The Masque of Blackness Background

The Masque of Blackness Background

As part of his 1605 commission to produce and entertainment for the Twelfth Night celebration, Ben Jonson, working in close collaboration with noted architect Inigo Jones as the scenic designer, produced the Masque of Blackness. King James attended the performance in which the players included the Queen and a number of her ladies-in-waiting essentially appearing in blackface at her own rather strange request. Jonson himself took on the role of an African, also at the Queen's request. So successful was The Masque of Blackness that Jonson and Jones would produce another dozen times, establishing the duo as the leading masque makers of their day. Jonson would create more than thirty productions over the ensuing decades, so perhaps that fact is indicative of who best the other in the rivalry.

The Masque of Blackness clearly succeeded as a result of the integration of the two geniuses: the spectacle featured a host of special effects including a “sea machine” as well as a giant shell in which the masquers appeared and assorted sea monsters. The ridiculousness of the narrative takes a back seat to its overriding theme of the superiority and perfection of King Jame,s who even has the power to turn black skin to white. This power was an effect which forwarded another important theme of the show: the superiority of white European civilization over those built by darker inhabitants.

The Masque of Blackness is also notable for being instrumental in the process by which Jonson developed his innovation of the anti-masque. The purpose of the performance that was utilized for the anti-masque was to further enhance the depth of the spectacle by presenting allegorical representations of the power of the aristocracy. Essentially, while the masque is there to propagandize the stability and order the monarchy represents, the anti-masque is a prologue dominated by an agent of chaos or lord of misrule who is ultimately banished from the court by the aristocracy so they can be appreciated in all their glory.

Update this section!

You can help us out by revising, improving and updating this section.

Update this section

After you claim a section you’ll have 24 hours to send in a draft. An editor will review the submission and either publish your submission or provide feedback.