The Masque of Blackness

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Costume design by Inigo Jones for The Masque of Blackness

The Masque of Blackness was an early Jacobean era masque, first performed at the Stuart Court in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night, 6 January 1605. It was written by Ben Jonson at the request of Anne of Denmark, the queen consort of King James I, who wished the masquers to be disguised as Africans. Anne was one of the performers in the masque along with her court ladies, all of whom appeared in blackface makeup.

The plot of the masque follows the ladies arriving at the royal court to be "cleansed" of their blackness by King James; a stage direction that was impossible to fulfill on stage. As a result, The Masque of Beauty was written as a sequel to The Masque of Blackness. The Masque of Beauty, originally intended for the following holiday season, was displaced by Hymenaei, the masque for the wedding of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard. Beauty was finally performed in 1608.[1]


The sets, costumes, and stage effects were designed by Inigo Jones; Blackness was the first of many masques for the Stuart Court on which Jonson and Jones would collaborate.[2] The music for Blackness was composed by Alfonso Ferrabosco.

Jones designed a raised and mobile stage for the masque, forty feet square and four feet off the floor; this was employed for many subsequent masques. The stage contained inner space for the machines that produced stage effects and the technicians who operated them. The King was often stilling on a stool, resembling the sun. Blackness introduced effects that Jones would repeat with variation throughout his career as a stage designer: it opened with a tempestuous seascape, simulated by flowing and billowing cloths.

The opening stormy sea was populated with six blue-haired merman-like tritons. The gods Oceanus ("blue") and Niger (black) entered, mounted upon giant seahorses. The twelve daughters of Niger, played by the Queen and her ladies in waiting, entered in the company of a dozen nymphs of Oceanus as torchbearers; the ladies of the Court were dressed in tones of silver and azure to contrast with the blackness of the makeup, with pearls and feathers in their hair, while the torchbearers, in green doublets with gold puffed sleeves, had their faces, hands, and hair dyed blue.[3] The ladies rode in a great hollow seashell, which seemed to float upon and move with the waves, and was accompanied by six large sea monsters carrying more torchbearers.[4] (With Blackness as with many subsequent masques designed by Jones, one of the aspects of the show most commented upon by witnesses was the dazzling intensity of light involved...which inevitably says something about the normal conditions of life in the Jacobean era.)

Plot summary[edit]

The text begins with Niger talking to his father Oceanus. Oceanus asks him why he has left his usual eastward course and flowed westward, into the Atlantic. Niger tells him that he has come to request help. Niger's daughters are upset because they thought of themselves to be the most beautiful goddesses in the world, but they found out that paleness is more attractive and no longer feel beautiful. The moon goddess, Aethiopia, tells the daughters to find a country that ends in "tannia" and they will be beautiful once more.

The daughters desperately tried finding the country and even went to Mauritania (North Africa), Lusitania (Portugal), and Aquitania (France). They prayed once more to Aethiopia and she told them the country is Britannia. She told them that the king was sun-like and he would be able to bleach the black away. Aethiopia stated that once a month for the next year, the daughters should bathe in sea-dew and at the same time next year, they will appear before the king again, and his light will make them beautiful and white.[5]


The principal cast of the masque:

A newsletter from court described the cast of the "Queen's mask" in December 1604, noting that three women were excused because of illness, the Countess of Nottingham, the Countess of Richmond who had measles, and the Countess of Northumberland. Lady Hatton was not invited to perform and left court.[6]


The masque was controversial in its day, in part for the production's use of body paint instead of masks to simulate dark skin. One observer, Sir Dudley Carleton expressed his displeasure with the play as such:

Instead of Vizzards, their Faces and Arms up to the Elbows, were painted black, which was a Disguise sufficient, for they were hard to be known... and you cannot imagine a more ugly sight than a Troop of lean cheek'd Moors.[7]

Carleton also made a topical joke, comparing the huge sea-monsters that flanked the shell that housed the nymphs with an unusual sighting of a seal in the Thames at Isleworth, "it came in company with the Sea-fish that drew in our Lady-Moors, and carried a Waiting Gentlewoman and some baggage!".[8]

Another writer described the masque dancers' appearance and the expense; "the Queen and some dozen ladies all paynted like Blackamores, face and neck bare, and for the rest strangely attired in Barbaresque mantells to the halfe legge, having buskins all to be sett with jewells, ... it took the King betweene 4 or £5,000 to execute to Queen's fancy".[9]

The representation of African people in court masques had precedents both in England and Scotland. There was a masque involving blackface at the coronation of Christian IV of Denmark in 1596, witnessed by Anne of Denmark's brother, the Duke of Holstein and perhaps, by Inigo Jones.[10] The queen's apothecary John Wolfgang Rumler is known to have devised blackface make-up for another masque in 1621, The Gypsies Metamorphosed.[11]

Controversy also stemmed from the predominant role of female actresses playing what were considered traditionally male roles.[12]

The masque was expensive, costing £3000, and caused consternation among some English observers due to the perceived impropriety of the performance.

The texts of The Masque of Blackness and The Masque of Beauty were published together in quarto form in 1608, by the bookseller Thomas Thorpe; they were reprinted in the first folio collection of Jonson's works in 1616.


  1. ^ Leapman, p. 94.
  2. ^ Giles Worsley, Inigo Jones and the European Classical Tradition (Yale, 2007), p. 6.
  3. ^ Lesley Mickel, 'Glorious Spangs and Rich Embroidery: Costume in The Masque of Blackness and Hymenaei', Studies in the Literary Imagination, 36:2 (2003).
  4. ^ Leapman, pp. 73–7.
  5. ^ Butler, Martin. "The Court Masque | The Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson". Retrieved 30 March 2017.
  6. ^ Memorials of Affairs of State from the papers of Ralph Winwood, vol. 2 (London, 1725), pp. 39–40, John Packer to Winwood, 12 December 1604.
  7. ^ Memorials of Affairs of State from the papers of Ralph Winwood, vol. 2 (London, 1725), p. 44.
  8. ^ John Nichols, Progresses of James the First, vol. 1 (London, 1828), p. 474.
  9. ^ Carol Chillington Rutter, Enter The Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare's Stage (Routledge, 2001), p. 97: Mary Anne Everett Green, Calendar State Papers Domestic, 1603-1610 (London, 1857), p. 187 citing TNA SP14/12 f.28.
  10. ^ Eva Griffith, A Jacobean Company and its Playhouse: The Queen's Servants at the Red Bull Theatre (Cambridge, 2013), p. 158.
  11. ^ Andrea Stevens, 'Mastering Masques of Blackness: Jonson's "Masque of Blackness", The Windsor text of "The Gypsies Metamorphosed", and Brome's "The English Moor"', English Literary Renaissance, 39:2 (Spring 2009), pp. 396-426 , 414-420.
  12. ^ Oroszlan, Aniko (2005). ""Actors" in "Barbaresque mantells": the blackness of the female performers in Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness" (PDF). The AnaChronisT: 23+ – via Literature Resource Center.


  • Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage 1574–1642. Third edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Jonson, Ben. The Masque of Blackness. 1608. In Ben Jonson: Complete Masques. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969. pp. 61–74.
  • Leapman, Michael. Inigo: The Troubled Life of Inigo Jones, Architect of the English Renaissance. London, Headline Book Publishing, 2003.

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