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2 Hearing the Other in The Masque of Blackness sarah schmalenberger On January 6, 1605,Queen Anne presented her husband, King James I of England (r. 1603–25),with ἀ e Masque of Blackness, a court entertainment of unusual scale and spectacle.1 She had commissioned dramatist Ben Jonson and designer Inigo Jones to collaborate on the project, and Alfonso Ferrabosco II (c. 1575–1628) to compose its songs. Once the king had been seated in the Whitehall Banqueting House to watch the masque, an actor presented a prologue requesting those assembled to imagine a journey originating in Africa. The stage curtain then opened to reveal a mystical ocean scene. A parade of characters in sea-foam-blue costumes entered, followed by the featured masquers—none other than Queen Anne and her ladies-in-waiting—whose costumes caused quite a sensation. Seeming to cross a watery channel in a giant seashell-shaped boat, they arrived onstage disguised with blackened faces, hands, and legs. Through recited and sung verse, pantomime and dance, Queen Anne and her ladies were presented as daughters of the African king Niger, “blackamoors” on a journey to the mystical island of Albion (the ancient name for Britain).2 Legend told that the cool and superior northern rays of Albion’s sun could transform their primitive beauty, borne naturally but imperfectly by a homeland sun that burned hot and darkened their skin. Rejoicing at the end of their long journey, the masquers danced onstage and then descended from it to choose partners for an extended period of dancing (the “revels”). The spectacle ended with the masquers returning to the stage, with the promise that the imminent reappearance of Niger’s daughters at Albion—in the sequel Masque of Beauty—would see their dark visages miraculously replaced with gleaming white skin. Sir Dudley Carleton’s oft-quoted objection to the masquers has become an obligatory starting point for discussing the queen’s apparent dalliance with blackface. In his letter criticizing the masque to Ralph Winwood, Carleton described Anne and her ladies as “ugly . . . lean-cheek’d Moors” and further registered concern that the Spanish ambassador, who partnered with the queen during the aforementioned revels, would get black makeup on his lips from kissing her hand.3 Other accounts of the event confirm the masque’s many entertaining novelties, yet only Carleton persisted in calling attention to themes of racialized difference.4 That so many scholars have proposed critical readings of ἀ e Masque of Blackness based on Carleton’s comments attests to the work’s importance in discourses exploring English historical perspectives through drama, especially in how its dramatic spectacle articulated social identities and power relationships in monarchical regimes. Such perspectives posit the role of music in masques generally (and this one in particular) as a metaphor for the drama’s larger didactic function: to preserve the social order of the monarchy and its conventions of cultural expression.5 The social framing of race in ἀ e Masque of Blackness thus raises several questions about its genesis and reception, particularly regarding Queen Anne’s intent in commissioning the work.6 This essay explores the role that the music for the masque may have played in constructing a “black Other,” questioning existing interpretations about that concept’s meaning and framing historical perspectives of musical affect with regard to Otherness. At the turn of the seventeenth century, as England’s foreign policy grew increasingly aggressive, the Jacobean monarchy spent considerable resources on the arts to promote their ideology.7 Propagandist by design, masques and other dramatic spectacles were potent political tools in regimes that embraced the philosophy of the divine right of kings (a subject upon which James I penned a well-known thesis).8 Pageantry and dramatic spectacles like the masque were carefully planned public events that articulated and reinscribed notions of a ruler’s natural right and ability to govern.9 This belief was perpetuated by a diffuse application of Neoplatonist philosophy in the dramatic arts that linked ideologies of ordered universal humanism to the ordered hierarchy of the sovereign’s rule. Masques were allegorical dramatizations of this link, persuading spectators through metaphor and mythology of their ruler’s earthly and divine competencies.10 Implicit in a masque’s theme (or “conceit”) was the expectation of a gift or generous act from a powerful mythological character who signified the extraordinary powers of a mortal ruler (in this case, a king). The gift or act was typically dramatized as a miraculous transformation or...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780252093890
Related ISBN
9780252036781
MARC Record
OCLC
822890086
Pages
304
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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