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Headline text[edit]

Any way in which the editor of this article could include a short and succint summary of the dramatic style at the beginning to help those searching for a quick definition of it? I searched it on Wikipedia to aid me with an interpretation of "The Tempest" by Shakespeare given by my English Literature teacher (I am studying it at A-level) and had to read the whole article to properly attain a understanding of masque.

Clean Up[edit]

This page as it stands has a lot of useful information, but is confusingly written, and doesn't really explore the development of the masque. I also think that it needs some examples of masques cited; although the lengthy diatrible below is clearly too much.

Masque of Blackness[edit]

I have removed this huge interpolation from the page:

  1. Masque of Blackness
    1. this might be suitable as its own entry, i have submitted it before and no one has been willing to edit. i still believe it should stay in.
  2. It is important for people today to know what a Masque was and what it became because it is an art form that we are not used to seeing these days.
“The Masque was similar in all important respects to the Italian intermezzo, being an allegorical story designed to honor a particular person or occasion through fanciful comparison with mythological characters or situations (Brockett 191).” Brockett explains the most important roles were the courtier-dancers, who were members of the nobility, but they were not given speaking roles, all the speaking roles went to professional actors (191). One important distinction between the Masque and the dancing was that the celebrating, also known as the revels, was comprised of the courtiers’ dancing and singing, whereas the Masque was the actual story presented. In looking at the people most closely involved in the Masque, the resulting partnerships, the Masque itself, the politics behind the production, and the subsequent changes to the literary and technical aspects of theatre, it is clear that Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness is very important to theatre history.
It is important to know a little about Ben Jonson, as the writer of The Masque of Blackness, and his interesting and turbulent life. Jonson was born in Westminster one month after his father’s death in the year 1574(Cornwall x). His mother remarried soon thereafter to a bricklayer, and when Ben was unable to remain at University he returned to his mother’s home where he was required to work for his stepfather (xi). Ben was unable to endure this, so he volunteered in the army (xi). Ben left the army after serving in a few battles when he felt he was underappreciated (xi). He returned home at around the age of nineteen, and he took the stage (xi). Cornwall suggests that Jonson got his start at The Green Curtain in Shoreditch (xi-xii). A few years into his acting career, another actor challenged him to a sword fight; the other man had brought a sword longer than Ben’s, and a fight ensued in which Jonson’s arm was cut badly and the other party’s life was lost (xiii). This offence landed Jonson in jail, and despite the possibility of a death sentence, he was released without a trial (xii). After his release from jail, his first play Every Man in His Humor was first performed, and he became a popular playwright with many plays being produced, including one with William Shakespeare in the company (xiv). After a successful career, he died at the age of 63, leaving one wife and no children [both of his children died at very young ages] (xiii). His body was placed at Westminster Abbey with a plain concrete marker inscribed, “O Rare Ben Jonson! (xxviii).” As the designer of the Masque, Inigo Jones, also referred to as Indigo Jones, was instrumental to the blooming art form of the Masque; The Masque of Blackness was his first court Masque. He was born to a cloth maker in 1573 (Royal Institute). The Royal Institute’s biography states that he wandered from England through France and Germany and into Italy from 1598 to 1603. While there, he studied the architecture of, “…Roman antiquity [,] Andrea Palladio (1508-80) and Vicenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616)…” (Royal Institute). The Royal Institutes biography also states that he received no formal training in architecture, so his travels appear to have been of great importance in his education as an architect. Jones soon returned to England and in 1604 he began designing Court Masques [Jonson’s Masque of Blackness] (Nagler 141). As the commissioner of The Masque of Blackness, Queen Anne was key to its conception--it was actually at her request the story became what it was. Anne was married to King James IV of Scotland in 1589, and then James succeeded to the English crown in 1603 as James I (Expanded Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia “James I”). The Queen did not get along with her husband so well, and as some critics noted, “It is true that some years after they did not much keep company together…yet they love as well as man and wife could do, not conversing together (Aasand).” Obviously if these three had not gotten together, the Masque would not have become what it was.
Many incredibly productive partnerships were created with the production of The Masque of Blackness. The Queen of England chose Jonson for some reason, and I haven’t the support for the connection I hoped to make. However, I do have ample reason to believe that Jonson was the Queen’s choice, and that presented with the chance to write a Masque for Her Majesty, only a fool would turn her down. It was my intention to prove that the Queen and Jonson were involved in some secret society of Catholics and that she was doing him a favor by allowing him this position. The best reason I can find that she would pick him above of all the other inexperienced [Jonson had written no Masques before] writers of the day stems from the fact that Jonson was granted an apprenticeship with the royal writers, and most of his assignments were writing entertainments for the queen (Miles 85-90). Between the summers of 1603-1604, they let him write four formal welcomes (Miles 85). The first of these was the welcome for Anne and Prince Henry- a conventional welcome, a simple pastoral (Miles 86). I am going to suggest than Anne had been traveling for weeks, and when she finally arrived she was greeted by this simple, fun, entertaining play; and thereby Jonson got his first “in” with the queen. His second assignment was not quite as important in the scale of future production value to Jonson; he wrote a simple pageant, but he did prove himself a skilled wordwright (Miles 87-88). Jonson’s last apprentice production was a private party for the king and queen (Miles 90). It is probable this was the second formal time the queen had ever seen Mr. Jonson’s work, and was where I believe he finally gained her attention. At this point in time the queen, I assume, remembered him from the time he met her arrival, and how much she enjoyed that entertainment he presented. When the queen chose to have him be the final night’s entertainment in a multi-night tradition, I believe she knew exactly what she wanted to happen, and the Jonson/Jones combination went greatly beyond her expectations. Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson were very fruitful in their partnership starting in 1605, and they created many entertainments for the aristocracy before they parted ways in 1618 . In the book Ben Jonson and Theatre, Cave realizes the dilemma that soon began to undermine their partnership. “Jonson’s Masques were elegantly witty conceits that created contexts in which to foreground the performers’ artistry, personal skill and physical perfection; for Jones the performers were the syntax necessary to shape the rhetorical flourishes of his grand statement, the means to his chosen ends (Cave et al. 73).” At this point, it becomes clear that the spectacle of the piece had begun to overshadow the text, and Wickham proposes that problems like these are what created such artistic differences, and the final collapsing of Jonson and Jones (Wickham 268-9). As Jonson, I would be delighted to see so many people ecstatic about my work but Jones had gained so much popularity for his scene design, Rosalind Miles explains that the “seeds of discourse had been planted (Miles 96).” Interpreting Miles and other critics, I feel that Jonson thought that he was the great collaborator, and that he was willing to share the fame with Jones, but he was not ready to take second place on the list of successes. This ultimately ended up in a splitting of the great team, and Jonson went on to produce shows outside the court, while Inigo kept his position at court as Surveyor-General (Ross). Jones continued working for the Royal family long after he and Jonson had ceased working together because of artistic differences; he was involved in replacing the old, crumbling Banqueting House with his own impressive design in 1619(Ross). This new Banqueting hall, patterned after the Roman Basilica, was stunning inside and outside [see Appendix A for Photograph of Interior] (Ross).
Now we turn our attention to the text of Blackness, which begins with Jonson’s description of the place and people in the Masque. He explains to the reader that the set is a huge backdrop of an ocean with waves “that seem to move” and in front of that a huge shell that held the princesses [the Queen and her ladies] on their journey (Jonson 544-5). In front of all this, was a front curtain with a painted “landtschap (landscape)”- with a small woods and “here and there a void place”- that fell to reveal the ocean scene, the Masquers, and the actors (Jonson 544-545). Jonson sets the scene with the following:

This cavalcade “induces” the masquers, who are twelve nymphs, negroes and daughters of Niger, attended by twelve Oceaniae, who are their lightbearers. The masquers are all placed in “a great concave Shell, like mother of pearl, curiously made to move on those waters and rise with the billow”; the torch-bearing Oceaniae are on the backs of “six huge sea-monsters,” disposed round the great shell. Cunningly placed lights raise the whole elaborate show to the highest point of brilliance. The “lines of prospective” of this show were planned with exact reference to the state [The king] at the upper end of the hall (Cambridge History of English and American Literature)

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature continues its summary:
….Oceanus enquires of Niger why he is far out of his course here in the west. Niger explains that his daughters, having heard the fable of Phaeton, are discontented with their blackness, and have seen a vision which ordered them to seek a land whose name ends in the syllables “tania.” They have tried Mauritania and Lusitania and Aquitania; can Oceanus help them to any other? Oceanus answers that they have arrived at Albion, named after his own son; but, at this point, a vision of the moon, “discovered in the upper part of the house,” as a beautiful queen on a throne, makes Niger “interrupt Oceanus with this present passion”: “O see, our silver star,” he begins. The Aethiopians, of course, worshipped the moon as Aethiopia; and this is Aethiopia herself come to tell them that this is the land they are seeking. It is ruled by a sun
           Whose beams shine day and night and are of force,

To blanch an Aethiop and revive a corse.

King James is the sun:

           His light sciential is, and, past mere nature,

Can salve the rude defects of every creature.

Then comes the main dance of the masquers. When it is finished, and the masquers are about “to make choice of their men, one from the sea was heard to call them with this Charm, sung by a tenor voice.” The song very aptly bids the sirens of the sea beware of the sirens of the land. After the measures and corantos with the men, which are “the revels [The party part of the masque],” the ladies “were again accited to sea with a song of two trebles whose cadences were iterated by a double echo from several parts of the land.” The echo song over, Aethiopia gives a receipt for removing “this veil the sun has cast Above your blood”; and the masquers “in a dance returned to sea where they took their Shell, and with this full song went out(Cambridge History of English and American Literature).
The production was obviously one on a large scale, and it would have been amazing to see.

The Masque of Blackness, even being as grandiose as it was, did have some underlying political tension. Anne was always more of a “rival sovereign” than a wife; she performed well as a queen , but was constantly at battle with the king (Aasand). In a short study into King James’s life, it is easy to notice that he had some problems with attachment; when he was attached, he was serious, but if you angered him, it was very difficult to recover his love or escape his anger . The queen was probably making a political statement against the monarchy when she requested Jonson write this story for her. She was dissatisfied with the way her husband ruled her and their people (Aasand). The solution, it appears, was to have Jonson write a court Masque with her and her ladies as Ethiopian princesses, which intended to make a mockery of the status quo, or at least shock the court. I believe Anne had specifically requested that Jonson write a Masque about Ethiopians , knowing that to have the queen and her court appear in blackface or scantily clad would offend the sensibility of their aristocratic audience. “Still the unconventional (in England) bodily presence of the women in the context of performance, even if it is the rarefied, special space of the court, was signaled particularly unambiguously when, as it is suggested by designs [see Appendix A for image of Princess Costume Design] drawn by Inigo Jones, costumes exposed women performers’ breasts…(Cave, et al. 173).” Aasand states “Within the Masque, Queen Anne [alters] the typical allegorical representation of royalty into a grotesque mockery of [traditional] ideology that threatens the conventional image of beauty and dominance.” I am suggesting that it was by her design, but whether or not it was, the appearance of the queen and her ladies painted in black with “un-courtly” amounts of body showing was certainly shocking. Aasand notes a critic of the time who did not like the presentation of the queen in such a manner: Unlike the enclosed body of Elizabethan entertainments, which presents a figure of chastity, absoluteness, and separateness from the contagion of physical defilement, Anne presents the grotesque and all its implications, and Carleton's excoriation of her and her ladies is thereby a reasonable response for his courtly milieu: she is a royal grotesquerie, a figure blackened by heat and latent with an ethnic sexuality ("Curtizan-like") that disturbs established social and political order (Aasand).

Walravens and Weidner explain in their paper the reasoning and responses to the images of “blackness.” They explain that, as we have already seen, the request to present the queen as a black person was her decision, one that may have been made for many different reasons. Whilst the blackness was used as a shock mechanism, it is essential to recognize Jonson’s use of blackness as a central element of the story. Jonson endorses blackness’s superiority to whiteness when he states that the daughters of Niger’s beauty is everlasting, Walravens and Weidner sum it up by saying “Unlike white people, who are subject to ugly alterations of color after death,” the Ethiopians remain unchanged. For many other reasons Walravens and Weidner, conclude that Jonson was showing the white people that Africans have a certain relation to divinity. Jonson explains that he had pearls put on the masquers because the black skin sets them off- that pearls are more beautiful on black skin than on white skin (Walravens and Weidner). Walravens and Weidner also suggest that Jonson tries to explain why Africans are black, and Jonson does this by using the mythological story of “...Phaëton, that fired the world,/ and that, before his heedless flames were hurl’d/ About the globe, the Æthiops were fair/ as other dames; Now black with black despair…(Jonson 545).” Jonson suggests that even though black might be a beautiful color, these Ethiopians are in great despair, and that is the reason they are seeking a sun that can return them to their original pureness (Walravens and Weidner). Their journey is complete when they find the place to restore their purity; they found their purity in the sun (son) of Bri-tania: the King of England (Walravens and Weidner). The show, apparently, is full of references, as noted by Walravens and Weidner, to the events of the day, including the shift in power from a weak female monarch to James I , “The King’s central authority owing to the unification of England, Scotland, and Wales ,” and the Strength of the future of the monarchy (Walravens and Weidner). It would seem that to make the piece more shocking, the queen requested sexual undertones added to the piece. The Queen’s character in the play is Euphoris, whose picture/symbol was a golden tree laden with fruit (Kay 84). It is important to note that Queen Anne had to be 6 months pregnant at the performance of the play; I would like to suggest that the pregnancy, the blackness, and the costume of this Queen and her ladies was a very intriguingly sexual experience (Herford Qtd. Aasand). I would also like to suggest that maybe the Queen’s character’s name was planned out by her; it is obvious that she would have know she was pregnant when the masque was being written, and the name Euphoris and the symbol of her character(a tree bearing much fruit) are both indicative of the Queen herself. I imagine that the Queen was very happy to be producing this Masque for the court, and that she naturally would be optimistic of this child and its ability to stabilize her marriage. Although I believe she hoped this would be the beginning of a new life, it turned out quite the opposite; James took this child away from her, and the powers that be began to silence her (Aasand). Therefore, she retired to her summer homes where she died soon thereafter. As we have discovered, Jonson met the challenge to present to the court an entertainment that suited the queen, but also proved acceptable to the king. I am going to guess that Jonson’s biggest challenge was pleasing the king, or at least not angering the king. He did so, in my belief, by including the images of a powerful state that showed the king as the Lord Sovereign, thereby honoring the king.
The style of Masque during Elizabeth’s reign, like the Masque of the previous year, Vision of Twelve Goddesses, “an allegorical procession with long explanatory speeches,” had begun to fall out of favor (Orgel 3). There is no doubt that Ben Jonson had a distinct style; this can be seen in the observations of critics, like Stephen Orgel, in his introduction, who discusses the impact that Jonson made in the way the Masque form was respected as literature (2). Orgel states things like “Jonson treated the form seriously as literature,” and “if it [were] not for Ben Jonson, the court Masque would hardly find a place in the history of literature,” all ideas which seem to be well received by his peers and predecessors (2). I have read that Jonson worked hard at his art; he took all the literary forms, and he was able to put his own spin on them. He had the ability to take old styles of drama, and add literary goodness to them; the court Masque is a good example: he was able to fit an old style and still revolutionized the art by adding his own unique form, and color . Jonson took the form seriously; many people thought that Court Masques were extraordinarily expensive, outrageous processions of the royals and their court, with little actual merit. These people weren’t wrong the costs were outrageous: most of the sources I find estimate the cost of production at ~£3,000, which I still think is a little expensive for this first Masque. Rosalind Miles says this production cost £3,000, and she compares this with the price of a nice house at Stratford ~£60 (96). James was known for his exorbitant spending, and Brocket says James spent £4,000 on a Masque in 1618, and he explains that this is greater than the amount he paid to professional performers at court over his entire reign (190). Inigo Jones, much like Jonson, was very innovative in his art. Even though many of the ideas he brought with him to England were directly stolen from his Italian mentors, he succeeded in implementing them and changing the history of theatre. It is easy to over-praise Inigo Jones for his additions to the Court Masque, but I believe they are important. Miles also give us her thoughts on Jones’ innovation; she explains the change in setting of the theatre space just as Wickham does. She explains that the Masque of the previous year used “medieval staging principle,” in that it used multiple sets placed around the hall, with all the settings being visible at the same time (96). This change is the biggest innovation Inigo Jones brought to the Court Masque. I cannot find any document that shows any significant use of the proscenium or perspective settings in Court Masque, or the theatre of England before the set of Blackness. The Masque, Vision of Twelve Goddesses, produced in the same Banqueting hall in 1604, and we know that the set did not have a proscenium arch, whereas Blackness did indeed implement one(Wickham 268-269). Wickham provides a reconstruction that shows what the settings most likely looked like [figures 1a, 1b Appendix A.]. With the innovation of Jones’ single setting having the focus in one and only one place, Miles goes as far as to say that in that moment the old system went out of fashion (96). She gives credit, though, as credit is actually due; Jones stole that idea straight from Serlio, who in 1545 published his Architettura that explained perspective concepts [Which inherently have a proscenium stage] (96). Jones also brought perspective scenic elements to the design of the English theatre; even though it does not show itself greatly in this production, subsequent shows are very heavily influenced . Because of this inclusion of perspective, he made one seat in the house the best seat in the house. With perspective seating you have a landscape that is set up to force your eyes into thinking that what you are seeing is larger or smaller than it actually is[depending on the artists intention] and for this to function properly the audience must view from angles that are very sharply regulated(Wickham 253). The designer must calculate the perspective to appear as he desires, and as he does so, he will have to calculate those measurements from a certain seat (253). Jonson notes in his introduction to the Masque that this scene did have a seat that was best, and this seat was the King’s seat (Loxley, 118). Jones also produced for this show the “machine” which carried the Princesses on their search for the purifying sun (Nagler 143). This machine was a large replica of a shell complete with motion (143). Between the two innovators, they managed to create something fresh, which made an impact on theatre.
Obviously, after examining the people most closely involved in the Masque, the resulting partnerships, the Masque itself, the politics behind the production, and the subsequent changes to the literary and technical aspect of theatre, it is apparent that Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness is, indeed, very important to theatre history. In an examination of this play, I see ties to American theatre today. We have such diversification in our production of theatre, we have scenic designers who are trying to be as innovative as possible, and we have our producers spending a great deal of money, as well as artists who are writing high quality texts. It is a fair assumption, if productions and relationships like those of Jones and Jonson weren’t created in that production; the theatre of today could be a totally different art form.

<<end interpolation>>

This really belongs in its own article, The Masque of Blackness, which I don't have the energy to create at the moment. I suggest that the anon contributor create the article and wikify the text in conformance with the standards of Wikipedia. The general article on masque is not the place for a massively detailed description of a single example of the form. Antandrus 03:00, 4 Dec 2004 (UTC)

The relevance of The Masque of Blackness to the genre still needs to be expressed here, embodying a link. There is as yet no mention of The Masque of Blacknesse and the above text has not been taken account of in that article --20:44, 15 December 2006 (UTC)


I would love to see some sort of illustration of masque costume(s) in the article. It would really help the article to look more appealing to the average reader.

Peter Isotalo 13:19, 10 August 2005 (UTC)


I edited in material from the stub Stuart Masque and set paragraphs mopre in chronological order, after the opening explication. I think the list of masques should have their dates, in parentheses. --Wetman 04:30, 7 March 2007 (UTC)