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Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur and the Myth of the Golden Age

King Arthur et le mythe de l’Âge d’Or
Andrea Trocha Van Nort
p. 91-100


Le King Arthur de Purcell et de Dryden, un semi-opéra ou opéra dramatique selon les termes de Dryden, rompt avec le mode héroïque anglais et façonne le récit de la légende arthurienne selon les critères de la mythologie gréco-romaine. Qu’on le lise d’un point de vue poétique ou politique, King Arthur fait revivre à la scène les valeurs d’un d’âge d’or et de paix et témoigne à sa manière de l’esthétique du théâtre de la Restauration anglaise.

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  • 1  Phillip Harth accounts in part for this silence in “Dryden in 1678-1681: The Literary and Historic (...)
  • 2  Richard Barber (ed.), King Arthur in Music, Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2002, 8.

1After what has appeared to some as a period of personal ambivalence over political allegiance1, Dryden took up his pen in the name of the monarchy in 1684 to compose the verses of King Arthur, undoubtedly to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Restoration. Various reasons kept him from completing it at the time, notably a royal request to lengthen the sung prologue to Arthur, which became a distinct work on its own, Albion and Albanius, and was frequently rehearsed at Whitehall.2 The sudden death of Charles II, however, and political upheaval over the succession, cast a shadow over the play’s raison d’être. When he finally completed King Arthur in 1691, the semi-opera he wrought was unsurprisingly less politically topical than Albion and Albanius, which achieves greater permanence than the earlier work. Permeated with Renaissance as well as seventeenth-century themes and imagery, the plot makes use of those elements Dryden felt most worthy of this emblematic tribute to England. The play centers around Golden Age mythology, with an approach similar to some Greek works that, despite depicting nostalgia for lost days, single their own culture out as superior to others. Added to this, Purcell’s musical interludes, as integrated living tableaux dispersed regularly throughout, also exalt a certain idea of England and its monarchy, one which draws upon Jacobean and Caroline masques for its aesthetics.

  • 3  Winn writes, “[Dryden’s] skill in recasting the opera to make it open to either a Williamite or Ja (...)

2This rich complexity of King Arthur is often — and regrettably — decried as indigestible daubery, yet another example of the poor taste endemic to the Restoration theatre, a stage which, as we know, to modern critics pales in comparison with that of the Renaissance. Yet if one analyzes King Arthur through the prism of contemporary perceptions of refinement, Dryden’s efforts to create a multifaceted work that would entertain audiences but also draw upon the essence of English theatre to paint a living canvass of England’s Golden Age, pay tribute to England and the English as much as to his own political orientation3. Both the former court poet and court composer, Dryden and Purcell, strangers to William and Mary’s court, had greater motivation to conceive a popular semi-opera than a politicized work which might or might not please audiences. We will first consider the uses of Renaissance motifs in the reconstruction of the myth of the Golden Age before moving on to Jacobean and Caroline influences. Our final analysis will deal with the superior origins and superior society formulae that Dryden and Purcell employ.

Elements of Renaissance Theatre

3Recourse to Renaissance values is manifest in the text, in the repainting of the Golden Age, in bringing it back to life. First, the Arcadian backdrop of the semi-opera, or dramatic opera in Dryden’s terminology, along with the nearly unbridled idealism of the Arthur myth, depicts a past England, but one which remains an inexhaustible source of optimism and hopefulness and, for Dryden bears strong ties with the present and future.

  • 4  Richard Barber (ed.), op.cit., 14.

4Dryden’s Arcadia, though surrounded by a battlefield, is not a place of strife. It is interesting that the action is precipitated in such a way that, as quickly as a battle is announced, it is won by the Britons. Hence, despite the semi-opera’s patriotic and religious features, protracted battles between the Christian Britons and the pagan Saxons are of less interest than the eponymous hero’s own chivalry, his trekking through dense forests in a battle against his own weaknesses, a battle disguised as a struggle against the Saxon leader, Oswald, and Oswald’s magician, Osmond. He is, of course, regularly assisted in this by Merlin and by Philidel, the airy spirit. Even in Act IV, when the forces are again gathered, the war is to be decided by a duel between Arthur and Oswald, both wounded. The fight, begun and ended on Saint George’s Day (as mentioned in Act I and Act V), is rather emblematic of the mixing of the two peoples — Arthur’s Britons representing for some scholars the Tories, and Oswald’s Saxons the Parliamentarians4. The denouement, in action and in music, points to what the warring parties have in common; this background image therefore positions the Golden Age in less distant times on a metaphorical level.

5Second, metatheatrical elements are never distant, especially those reflective of Shakespeare’s plays most successfully adapted for Restoration spectators. This self-conscious theatre — a new stage for a new audience — found in the Renaissance works its own Golden Age, and by the time King Arthur had been composed, Shakespeare had by far outpaced the reputations of other Renaissance playwrights such as Beaumont, Fletcher or Jonson. Pericles, Macbeth, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar: direct influences from each can be identified in King Arthur. To name but the most obvious, one can note the wandering hero of Pericles, the dark magic of Macbeth, the spirits of earth and air from The Tempest, the exemplary heroine of Cymbeline, the divine order and supernatural status attributed to the ruler in Julius Caesar. The semi-opera is most heavily impregnated with elements from TheTempest — the magus commanding spirits to accomplish good, presenting illusions and entertainments, is clearly present in the character of Merlin. All the same, the evil magic of Macbeth also permeates the text through the pagan Saxons and their evil magus Osmond, who, not content with simply serving his leader, overthrows the latter in order to bed the young blind Emmeline, an Imogen prototype. The final masque also greatly resembles Prospero’s, staging Roman gods who bestow their blessings upon the main characters. Shakespearean themes, characters and motifs point to Dryden’s acknowledgement of, and homage to, this so-perceived Golden Age of theatre wherein heroes were honourable and heroines beyond reproach, a “better” age when such subject matter had not become the object of cynicism.

6Values and mores, attributed to the Renaissance by Restoration audiences thus underpin the play, providing a mythological support upon which the more modern elements could be added.

Elements of Stuart and Restoration Theatre

7From such an idealistic vision a bridge must be made in order for the playwright to offer something modern to his work, elements that would add newness and speak to the guarded audiences of the new age. This is where Dryden blends Purcell’s work into the larger plot, relying on Stuart masque aesthetics as well as more contemporary theatrical penchants.

  • 5  Barbara Ravelhofer writes of Coelum Britannicum that it made use of Sidneian symbolism and  “rushe (...)

8Nostalgia, myth, and confirmation of a superior present society via a heroic code inhabit Jacobean and Caroline masques; Dryden draws from these the ingredients necessary to create a tribute to his compatriots and his theatre that will excite the mind and delight the eye and ear, mixing the visual and the dramatic. Early seventeenth-century masques conflated nostalgia — chivalry, pastoral symbolism, English fairies, in short, a Renaissance Arcadia — with Roman mythology, from which were to come forward in relief, through dance, music and costumes, the grand masquers themselves5. In King Arthur, a similar technique is employed to create a temporal distance between a collective vision of the classical as well as the Sidneian Golden Age and the far-superior traits of Arthur. Pastoral interludes, fairies’ songs, country dances, pagan sacrifices, a frost scene, sirens, nymphs and sylvans, as well as in the final masque a succession of deities, make up the fabric of the illusion. Arthur, as a non-singing character, is set apart even though he interacts directly with several of the singing characters. By defeating the magic which characters of these scenes intend to use to trap him, he gains dominance over them. Moreover, Emmeline, as an exemplary heroine, is also capable of combating any evil in her own way, and is thus a worthy partner for Arthur. Nostalgia therefore supplies the texture of the bas relief which allows Arthur and Emmeline to come forward in their greatness.

9Also, one finds contemporary predilections which add variety to what would surely be otherwise too idealistic a production, too heavily redolent of heroic plays of an earlier decade. Restoration realism is never far from mind, containing the desire to see actions that are considered as best when hidden by French classical standards, as well as realism regarding love and heroism.

  • 6  Norse mythology describes the first man as springing from an evergreen ash tree.

10The Restoration theatre was indeed one of visual attraction, one which titillated audiences early on with, of course, the presence of actresses — dressed, underdressed, cross-dressed, undressed — and the vulnerable situations written into plotlines in order to assure as much undressing as possible. Emmeline, presented as blind at the outset, is obviously given this handicap for several reasons. First, even without her vision she senses Arthur’s superiority, which reveals her strong moral fiber, and second, it makes her even more vulnerable than most Restoration heroines. Captured by Oswald who intends to rape her, Emmeline is then threatened by Osmond, the evil magus, who has had Oswald thrust into chains. It should be remembered that it was Ann Bracegirdle who first played the role, for, as the most ostensibly chaste of the actresses, she was the favored “victim” of rape scenes. Her struggling against Osmond would have been expected by audiences. The visual, once again centered around Emmeline, is heightened at the climax of Act IV when Arthur must strike down the illusion of Emmeline, in the form of a tree, in order to rid himself of Grimbald, the earth-bound spirit, and Osmond. An image at the crossroads between Norse mythology6 and Ovid’s story of Daphne, its position in the play stresses its importance. Once struck, the tree — Emmeline with a “bloody arm” — drops down the trap, and a wounded Grimbald rises. Finally, the only fight scene of the play, in Act V, is fought with sponges soaked in a red substance that the characters — Arthur and Oswald — use to leave splotches of “blood” on one another. For Restoration theatre-goers, a play was not a play without a substantial amount of spectacle.

11Love is also tinged with Restoration realism. Emmeline is first described as an heiress, and even though she is blind she is described as a “bargain.” The pastoral scene toys with sensual metaphor in the form of a flute that the “bright nymphs of Britain” refuse when offered by shepherds, presenting instead marriage contracts ready to be signed. A mixing of bawdy, proviso scenes, and a larger reminder of the popularity of Restoration marriage plays themselves is evident. The chorus ends with,

Come Shepherds, lead up, a lively Measure;
The Cares of Wedlock, are Cares of Pleasure:
But whether Marriage bring Joy or Sorrow,
Make sure of this Day, and hang to Morrow.

12Love is not idealized, and marriage is only a short-term solution leading to brief happiness. Even Emmeline is not safe from uncertainty over her loyalty. Her naïve nature – reminiscent of Miranda’s in the rewritten Tempest – is the source of double entendres in her early, comic dialogue with Arthur, who, for his part, later shows doubt as to whether she will choose him over Oswald once her sight is restored (which is why some like to read her as “blind love” in the play). He worries when rape is threatened that,

[…] who can tell, what Power, and Lust, and Charms,
May do this Night?

13A woman may be seduced, may change love objects, in fine, is an irresolute thing indeed.

14Concerning realism and heroism, the enemy are portrayed less as martial heroes than as upstart tricksters. The sacrifice scene of the first act, conducted by the Saxons, albeit a ceremonious event, is portrayed nonetheless as senseless killing, a trick to make the soldiers feel they are destined to win the battle. The Saxons, defeated early in battle, resort to magic to lead Arthur and his men into a bog and later to capture Emmeline. Oswald refuses to fight Arthur when challenged, preferring to let his magician Osmond do the dirty work. In the end, however, Oswald shows some heroism when, after Arthur has defeated him in single combat, he professes to prefer to die than to live under the authority of another. Thus he finally emerges as a worthy opponent in the final scene, which makes the compromise that Arthur proposes a satisfactory close to the play.

15Without these visual qualities, this realism and scepticism, the overly idealistic plot of King Arthur would surely have disappointed a Restoration public, one used to theatre-going and inured to unwarranted optimism. As a dramatic compromise, it is the hopefulness drawn from Golden Age elements tempered with more modern distrust of the substance of ideals that makes the Arthur myth more compelling for this audience.

Hybrid of nostalgia and myth, a “superior society”

16Unlinked as it is to the current monarchy, King Arthur becomes, in its rewritten state, a statement on English society and its cultural ascendancy. As pointed out by R. H. Martin, writings on the Golden Age in ancient Greece evoke either the degeneracy of the current civilization vis-à-vis the former or ascendant evolution (Hesiod’s professing the theory of degeneracy, and Plato that of ascendant evolution). Dryden’s rewriting of the Arthurian legend seems to follow the second approach, that is, natural superiority — here depicted through honor and Arthur’s person — and ascendant evolution.

17As in Otway’s greatest plays, superiority in princely behavior is pointed to throughout the work, with Arthur as its embodiment; yet it is toward the end that we find an accumulation of references to his superior origins. Idealism concerning Arthur precedes his first entrance:

[…] now Aurelius you have named a man
One, whom besides the homage that I owe,
As Cornwall’s Duke, to his Imperial crown,
I would have chosen out, from all mankind
To be my sovereign lord.
His worth divides him from the crowd of kings;
So born, without desert to be so born.

  • 7  The Christian worthies are Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroy de Bouillon, the pagans were Hector, (...)

18Thus he is set apart from others who inherit kingdoms. Moreover, his actions in offering a noble compromise to his adversaries — reminiscent of Charles II, obviously — at different points in the text, as well as his own heroic struggle against himself, portray him as excelling in character and intelligence. In Act V, Arthur’s own words link him to Aeneas and to Adam, and audiences are reminded a few lines later that he is the first of the Christian worthies, in contemporaries’ eyes of course the worthiest of all of the Worthies7. Arthur thus becomes the greatest among the great, the most honourable among the honourable, and pointed references to royalty as guardians of this superior civilization become apparent.

  • 8 Pericles Prince of Tyre was one of the first Shakespearean adaptations of the Restoration, and Bett (...)

19The final stages of the semi-opera exalt English kings as embodying the same ideals as Arthur — and it is at this point that Dryden’s 1691 rewriting becomes clear. The final masque mentions Charles II via a theatrical comparison with the character of Pericles8 :

Though Jason’s Fleece was famed of old
The British wool is growing gold
No mines can more of wealth supply
It keeps the peasant from the cold.
And takes for kings the Tyrian dye.

20The last stanza is sung over again and again by pastoral characters, emphasizing Stuart supremacy. The comparison would have been understood by the initiates of Restoration stage history, thus those most closely linked to the crown and its cause throughout Charles’s reign. Further references to the monarchy are more generalized, with the Order of the Garter apparent in the background, and increasingly heavy-handed, with the arrival on stage of “heroes” attending a character called Honor – just in case someone had missed the point! Merlin explains to the audience,

These who last entered are our valiant Britains,
Who shall by sea and land repel our foes.
Now look above, and in heaven’s high abyss,
Behold what fame attends those future heroes.
Honor, who leads them to the steepy height,
In her immortal song shall tell the rest.

21Honor sings then of the kings,

Our sovereign high, in aweful state,
His honors shall bestow;
And see his sceptered subjects wait
On his commands below.

22Arthur finishes the masque himself with hopes for peace and continuity of this Golden Age and superiority:

Triumphs of war and peace, at full ye show,
But swiftly turn the pages of our woe.
Rest we contented with our present state;
‘Tis anxious to enquire of future fate;
That race of heroes is enough alone
For all unseen disasters to atone.
Let us make haste betimes to reap our share,
And not resign them all the praise of war.
But set the example; and their souls inflame,
To copy out their great forefathers’ fame.

23Not only are the English and their monarchs superior, but they must also “set the example” so that following generations will replicate the greatness of their forbears. Military glory must live on, but this is balanced in the final masque by the characters “He” and “She.” The latter represent typical Restoration stage lovers, with She chiding He for his inconstancy, and He pleading with She for “kindness.” Their presence simplifies and generalizes the final masque, as ordinary individuals, English of course, share the stage with Venus and the Worthy. They are singing characters, and as such part of the illusion, but like the character Honor, their role is one of representing a value, a people. In this way, English kings, past, present and future, are applauded, as are the English themselves, depicted as a superior civilization which recognizes its obligation to embody certain ideals. Dryden’s 1691 version thus makes the play a larger rewriting of the Arthur myth itself, ridding it of its most common features – Guinevere, Lancelot – in order to depict an entirely new vision of the “sceptered isle.”

24Theatre and history are therefore carefully intertwined in this most unusual adaptation – creation – of the Arthur myth by Dryden and Purcell. Expressing values linked with England’s past, the play seems to call for this self-conscious theatre to look upon its origins as proof of its superiority, at a time when political upheaval had once again reminded audiences of the different ideologies that separated them. The play would surely have made a stage in Dryden and Purcell’s rapprochement with the new monarchs, without overtly swearing their allegiance to them. Nostalgia, living tableaux of England’s Golden Age mixed with country dances, neo-classical elements, and a discourse of supremacy, would have created a seemingly neutral rewriting of the Arthur myth, one destined to please the audience as much as the sovereigns.

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Richard BARBER (ed.), King Arthur in Music, Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2002.

BRINKLEY Roberta Florence, Arthurian Legend in the Seventeenth Century, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1932.

BURDEN Michael, The Purcell Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995.

MARTIN R. H., “The Golden Age and the Cyclical Theory in Greek and Latin Literature”, Greece and Rome, Vol. 12, n°35-36, (June, 1943), 62-71.

PRICE Curtis A., Henry Purcell and the London Stage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

SAVAGE Roger, “The Theatre Music”, in Michael Burden (ed.), The Purcell Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1984, 313-83.

WINN James Anderson, John Dryden and his World, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987.

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1  Phillip Harth accounts in part for this silence in “Dryden in 1678-1681: The Literary and Historical Perspectives,” in The Golden and the Brazen World:  Papers in Literature and History, 1650-1800, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1985, 55-77.

2  Richard Barber (ed.), King Arthur in Music, Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2002, 8.

3  Winn writes, “[Dryden’s] skill in recasting the opera to make it open to either a Williamite or Jacobite reading has a beauty all its own” (449).  Dryden’s use of the myth can be contrasted with Milton’s in 1639: “Arthur, as being then chief general for the British Kings, made great war; but more renowned in songs and romances, than in true stories,” Britain under Roman, Trojan and Saxon Rule.

4  Richard Barber (ed.), op.cit., 14.

5  Barbara Ravelhofer writes of Coelum Britannicum that it made use of Sidneian symbolism and  “rushed its audience through a crash course in classical mythology, its scenes passing Rome and Britain’s dark ages on the way to Windsor Castle, seat of Charles’s much-cherished Order of the Garter. The cast replicated the epic sway of Inigo Jones’s stage designs: ancient warriors gave way to a new order of neo-classical grand masquers, led by Charles, A second St. George, in person. The heavens themselves welcomed the king and queen as the new fixed stars of a reformed universe, and Olympus yielded to their superior example” (The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, And Music,  Oxford University Press, États-Unis, 2006, 207).

6  Norse mythology describes the first man as springing from an evergreen ash tree.

7  The Christian worthies are Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroy de Bouillon, the pagans were Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, and the Jewish worthies were Joshua, David, and Judas.

8 Pericles Prince of Tyre was one of the first Shakespearean adaptations of the Restoration, and Betterton, who played Pericles, wore Charles’s coronation robes for the occasion.

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Andrea Trocha Van Nort, « Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur and the Myth of the Golden Age »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VI – n°2 | 2008, 91-100.

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Andrea Trocha Van Nort, « Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur and the Myth of the Golden Age »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VI – n°2 | 2008, mis en ligne le 24 août 2009, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Andrea Trocha Van Nort

(Paris XII, France)
Andrea Van Nort est maître de conférences à l’Université de Paris XII Val de Marne. Ses recherches se concentrent sur les adaptations des pièces de Shakespeare pendant la Restauration anglaise et l’esthétique du théâtre en général aux seizième et dix-septième siècles.

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