Ben Jonson's The Masque Of Blackness: Summary & Concept

Instructor: Julia Maypole

Julia has a master's degree in world history and has taught college history and other humanities courses.

Ben Jonson was an English poet, playwright, poet, actor, and literary critic of the early 17th century. This lesson will examine one of his more controversial plays, The Masque of Blackness.

The Court of King James

Ben Jonson was an English poet, playwright, actor, and literary critic who lived in the early part of the 17th century under the rule of King James I. Contemporaries thought of him and his works as second only to William Shakespeare (who was also alive and working at the same time), though Jonson certainly did not make the same dent on literary history that Shakespeare did. The Masque of Blackness was one of the many plays written by Jonson, but it contains elements of controversy - controversy that existed to the royal audience in that first viewed it in 1605. Let's take a look at what this masque is all about, shall we?

Painting of Ben Jonson
Painting of Ben Jonson

What is a Masque?

The term masque refers to a specific type of play. Firstly, they were written predominately in the early part of the 17th century and would have been performed for special occasions like holidays or days of state, and only for the very upper level of English society, mainly the King and the court. They required a lot of production, both before and during the show, because masques specifically combine elements of song, dance, poetry, and elaborate stages and costumes. Think of them almost like a modern musical. The majority of them attempted to illustrate the greatness of the King by creating metaphors and comparisons between the King and classical or literary figures (like the Roman gods or the Arthurian legends).

Background and Concept

The Masque of Blackness was written by Jonson at the request of King James I's wife, Anne of Denmark, who specifically chose the topic so she and her ladies of court, who would star with her in the production, could dress up in blackface. Blackface is when white performers use make-up to appear black. This seems shockingly inappropriate to our modern sensibilities, and even those who witnessed the production thought it was as well (at least according to some first had accounts), but we must remember that the European discovery of the New World and global expansion into Africa was a very new thing. People of color, with different races, religions, and cultures, were very novel to 17th century England, and Anne wanted to explore this novelty through acting.

Nymph Costume Design
Costume Design for Masque of Blackness Nymphs

Summary of the Play and Performance

The Masque of Blackness was first performed in 1605 at the banquet hall of Whitehall Palace in London. Music begins, opening the stage to the water nymphs (or masquers), who were being played by Queen Anne and her ladies in waiting. They were dressed in blackface and costumes of blue, silver, and pearl to contrast with the 'blackness' of their skin. After they take a seat in a giant seashell, two male actors appear on stage; one is Oceanus (the god of the Atlantic Ocean) and the other is Niger (who is the god of the Niger River in Africa and also Oceanus' son). Oceanus asks Niger why he changed his river's course and was now in the middle of the Atlantic. Niger explains that it was at the behest of his daughters who are Ethiopian water nymphs (and the masquers sitting in the seashell).

His daughters, he explains, have recently been informed by the poets of the North that they are not as beautiful as they once thought they were. Despite being the first goddesses ever created, their blackness the epitome of African beauty created in the sun drenched deserts of Ethiopia, they now curse the sun that gave them life for making them too dark. He goes on to explain that the moon goddess, Aethipoia, appeared to the daughters to help them solve their dilemma, by informing them they needed to find a land which ended in -tania and there they would find their answer.

After traveling to all of the -tanias they knew of to no avail, Niger appeals to Aethiopia himself, asking her to explain what she means. The moon goddess appears on stage and tells Niger that the land his daughters seek is called Britannia, a land ruled by a sun-like king named James. If the daughters appear before him and his potent light of reason, the power of it will bleach away their blackness.

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