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 Study Guide: The Masque of Blackness


What is a masque?  A form of courtly entertainment that combined spoken poetry, songs, dance, elaborate costumes and scenery, and direct addresses to the audience (usually the King) into a highly symbolic, stylized pageant.

 Where were masques performed?  In the large banqueting halls of the palaces of the king and wealthy courtiers.

When were they performed?  During the early part of the 17th century, at festive occasions like Christmas celebrations, weddings, and the visits of foreign dignitaries. There was usually only one performance.

 Who attended?  only the rich and powerful – usually at least one member of the royal family (King James, Queen Anne, Prince Henry or Prince Charles), along with members of the royal court and high-ranking visitors.  The public were not invited.

 Who made the masques?  The text was written by a professional poet, hired for the job — many by Ben Jonson — and read by professional actors, often from Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men.  The songs were composed by a professional composer and performed by professional singers and musicians.  The scenery and costumes were designed, usually, by the King’s architect, Inigo Jones.  The dances were often performed by members of the royal family – Queen Anne and Prince Henry, many times – and their courtiers.

 What were they about?  Most masques illustrated the greatness of the King and his court through creating complicated allegories that referenced classical or literary figures — Roman gods and goddesses, figures from Arthurian legends, witches, animals, fairies, etc.  The words and movements of these figures usually created images of harmony, beauty, moral goodness, order, and authority, all of which were associated with the power of the King and his court.


(NOTE: this presents a literal reading of the lines only; it doesn’t account for symbolism or other interpretive material.  Page and line numbers refer to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1, 7th Edition.)

 pp. 1295-96 — in his introduction to the published text of the masque, Jonson notes that he had written the masque at the request of the Queen, who wished to dress herself and her ladies up like as “blackmoors,” or Black Africans.  He then describes the scenery and costumes designed by Inigo Jones, noting that the ladies costumes were created in tones of blue, silver, and pearl, to contrast beautifully with the blackness of their makeup.

 lines 1-11 — a song accompanies the appearance of the masquers: the Queen and her ladies, seated in a large (fake) seashell, representing nymphs (water goddesses), who are the daughters of Niger, the god of the African river of the same name.  A professional actor playing Niger also appears and speaks to an actor playing Oceanus, the god of the Atlantic Ocean (Niger’s father). 

 lines 12-37 — Oceanus asks Niger why he has left his usual (eastward) course and flowed backwards, westward, into the Atlantic. Niger explains that he’s not just a physical river but a supernatural being, and has come in spirit to seek help because his daughters, the Ethiopian nymphs, have asked him to. 

 lines 38-76 — Niger complains that his daughter are upset.  Even though they were the first goddesses ever created and are therefore the most beautiful, and even though their blackness is the epitome of Platonic beauty because it’s the direct result of the sun’s loving closeness and also because it never fades, the nymphs have heard that Northern poets insist that paleness is the most desirable kind of beauty.  The nymphs are now upset because they think they’re not as beautiful as they once believed themselves to be, and are now cursing the sun that gave them life.

 lines 77-109 — Niger says he has tried to convince his daughters that they really are beautiful in spite of what poets say, but they have ignored him and prayed to their moon goddess, Aethiopia.  She appeared to them one night and told them that they might solve their beauty problem by finding a country whose name ends in “-tania,” where they will find a light that is more kind to them than the sun.  However, they’ve tried all the countries they know of — Mauritania (North Africa), Lusitania (Portugal), and Aquitania (France) — with no success.

 lines 110-137 — At this point, a costumed actor representing Aethiopia, the moon goddess, appears on a moonlike piece of scenery.  Niger is overjoyed to see her and prays to her to help his daughters, who deserve her help because they have been such devout worshipers.  She answers that the land the nymphs must seek is “Britannia” (England), the country most beloved of poets.

 lines 138-151 — She goes on to say that Britannia is ruled by a sunlike king (James) whose light is the light of Reason, and is powerful enough to bleach a black-skinned “ethiop,” or even to bring the dead to life.  If the nymphs will only travel to this land and appear before this king, they will gain the beauty they wish for.

 pp. 1300-1301 — Jonson then describes how the Queen and the ladies moved off the shell and onto the stage, where they danced to stately music.  He describes the fans they held in their hands, which contained names and symbols associating each nymph with qualities of beauty and fruitfulness.  In their dance, they slowly approached the central place in the audience where King James sat.

 lines 152-178 — The lady masquers choose male partners from the audience and dance, while two songs are sung by “sea voices,” expressing fear that the nymphs will leave them for the beauty of the men of the court.  They are told by two “echoes” that it’s OK if they leave the men and return to the sea, because the vows of women are “only water,” fluid and changeable.

 lines 179-204 — Aethiopia tells the nymphs that she must return to Africa with their father, Niger, while they should stay in Britannia and, once a month for the next year, bathe in sea-dew.  At the same time next year, they will appear before the king again, and his light will make them beautiful (and white).   

 lines 205-212 — The masquers do a final dance, while a song instructs them to return to the stage, praising “Neptune’s son,” the king of England.

NOTE:  traditionally, royal masquers were supposed to remove their masks at the end of the performance and reveal themselves as members of the court.  However, since the Queen and her ladies were wearing black makeup in stead of masks, they couldn’t unmask at the end.  For this reason, Jonson created the message in lines 179-204 that the court ladies will “unmask” (appear in their own faces) a year later.  In reality, it was three years before the sequel to this mask, “The Masque of Beauty,” was performed.



Who were the Performers in this masque?

Jonson recorded the names of the noble participants, who danced in pairs, gracefully arranged, to the accompaniment of the consort, or small orchestra.  Each lady was named with the Greek word for a particular quality associated with beauty, and each pair shared a symbol that was unaccompanied by any caption or written motto (note that Jonson chose not to use the form of the impresa, which does contain a written motto).  Sources for this information are Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant, and Herford and Simpson’s edition of Jonson’s Works.

1.     1.  James’ wife, Queen Anne and her best friend/chief lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Bedford (Lucy Russell, the Earl of Bedford’s wife, whom Jonson approvingly described in Epigrams lxxvi as possessing “a learned and manly soul”), of course were first in line.  “Euphoris” means abundance and implies the Queen’s generosity; Anne would also have been visibly pregnant with Princess Mary at the time of this masque.  “Aglaia” means splendor and is appropriate to the pre-eminent noblewoman in the Queen’s court.  Their symbol, the golden tree, is traditional for fertility and symbolizes both the idea that Africa was an especially fertile place, associated with the Garden of Eden, and that beauty is the root of abundance/fertility.

2.     2.  Lady Herbert was a relative of Sir Philip Sidney’s and was herself a patroness of poets (including Jonson); the Countess of Derby was Elizabeth de Vere, oldest daughter of the Earl of Oxford.  “Diaphane” means transparent and “Eucampse” flexibility.  The icosahedron or twenty-sided figure, when rendered as a clear three-dimensional crystal, symbolizes water or the (fertile) waters with which the “daughters of Niger” are associated.

3.     Lady Rich was Penelope Devereaux, the “Stella” of Sidney’s sonnets, who was living in open adultery at the time of the masque with Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy.  The King allowed her to divorce her husband, Lord Rich, and marry Mountjoy later that year.  The Countess of Suffolk was married to Lord Rich’s eldest son (making this a curious pairing).  “Ocyte” means swiftness and “Kathare” spotlessness, also qualities of water.  The “naked feet in a river” imply washing or purifying.

4.     Lady Bevill was a minor nobleman’s wife and would be dead before the end of the year of smallpox.  Lady Effingham was the wife of a naval admiral, Lord Effingham.  “Notis” means moisture and “Psychrote” coldness, the elemental properties of water.  The Salamander in symbolic terms is associated with the element of water, because it was commonly believed that the salamander not only could exist in fire without being burned but could also quench a fire.  (“Simple” means the salamander is pictured with no other symbolic background.)

5.     Lady Elizabeth Howard became Lady Knollys later that year, marrying an elderly courtier of the King’s and later ruining her husband’s career by writing satirical poems about the King’s favorite (and probably lover), the Duke of Buckingham.  Lady Susan de Vere was the Countess of Montgomery, another patroness of poets (including Jonson, who wrote several flattering poems about her, and of her sister-masquer Lady Mary Wroth, who dedicated her pastoral novel, The Coutness of Montgomery’s Urania, to Lady De Vere.) “Glycyte” means sweetness and “Malacia” delicacy, again important qualities of beauty and also of pure waters.  The “cloud full of rain, dropping” symbolized education, appropriate to these two literate ladies.

 6.         Lady Walsingham and her husband were appointed the Chief Keepers of the Queen’s Wardrobe, an honorary and honorable title that carried a fat pension.  Lady Mary Wroth, as mentioned above, was one of the few noblewomen to write for publication, and styled her poetic career after her uncle Philip Sidney’s.  She was also notorious for having had two illegitimate children with her first cousin.  “Baryte” means weight and “Periphere” revolving or circular.  “An urn sphered with wine” is a confusing construction, but seems to tie in with the image of the globe of the earth as both a round symbol of perfection and a fruitful container.


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