the royal household and one's self. In this sense, Skelton's Magnificence is similar to the works of English Renaissance humanists such as Thomas More, Thomas Starkey, and Thomas Elyot. For instance, Thomas Starkey declares:

if it were so that a man had most prosperous state of body, with health, strength and beauty, yea, and if he had also all abundance of worldly goods and riches, yet if he had not also the straight and right use of the same, he shall not only take of them no profit nor fruit, but he shall also have nother pleasure nor comfort thereby, but rather hurt, damage and utter destruction. (49-50)

This morality play, to say nothing of Skelton's other poems, is surely designed to cope with such an issue of royal governance.

In what follows, I expound how Magnificence dramatizes personified qualities of human relations in order to moralize politics and thus politicize those moral and economic issues, a process through which Skelton can formulate the moral and political codes for the king and his courtiers. In an attempt to locate Skelton's desire to fashion economical and ethical codes appropriate for the monarch, I investigate the ways Skelton represents Magnificence's failure to govern himself and his household, as well as its disastrous consequences for the commonwealth. By rendering Magnificence not only as a representative of mankind but also as a governor of the household and commonwealth--as the guardian of the well-being of res publica--Skelton anatomizes the governance of Magnificence and thereby underscores the fact that his failure to master himself touches, beyond his own personal interests, the entire political realm. In Magnificence, as Scattergood observes, "the proper administration of a household was a moral as well as practical and political matter" (24). Relying on the "widespread agreement amongst the northern humanists about the nature of the advice to be given to their rulers and magistrates" (Skinner 228), the play enables Skelton to scrutinize social and political behavior in early modern England as informed by theatricality of courtly life. In a configuration of the true and false ways of governing oneself and others, Skelton represents the early modern collapse of the divisions between religion and political economy, public and private, administrative discretion and personal prudence.


The play registers in a certain way a tension between Skelton's personal desire to gain royal favor by offering dramatic advice and the subversive potential of representing, in however contained a manner, the faults and weaknesses of the monarch through an enactment of his self-destructive misgoverning. Dynamically played out in this dramatic work are the competing claims of Skelton's political marginality in Henry's court, his ambition, and his engagement in the humanist reformulation of courtly behavior. Well known is that Skelton himself had dedicated a verse celebrating Henry's accession in 1509. After a decade of Henrician reign, however, English humanists including Skelton now began to realize Henry had fallen short of the ideal philosopher-king. Written when the euphoria for the accession of Henry VIII (1509) among humanists had begun to subside, the play reveals the ambivalent desire of English humanists to "mold" a sovereign by subjecting his desire to his subjects. As many scholars have pointed out, Skelton was "without support from any noble source in 1521, and isolated from the influential sections of the scholarly world" (Walker Politics 49). In this "interlude" of "a mirror encleared" (2520), Skelton fuses an aesthetic treatise on princely behavior with his humanistic (and desperate) desire to impress the king so that he would return to the court as Henry's counselor. The dialectics of Skelton's commitment to and detachment from real-politics as a humanist intellectual are played out in terms of his role of humanistic pedagogue. As Rebecca Bushnell posits in a discussion of early modern humanism, Skelton's ambivalence toward his former pupil and now master is "a symptom of a world of uncertain hierarchies, shifting relations, conflicting authorities, and contradictory values" (20). An understanding of Skelton's paradoxical position in early Tudor politics as a peripheral and conservative poet who was once the master of his master, Henry VIII, allows us to comprehend the ways in which the play deploys "the art of government." Hinged on the fundamental interdependence between the master and his subjects, and involving such issues as patronage and royal deputation, this didactic morality play thereby provides a portrait of Magnificence "as a general figure of authority, one vulnerable to the follies of willfulness, extravagance, and meanness" (Happé 443). Skelton demonstrates that Magnificence's willfulness is an open invitation for the vices to flock into his courtly household where the competition for royal favor is unchecked.

Skelton's play relies heavily upon such traditional themes as mutability and duplicity in worldly affairs. As previous critics have pointed out, Magnificence shares many similarities with medieval morality plays such as Mankind and Everyman in its dramatization of a battle between virtues and vices over the soul of the protagonist, Magnificence. The tradition of morality plays, in tandem with the mirror-for-princes genre, offers the playwright the ready-made material to dramatize the fallibility and vulnerability of the prince. With the subtle use of conventional elements for his desired effects, Skelton adumbrates the double dealings and treacheries of the corrupted courtiers in a portrayal of the vice characters similar to that which he had already drawn twenty years earlier in The Bowge of Court. What makes Skelton's play unique is, however, the ways in which he utilizes the morality tradition so as to present a normalizing and prescriptive relationship between a monarch and his subjects, thereby fashioning an ideal of governor and "government." As Nan Carpenter points out, Magnificence differs from typical morality plays in that "the struggle is between prudence and folly [rather] than good and evil," and thus the play is not about "salvation of the soul but worldly prosperity" (76). The main concern of the play is less Magnificence's spiritual well-being as a Christian, as is the case in other typical morality plays, than a presentation of Christian humanist idea of the king's subjection, humility, and restraint. Magnificence, as Irving Ribner suggests, is "the first clear application of the morality play form to problems of secular politics" (36). Despite the thematic conventionality of the play, Skelton brings to the early modern English stage more than a simple restatement of the medieval commonplaces in morality plays. "Skelton's great contribution to political drama," in David Bevington's words, was "not observation from the life but a closer application of old techniques to new realities than had heretofore been attempted" (56). When the morality tradition is fused with contemporary politics, the tell-tale story has a new resonance. In replacing the salvation of Everyman with instruction in royal governance, the play turns the twisted monarchical impulse toward ostentation into a site of its own renunciation and a disciplinary domain.

Drawing on the dialectical relation of "Magnificence" and "magnificence," Skelton's play argues for the king's keeping a tighter rein on his entourage and patronage, or say, royal extravagance. Magnificence's inclination toward lavish self-presentation and public splendor is embodied through "largess" and translated into the household politics of the Henrician court in its broader sense. According to Anna Bryson,

The sixteenth-century English court was a paradoxical institution. On the one hand, it was the greatest exemplar of conservative aristocratic household organization in the land, with an elaborate hierarchy of officers, geared towards the displays of aristocratic 'magnificence' in the provision of entertainment and the maintenance of rituals of service to the monarch. . On the other hand, the increasing scale and ideological pretensions of the English court during the sixteenth century made it ever more a unique social and political world, which encouraged new forms of sociability and social self-valuations among the increasing numbers of nobles and gentlemen drawn to it. (118-9)

As an engagement in the political economy of the Henrician court by discouraging the extravaganza of royal spectacles and courtly life, Skelton's play discloses the conflict between wealth and virtue, as well as between the moral and economic codes of government. Inasmuch as Measure becomes a managerial figure who controls the lavish expenditure in the royal household, the significance of measure is highlighted as "a merry mean" in Magnificence's governance and delegation of his authority to Measure as the essential force of controlling his administration: "That Measure be master us seemth it is sitting [=befitting]" (176).


At the opening of the play, we witness a formal debate between Felicity and Liberty on the relation between wealth and reason. Felicity's aphoristic pronouncement signals the central issue of the play: "wealth without measure suddenly will slide" (192). The ensuing actions are richly informed by this formulaic debate about the proper code of conduct both in households and at the royal court. Magnificence himself echoes in a catechistic manner the notion that liberty and wealth should be tamed and controlled with moderation:

Wealth without measure would bear himself too bold;

Liberty without measure prove a thing of nought. (116-7)

With the rich accolade, Measure is established as the chief agency of Magnificence's government ("Wherefore, Measure, take Liberty with you hence,/ And rule him after the rule of your school" 230-1). After the initial debate about the significance of measure in proper government, Magnificence puts Liberty under Measure's supervision. With Measure in charge of his bookkeeping and household expenditures, Magnificence declares that "Measure and I will never be divided/ For no discord that any man can sow" (186-7). Here is a brief moment of harmony and balance, in which Magnificence enjoys prosperity with the aid of Measure, Wealth, and Liberty, whom Maurice Pollet calls "the indispensable conditions of good government" (86-87).

The embrace of Measure as the mainstay of political economy, however, runs counter to Magnificence's desire to realize the kingship through and in his magnificent representations and spectacles. Despite Magnificence's hyperbolic broadcasting of the tie between himself and Measure ("Measure shall never depart from my sight" 190), a moment later Fancy's entrance disrupts the short-lived equilibrium Magnificence seems to relish. Magnificence falls for Fancy's enticing prediction that he would "exceed in nobleness/ If [he] had with [him] largesse" (376-7; italics added). At first Magnificence responds very skeptically and thoughtfully ("But Largesse is not meet for every man" 369) to the suggestion that "surely largesse saved my life/ For largesse stinteth all manner of strife" (367). Yet he readily succumbs to Fancy's sarcastic remark that, under the supervision of Measure, he does nothing but "pinch at a peck of groats" (385), or that "Measure is meet for a merchant's hall,/ But largesse becometh a state royal" (382-83). By the same token, Magnificence willingly gives in to the bold challenge by Courtly Abusion ("Are not you a lord? Let your lust and liking stand for a law" 1607-8) and is inclined to embrace the alleged "princely pleasure, [a] lordly mind" (1628).

From the outset, the play foregrounds the troublesome relation between the exercise of royal magnificence and the frugal management of household economy. In this context, Magnificence challenges the traditional conception that princely largess, with its conspicuous consumption, is a spectacular manifestation of royal power. When Felicity urges "Magnificence, this noble prince of might" (273) to display largess and magnificence or when Fancy insists,

That without largesse nobleness cannot reign. ...

I say without largesse worship hath no place,

For largesse is a purchaser of pardon and of grace. (265; 267-8)

The vices love to tap into the notion of royal display and its public splendor. The conflict centers on the conception of kingly power, which registers the dynamic shift of power relations in early Tudor England. The meanings of magnificence, according to OED, include "sovereign bounty" and "sumptuousness or splendor," not to mention Aristotelian "moral virtues." In this perspective, the word "magnificence"--the royal use of extravagant pageantry and display as an exercise of power--is a medieval concept of royal spectacle that, for example, Henry VIII tried hard to embody, even though the exploitation of theatrical power has, for good reasons, been considered more a trademark of Elizabeth. Henry's penchant for spectacular tournaments and grand pageants attests to the theatricality of early modern power and thus to the royal necessity to theatricalize his own body. It is quite probable that Henry's notorious pageant at the Field of Cloth of Gold that Wolsey organized in 1520 might have been in Skelton's mind.

Among the horde of allegorical characters, Measure embodies Skelton's symbolic gesture toward the institutionalized regulation of expenditure and consumption as an essential attribute of the early modern art of government. As Greg Walker points out, Measure "exemplifies in his person both an ideal of conduct, and a practical example of that ideal in action in its courtly context" (Plays 92). Many critics have read Measure as a bourgeois and mercantile figure in contrast to Largesse as the mark of nobility. Alistair Fox, for example, calls Measure a mouthpiece of London's merchant class, arguing that the play "records the unhappiness of the London merchants at the influence on Henry VIII of the king's 'minions' and the excess into which they had been leading him" (Politics 6). Certainly Magnificence contains quite a few passages in support of such an interpretation: for example, the circumstances of performance and the probable audience, which explicitly implicates Merchant Hall (cf, 382). But we need to remember that the issue here is not so much how to accrue wealth as how to spend it. Magnificence needs to learn how to make a proper distribution of both "largesse" and liberty, as they are defined in Liberty's speech at the end of the play. Measure is more a bureaucratic model of management (distinctively different from a medieval financial system) with his judicious and strong control over the expenditure of crown money. Skelton's message is that a liberal use of wealth, aligned with "wantonness" (149) and the unlimited exercise of power, should be checked and ruled by Measure or mean. Magnificence is advised to rely on a bureaucratic officer, Measure, who can promote a well-ordered and systematic control of the government.

It is worth noting that Magnificence understands clearly from the outset the importance of measure in a proper government: "doubtless I perceive my magnificence/ Without measure lightly may fade/ Of too much liberty under the offence" (227-29). His tragic fall occurs not because he fails to grasp the importance of measure and moderation, but because, despite his clear understanding, he falls easily to the temptations of an indulgence in sensual pleasure and willfulness--the failings of body and mind. Simple-minded Magnificence is gullible to the flowery language of the vices, mainly thanks to his easy acceptance of appearance and words at their face value. With this inculpating scene, the "fall of Magnificence is explicitly shown to be the consequence of his failure to regulate the workings of his household" (Walker Plays 90). Not simply an innocent victim of those sycophantic courtiers, Magnificence is the chief source of the realm's disasters because of his failure to govern himself properly and in turn to recognize his own deceitful advisers for what they are.

In this sense, the play underscores the need for Magnificence to develop his own "measure" that will eventually help him discern the truthful subjects from the sycophants. His false sense of free will or liberty comes to the surface when he rejects the meddling of the meticulous Measure, after getting a piece of advice from the vicious courtiers. In fact, Skelton is eager to show in several places that Magnificence is under the sway of the vices even when he believes he follows his own likings. At the very moment of proclaiming his own independence, Magnificence actually becomes more dependent upon his subject-courtiers, in the double sense that his decision has been made under their sway and that the practice of his proclaimed liberty requires them (as the Other) for its recognition. Ironically, his declaration of absolute power reveals the fundamental dependence on his subjects and the limitations of his proclaimed autonomy. "The risk of flattery," as Lloyd Davis sums up, is that "it lures the prince to relapse into an imaginary conception of his personal, political desire" (68). Hence the negation of the con-artists or of being deceived comes down to the issue of Magnificence's own self-mastery, inasmuch as the success of the deceptive vices lies in their manipulating Magnificence's own vanity and flaws.

The play here takes issue with the idea of delegation that became inevitable with the growth of bureaucratic apparatus of the Tudor government (for example, the administrations of Wolsey and Cromwell), to the degree that the new royal counselors become the vicegerent of the king who is already the vicar of God. While portraying the frivolous shifts of institutional authority from Measure to the extravagant vice-courtiers, Skelton puts the royal delegation of power under scrutiny. According to Elizabeth Hanson, "in the early modern state, the power the monarch comes to 'hold' is founded, paradoxically, on the dispersal of authority among a portion of her/his male subjects" (19). In other words, the monarch needed to consolidate royal power by organizing his subjects around the interplay of ambition and competition. Magnificence's delegation of power, first to Measure and then to those sycophants, prohibits him from devoting himself to the matter of self-government, essential to his maturity as a governor. The imprudent delegation of power leads to his poverty, which in turn affects both the household and the commonwealth. With the gradual centralization of court administration, such indiscreet preferment now proves detrimental to sound royal governance.

Magnificence's guilt here parallels that of "Henry VIII, ... with his fluctuations, enthusiasms, and irregular handling of business, [who] gave it [the faction] an open invitation to flourish" (D. Starkey Henry VIII, 29). This allegorical play, according to Greg Walker and Alistair Fox, reflects on political events such as Henry's expulsion of four minions from court in 1519, the date Walker proposes for the composition of Magnificence. As David Starkey reports, "the advent of 'minions' and the creation of the office of Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1518-19" (Henry VIII 27) caused great commotion and led to resistance around the Henrician court. But Walker's (and Fox's as well) informative undertaking to identify the vices with the four court minions should be received with caution. The immediacy of topical references cannot exhaust the interpretative possibility of this early modern dramatic work. Though it might well be that Skelton was inspired by a political incident, the play seems to be more than a blunt warning to the young king against his indulgence of untruthful courtiers. The same is true of the much-discussed topic of whether Magnificence represents either Henry VIII or Cardinal Wolsey. Skelton's provocative criticism of the court as a hub of scheming and intrigue is usually considered as an attack on either Henry's or Wolsey's court. I think the play does take issue with Henry's as much as Wolsey's governance, both of which fell short of taking good care of the commonwealth. Still, it is more likely that, as Walker himself recognizes, "Skelton has not designed a consistent line of argument with which to attack Wolsey" or, for that matter, Henry VIII (Politics 85-6). Skelton's play is ultimately a generalized, symbolic configuration of the significance of proper government which involves understanding how to discern others' as well as one's own traits. If there is any ambiguity in the identities of the characters, its intention might be to defeat any attempt to pinpoint allegorical characters as historical figures in a very specific political incident. For example, Measure may not be the representative of traditional nobility, but rather may correspond more closely to Wolsey, whereas the vices are similar to Henry's intimate circle of fellow jousters and revelers. Despite all the personal attacks of contemporary opponents on the administration of Wolsey and his extravagance, what Wolsey did, in fact, was to take care of day-to-day administrative business that was not attended to carefully by the king. As Wolsey's first biographer points out, "the king was young and lusty, disposed all to mirth and pleasure and to follow his desire and appetite, nothing minding to travail in the busy affairs of this realm" (Cavendish 12). Wolsey was the principal figure among those responsible for keeping an eye on the king's assets and giving him financial and political advice.

In Magnificence's wanton expenditures upon his favorites, the play certainly deals with the matter of prodigality ("largesse") that characterized the administration during the Henrician era. By dismantling the image of "ideal" court, Skelton parodies court fashions and turns the palace into a perverted assemblage without moderation and propriety. By their treacherous behaviors, the upstart courtiers pursued their personal interests at the king's expense. The problem of political favoritism is underscored when Courtly Collusion asks Magnificence:

To chose out two, three of such as you love best,

And let all your fancies upon them rest.


Better to make three rich than for to make many.

Give them more than enough, and let them not lack." (1770-4)

On hearing the encomiums of Courtly Abusion (1519-22; 1526-29; 1533-36), Magnificence announces "in my favor I have you feoffed and seised" (1537). Such preferential treatment of his chosen courtiers, Courtly Collusion suggests, will guarantee that "Those three will be ready even at your beckoning" (1779). This exchange between Courtly Collusion and Magnificence can thereby be read as a thinly veiled criticism of the favoritism in Henry's court.

By the same token, Skelton shows concern about self-destructive willfulness driving Magnificence to expel his reasonable advisor, Measure, and to indulge himself in sensual pleasures ("fasten your fancy upon a fair mistress" 1551), as is manifest in Courtly Abusion's flowery speech:

Abusion. So as ye be a prince of great might,

It is seeming your pleasure ye delight,

And to acquaint you with carnal delectation,

And to fall in acquaintance with every new fashion;

And, quickly your appetites to sharp and address,

To fasten your fancy upon a fair mistress

That quickly is envied with ruddies of the rose,

Impurtured with features after your purpose,

The strains of her veins as azure indy blue,

Embudded with beauty and colour fresh of hue,

As lily white to look upon her lere [=countenance],

Her eyen reluctant as carbuncle so clear,

Her mouth embalmed, delectable and merry,

Her lusty lips ruddy as the cherry--

How like you? Ye lack, sir, such a lusty lass. (1546-60)

With his overly embellished compliment of Magnificence, Abusion lures him seductively into pursuing dangerously irresponsible pleasure. The fact that a prosperous ruler has been brought into adversity through his willfulness becomes a warning against the idea of omnipotent power, manifested in Magnificence's arrogant speeches: "I dread no dints of fatal destiny" (1799). Such arrogance recalls the typical harangue of villains such as Pilate in medieval cycle plays.


For a warning sign against the congenial appearance of those evil characters, Skelton resorts to traditional, negative assessments of flexible identities, symbolized by Fortune's mutability. In fact, this theme of satirizing the insolence of the upstart as Fortune's prey had been Skelton's favorite topic in poems such as Colin Clout and Why Come Ye Nat to Court. From early on, Magnificence frequently invokes Fortune in the process of bragging about his own power and magnificence: "I shall of Fortune rule the rein;/ I fear nothing Fortune's perplexity" (1461-2). With his verbal harangue, Magnificence defines himself in relation to Fortune's mutability. The idea of Fortune as the embodiment of contingency and change helps Skelton highlight the ever-deceiving attributes of the vice-courtiers. In turn, the conventional theme of Fortune's whim and the fate of human beings is deployed to affirm providential design: "Sir remember the turn of Fortune's wheel,/ That wantonly can wink/.../All her delight is set in doubleness" (2023-30). Skelton's concern with protean changeability--the mutability of identity--might also reflect the social mobility that the conservatives considered a serious threat to destabilize the social order in early modern England. As Richard Britnell puts it, "employment at court was the goal of ambitious young men from the universities or the inns of court who hoped for a lucrative career in politics or the professions" (75). The transformative power of those courtiers, as well as the upward mobility among the educated middle class, shakes the hierarchy by crossing class boundaries and breaking social decorum. Skelton's alleged antagonism toward Wolsey had much to do with the fact that Wolsey was considered an emblem of the ambitious upstart. Fortune's doubleness is coupled with the licentious multiplications of identities among the vice characters--dissemblance, disguise, counterfeit--in parallel with their ability to change names: "In Fortune's friendship there is no steadfastness" (2157). A world of human limitation and mutability is identified in those histrionic changes of name, which is Skelton's rhetorical operation to promote the unity and constancy of identity. Fortune, which does not care about "man or woman, of what estate they be" (1899), now becomes the executrix of providence.

From the second scene of the play where they are introduced on stage one by one (403ff), the vices are eager to arrogate power for themselves through conspiratorial moves and manipulative counseling--with the kind of deceits and voyeurism that Seth Lerer recognizes as rampant in Henry VIII's court. Henrician voyeurism that we encounter quite often in contemporary literary works, according to Lerer, is "not just a literary theme but a cultural condition" (13). In the voyeuristic and spying scenes, Skelton addresses the deceits of courtly politics. The self-serving courtiers are ready to capitalize on Magnificence's favoritism and thus squander his wealth and felicity, at the expense of both himself and the commonwealth. The first deceptive move of Fancy is launched with a forged letter from Sad Circumspection, with the aid of which Fancy hopes to become the king's most trusted councilor and stay within earshot. The forged letter, which Lerer calls "the nodal point of privacy and power, diplomacy and desire" (63), shows a revealing dependence of Magnificence on private correspondence. The misplaced trust of Magnificence on the personal intimacy of the letter can be read as an indirect critique of courtly epistolarity and its excessive public significance (Lerer 63). Within the context of Magnificence's misplaced trust, Skelton touches on the economy of correspondence, in which the possibility of forgery and authentication is ever-present.

The Vice figures delight in, and openly boast of, their violations of trust. For example, Crafty Conveyance exults that, as soon as "folly walks in Magnificence's sight/ All measure and good rule is gone quite" (1316-7). Folly himself also declares proudly, "For be he caiser, or be he king,/ To fellowship with folly I can him bring" (1216-17). To win the royal favor, Collusion promises Magnificence "to do you service after your appetite" (1794) and provide "joy without measure" (1782). Magnificence himself robustly seeks sensual pleasures, commanding Fancy and Liberty to "get you hence then and send me some other. ... Lusty Pleasure is my desire to have" (1451; 1453). When Courtly Abusion urges Magnificence to "fasten your fancy upon a fair mistress" (1551), the vice makes royal desire the locus of political contests. Such an explicit sexual trade for the king's gratification attests to what Bruce Smith calls the male homosocial bonding of the early modern period. Those flatterers and intriguers, like Henry's subjects, are all too ready to cater his taste for lavish spectacles and entertainments such as jousting and pageants. With the proliferation of sycophants in his household, Magnificence is predictably reduced to penury resulting from his unscrupulous dissipation of wealth. Even while watching the ruined and decrepit Magnificence begging for mercy, the sinister vices unleash a virulent tirade of abuse at him.

The rich theatricality of disguise conventions is employed in the machinery of the plot development. Whereas the exposition of the play presents as its central issue administrative prudence, the entire plot is informed by the altering names and disguises of the vice characters. As Victor Freeburg's classic study of disguise convention points out:

Disguise gives dramatic compactness by compressing two characters into one person. One is the fictitious character, who seems real enough to the people in the play; and the other is the real character, whose presence they do not suspect. (15)

As part of a critique of courtly life, the convention of disguise is employed to designate the feigning and pretense of the vices that betray their licentious intrigues. As in the case of Collusion wearing "two faces in a hood" (710), the attempt to pretend to be what one is not is a sign of one's evilness. Full of what Freeburg calls "a disguise of abstract character" (18), Skelton's play involves itself not only with the changeability of the villains, but also with the act of changing itself; in other words, it presents the concept of representation as well as the ones who employ it. With the disguises, the vice characters contrive a series of deceptive and frivolous representations with which they drive Magnificence into extravagant desires.

With the naming game of the vices, Skelton exposes the discourse of trickery and concealment that distorts the relation between words and acts. And behind this false discourse stands the emblematic image of the vices' versatility and mutability. The name game demonstrates their doubleness, deceit, and untruth, with names becoming outside signs of their inward nature. In juxtaposition with the virtuous constancy and transparency of Measure and Sad Circumspection, the vices love to change their identities like chameleons. In this play, as David Bevington notes, "all are dissemblers, intent on exploiting the new regime for personal gain. Virtually all are sycophants of lowly origin, making a rapid fortune, intoxicated with suddenly acquired power, and fond of lavish costumes" (60). Skelton seems to be anxious to suppress the chasm between words (names) and reality. He reminds his audience of the translucent nature of identities as designated by the allegorical names, however futile it is to establish the stability of signifier-signified relation. The changeability and changing of name sully the very concept, the name as the foundation of identity, and thus disrupt the baptismal act of naming that brings referential power into being. Their alteration of names is often in contrast to the immobile truthfulness of loyal subjects who embody hierarchy and virtue. But the paradox here is that if the identity of the vices is, in fact, an effect of naming, then the disruption of naming shakes the idea of stable identity: the name could be both a false and a true index, thus at once revealing and hiding identity. Skelton's effort to expunge the gaps between the identities and the names falls back into a self-legitimating circularity. Because the nature of those characters is hard to pin down, the game of naming and misnaming inadvertently sheds light on the elusiveness of its referential power.

Invoked to highlight their duplicity, the protean nature of the vices is identified with the binary opposition of reality/appearance, and thus that of inner/outer. We may sense here Skelton's yearning for a visible that would become a fine mirror of the mind. What is challenged in Skelton's representation of the name game, however, is his own assumption that the outward shows (i.e., their behaviors) are expected to represent their inner nature. That the allegorical characters can only come into existence by playing the roles prescribed by their names may defeat the intent of the allegorical play, since his own play is just a counterfeit of counterfeit, or a simulation of simulation. By pitting the playful disguise of the vices against its own playfulness, the play does (whether intended or not by its author) pose a potent criticism not only of the dissimulating characters but of the idea of counterfeit itself and of role playing. The ability of the vices to bank on the sinister power of impersonation threatens to mimic this theatrical representation and thus any performance. Skelton's condemnation of the histrionic power of the vice characters thereby runs counter to his own theater. As was proposed by early modern anti-theatrical arguments against representation, acting on stage itself is nothing but an attempt to be what one is not. Skelton's endeavor to sever true governance from the theatrical and dissimulating performance of the courtly life, as Lerer says, puts into question "the effectiveness of the very genre it enacts" (58).

As in other morality plays, Skelton's vices are always ready to offer self-revelations. Cloaked Collusion, for example, reveals himself to the audience: "Cloaked Collusion is a perilous thing" that only promotes "division, dissension, derision" (695; 700). He has no hesitation in acknowledging publicly his vicious intentions: "I can dissemble, I can both laugh and grone,/ Plaine dealing and I can never agree" (698-9). The indebtedness of the play to morality tradition can also be found in the long soliloquies by the vice characters. In the second soliloquy of the play, Cloaked Collusion triumphantly announces to the audience his readiness to "hurt and hinder every man" (709). The play endows each vice with soliloquies in which he makes a public announcement of his own treacherous attributes. Like typical vices in morality whose theatrics are often embodied in their artfulness, the false courtiers take pleasure in publicizing in a private manner their subversive intentions that are the motor of their interpersonal relationships. The scenes of monologue thus stand at the nexus of moral blindness and subtle theatricality that the vice-courtiers represent in this morality play. These direct addresses to the audience do not, however, show much about any private or inner minds, but instead are indicative of the vices' generic origin. Those scenes remind us of the ambiguities, prevalent in the performance of courtly theater in early modern period, between the public and the private, presentation and concealment, and openness and secrecy. And such playful manipulation is inseparable from the rhetorical dexterity of the vice-courtiers, including their word plays and bawdy language. The emboldened vices make eloquent public announcements of their true identities, which is in stark contrast to the deceptive language they use to elicit Magnificence's favor.

In the comic bickering between the brothers, Fancy and Folly, over their pets (a hawk and a cur), Skelton draws attention to the vice characters' self-destructiveness and self-indulgence. When they pick on each other, the emphasis is on their wanton and mischievous characteristics and thereby on the dangerous volatility and corruptibility of having them around the court. In this way the farcical brawl of Fancy and Folly, as well as a parallel conflict of Collusion and Conveyance, becomes emblematic of their shallowness, reminding us how ludicrous it is for Magnificence not to see through them. The festive degradation shown here points to the lack of spiritual and ethical depth among contemporary courtiers. Skelton's employment of folly is clearly in the tradition of Erasmian and Morean satires: Counterfeit Countenance, for example, brags that "This world is full of my folly./ I set not by him a fly/ That can not counterfeit a lie" (410-12). I agree with Michael West:

Skelton's fools ... manifest kinship with those Renaissance fools whose folly approaches wisdom. Indeed, in this area, Skelton is Shakespeare's most considerable artistic precursor in England, and thus a distant ancestor of such characters as Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's boy. (24)

In addition to the corrupt vice-courtiers, the jarring scene of Folly and Fancy reveals the degree to which this play depends on the tradition of morality play, in that they represent the abstracted, psychological aspects of human behavior. The morality's conventional structure and allegorical stock- characters are employed to celebrate a humanist ideal of "government" in the play.


Deprived of his goods and raiment--all the worldly amenities--, Magnificence becomes an embodiment of disease and sickness. Now he has to go through shame, humiliation, and disgust before his spiritual and material renewal, as part of a histrionic undoing that anticipates his ritualistic regeneration. By stressing the pathological elements of Magnificence's suffering, Skelton makes his physical disease an emblem of both moral degradation and financial disaster. Magnificence calls himself "patient" (2389) of "wanton excess" (2410), while Good Hope states "your potecary [=apothecary] assigned am I" (2352). Good Hope, one of the four figures to rescue Magnificence, serves as the "remedy principal/ Against all faults of your ghostly foe" (2329-30). Magnificence can be restored to the "health of body" (2370) only by going through the treatment of "disease and sickerness [in] his conscience" (2371). Playing the role of spiritual apothecary, Good Hope literally provides Magnificence with "a lectuary soft" which, according OED, is "a medicinal conserve or paste, consisting of a powder or other ingredient mixed with honey, preserve, or syrup of some kind" (2356). Under great distress caused by poverty, Magnificence is even driven by a suicidal urge symbolized by the appearance of Despair. Only Good Hope rushes in to take away the knife from him.

Cure comes both through his repentance and good management of his finances, because his material ruin is the flip side of spiritual degradation. The experience of physical pain as well as economic hardship allows Magnificence to understand his flaws and sins, which can only be cured through his submission to God. Before he can be redeemed, as Redress reminds him, he "shall have more worship" (2471) than he has ever had. Going one step further, Skelton links this pathological rendition of Magnificence's problem of mismanagement with Christian doctrine, because as Good Hope declares, "your physician is the grace of God" (2350). As Maurice Pollet suggests, Magnificence embodies the image of "the Sovereign, upon whom depends the ultimate happiness or unhappiness of the Realm, that is to say, in theological terms, its salvation or damnation" (84).

The material and corporal punishment of Magnificence for the failure to govern himself and his household properly thereby paves the way for this redemptive moment with the moral injunction to follow. Still, even though the issue of Magnificence's religious sincerity surfaces in the closing scenes, the play on the whole focuses more on his lack of judgment in making moral and political decisions concerning the temptations of prodigality and sensual pleasure. As Bevington points out, "He [Magnificence] must work out his salvation not in terms of spiritual after-life, but of fiscal sanity in this world" (56). His fault lies not only in breaking the law of God, but in breaching the rules and ethics of secular government. Redemption or restoration of his soul is evidenced in his return to worldly prosperity, not in the after-world.

As Adversity announces, the sin of Magnificence is that he "knew not himself, [and] his heart is so high" (1889) and thus "he was wont to boast, brag, and to brace" (1892). Skelton makes a close link between the financial and administrative failure of Magnificence and his psychological and religious misgovernment. Magnificence's misgovernment would bring "sorrow and care" to the commonwealth, since Adversity strikes "lords of realms and lands/ That rule not by measure that they have in their hands,/ That sadly rule not their household men" (1939-41). Once Magnificence repents his "wilfulness" (2380), he must learn how to make a proper distribution of "largesse" ("Not thorough largesse of liberal expense/ But by the way of fansy insolence" 2116-17) and a proper use of liberty as is epitomized in Liberty's speech at the end: "I am a virtue if I be well used, And I am a vice where I am abused" (2102-3). The lesson Magnificence, and for that matter Skelton's implied target audience--including Henry VIII and Wolsey--also has to learn is how to know the true inward from its outward appearance. To put it another way, how is one to comprehend somebody else's interior secrets--to find a good servant. With the return of Sad Circumspection, Skelton brings back to Magnificence's household moderation, truthfulness, and stability. As Magnificence finally admits to Sad Circumspection,

Wel I perceive in you there is much sadness,

Gravity of counsel, providence and wit. (2472-3)

If Magnificence's trouble starts with the absence of Sad Circumspection, the belated return of that character stands as the ultimate reminder of the importance of "sadness" (or sobriety) in governance. The play introduces a republican spirit under the aegis of the Christian ideal of the monarch by drawing attention to the need to negotiate between prodigality and frugality, mastery and submission, and medieval hospitality and modernized fiscal management.


The bewildering denouement, which itself gives evidence of the morality play, has much to do with Skelton's attempt to curb the play's subversive potential. But this use of theatricality threatens to defeat its manifest intention to bolster the power and autonomy of the prince against flattering courtiers. In such a cultural and political investment in the political constituency of monarchy, we may also see Skelton's ambivalent attitude toward his former royal student. By locating the cause of social ills in those corrupt courtiers, Skelton might have intended to place blame for disastrous political decisions on the king's subordinates and thus avoid destabilizing the monarch. David Bevington even sees the theme of the play as supporting the old aristocracy against the new courtiers, with Skelton as "a poet of deeply conservative instinct" (54). The dangerous issue that the play implicitly raises, though Skelton struggles to bracket off its subversive potential, is that Magnificence's magnificence resides not in his hereditary estate but in his ability to enact the virtues. The implicit message is that the true nature of a monarch is in his performance of good leadership: in other words, he must realize his fullest potential by listening to the good counseling of his subjects. Magnificence can only become magnificent and thus confirm his identity as a truthful monarch by performing his assigned role--that of a virtuous governor. Certainly there is this performative sense of identity, an expectation to follow the prescribed role and code of conduct. Then, what appears to be external (wealth and its management) is a mirror of the inside/inherent qualities of his identity.

The restoration of Magnificence to an ideal state of governance can only be envisioned in a world of mutual understanding and interdependence, to be distinguished from a tyrannical oppression. Hence, the play's ending does not declare the outright triumph of frugality over liberality; rather, liberality of the prince is reinstated within the purview of measure and moderation. The opportune, formulaic restoration of Magnificence, along with the sudden return of Sad Circumspection, thus I suggest, might be considered Skelton's contained effort to avoid the subversiveness that this performative ideal of sovereignty could invite. Skelton negotiates his position within the bounds of monarchical court politics.

This view would explain the curious silence of the play on the issue of doling out proper punishment and reward at the end, despite the perils the Vices caused to Magnificence and the loyal subjects. Because the play does not intend to purge the so-called vicious courtiers completely but, instead, gestures toward a need to compromise, Skelton shows implicitly that his concern is not much with the administrative system and its loopholes, but rather with the ethical obligations of the governor. In Magnificence, Skelton represents the issue of royal governance under the guise of a morality play, while trying to hide its ambivalence toward the monarchical order, and thus successfully raises the question of the relationship between economic management of the household and the competent administration of government, as well as that of intersubjective relationship between the monarch and his counselors. As Erasmus says eloquently, "there is surely no more effective method of reforming princes than to present them with a pattern of the good prince under the guise of praising them" (qtd. in David Rundle 72).

(Sungshin Women's University)


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"Measure is Treasure": Financial and Political Prudence

in John Skelton's Magnificence

Tai-Won Kim

This paper takes up John Skelton's Magnificence (ca. 1515-21), the only extant play of the English poet laureate and "orator regius" of Henry VIII, and explores the ways in which the play puts into question Magnificence's art of government in terms of his financial mismanagement and its political and economical consequences. In Magnificence, Skelton represents the issue of royal governance under the guise of a morality play and thereby successfully raises the question of the relationship between economic management of the household and the competent administration of government, as well as that of intersubjective relationship between the monarch and his counselors. By representing the lack of self-control and temperance which renders Magnificence unable not only to manage his personal wealth but also to fulfill his obligations as a governor, Skelton's Magnificence calls for a royal balance between extravagance and parsimony and thereby links the arts of political and personal government. In this representation, I reconfigure the image of John Skelton who not only reveals the Renaissance courtier's eagerness for a position in real politics, but also envisions a reformed ideal of princehood.


"적당함이 보배": 존 스켈턴의 {메그니피슨스}에 나타난 정치적, 경제적 신중함에 관하여

김 태 원

논문은 헨리 8세의 가정교사였으며 한때 계관시인으로 불리기도 하였던 스켈턴의 극작품 중에서 유일하게 보존된 도덕극 <메그니피슨스>를 분석한다. 도덕극의 전통과 "왕에게 주는 훈계문학"의 전통을 이어받은 스켈턴의 희곡작품은, 동시대 지성인을 관통하던 "통치"에 관한 르네상스 사상의 영향을 극명히 드러내고 있는데, 특히 왕이 어떻게 스스로와 가정, 그리고 나라를 다스려야 하는가에 대한 문제를 주제로 삼아 극으로 재현하고 있다. 스켈턴의 도덕극은 "절제와 조화"라는 도덕적 이념을 정치적 경제적 행동규범으로 의인화하여 재현함으로써 "군주의 다스림"이라는 르네상스 정치 철학적 화두를 정면으로 맞닥뜨리고 있다. 따라서 필자는 이런 형상화의 과정에서 스켈턴이 "군주"에 대한 이념을 수정하고 자신의 정치적 입지를 확보하려는 르네상스 궁정인의 양상을 체현하고 있음을 주장할 뿐만 아니라, 르네상스 휴머니스트 연극의 하나로서 <메그니피슨그>가 르네상스 영국 연극발달사에서 차지하는 위치를 정초 하고자 한다.

Key Words: prudence or measure, the art of government, courtier, Renaissance Humanism, Henrician drama, early modern subjectivity