The Masque of Beauty
The Masque of Beauty was a courtly masque composed by Ben Jonson, and performed to inaugurate the refurbished banqueting hall of Whitehall Palace on 10 January 1608. It was a sequel to the preceding Masque of Blackness, which had been performed three years earlier, on 6 January 1605. In The Masque of Beauty, the "daughters of Niger" of the earlier piece were shown cleansed of the black pigment they had worn on the prior occasion.
Like its earlier companion piece, The Masque of Beauty was performed by Queen Anne and ladies of her court, and witnessed by King James. The number of court ladies included was increased from the twelve in Blackness to sixteen. In addition to Queen Anne, the participants were the Countesses of Arundel, Bedford, Derby, and Montgomery, and the Ladies Chichester, Walsingham, Windsor, Anne Clifford, Elizabeth Girrard, Elizabeth Guilford, Elizabeth Hatton, Mary Neville, Katherine Petre, Anne Winter, and Arbella Stuart. Gossip held that the women chosen were largely Roman Catholic.
The masquers wore costumes of orange-tawny and silver or sea-green and silver; the torchbearers were dressed as Cupids; the presenters of the masque were styled as Januarius, Boreas, Vulturnus, and Thamesis, and the musicians as "echoes and shades of old poets." A black curtain representing Night was withdrawn to display the masquers, assembled on a "Throne of Beauty" borne upon a floating island. The sixteen masquers executed two dances, which the King liked enough to see repeated; then they danced with male courtiers, in "galliards and corantoes." The final dances returned them to the Throne of Beauty. The choreography was by Thomas Giles, who also played Thamesis.
A diplomatic controversy developed around the masque, as to which foreign ambassadors were or were not invited to attend the performance. The French Ambassador was notably irate at being omitted while the Spanish Ambassador was included. The Venetian Ambassador, who was invited, was among the spectators who left descriptions of the "great golden masque" they'd seen, the jewels the ladies wore (estimated in one case at a value of £100,000 — and that for a single woman), and the marvels of the stage machinery employed.
The total cost of producing the masque was £4000. The House of Stuart was running an annual budget deficit of £140,000 in this era; the cost of the masque represented about 3% of the annual deficit, an enormous sum to spend on a single event.
The Masque of Beauty was entered into the Stationers' Register on 21 April 1608 and published later that year by the bookseller Thomas Thorpe, in the same volume as The Masque of Blackness. Both masques were reprinted in the first folio collection of Jonson's works in 1616.
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