- Familiarizing the Colonized in Ben Jonson's Masques
In The Masque of Blackness (1605) and its plot sequel The Masque of Beauty (1608), Ben Jonson represents the transformation of African people to Europeans when they travel to England from Africa. However, in the Blackness masque, an important counter voice momentarily interrupts the transformative activities of the play's travel agenda. Niger objects to the project of cultural absorption played before the English court audience. His argument celebrating African identity laments his daughters' relocation to Albion (England) from Africa (Aethiopia). Niger's speech of sixty-nine lines censures European literary efforts to negate African identity. In its entirety, the Blackness masque enlists spatial metaphor to demonstrate a transformation of colonial culture to that of the colonizer but also reveals the threat to colonial identity.
The play's startlingly early racial consciousness and awareness of intercultural issues in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods relies primarily upon geographical travel as emblematic of cultural and psychological change. I suggest that Jonson constructs an intercultural discourse wherein the African figures are fashioned as familiar, commensurate with a seventeenth-century European self-conception—an effect that reduces the threat from alien identities and supports England's nascent quest for global markets.
Of the characters of the masque, Niger alone retains his outward and inward blackness, and he is banished from the white realm of Albion. He becomes a necessary, but comfortably distant, other. A necessary other, because, as Homi Bhabha observes, "[t]he colonialist exercise of authority requires the production of differentiations, individuations, identity effects through which discriminatory practices can map out subject populations that are tarred with the visible and transparent mark of power" (1994: 111). Jonson's play offers a double [End Page 27] image of fully assimilated African characters (Aethiopia and Niger's daughters), and a defiantly different one (Niger) within a general metaphor of transcontinental travel. This dramatic action associates closely with both European colonization and the more recent immigration by the formerly colonized to the home spaces of the colonizer.
Following his speech, Niger is abruptly banished from England by the co-opted Aethiopia. Left to stand on its own because never refuted in the play by formal counter-argument, Niger's arguments express a clear repudiation of European cultural projections and articulate the particularities of the imperialist threat upon non-Europeans. Moreover, Jonson's marginal notes in the original printed edition use respected classical references to support many of Niger's assertions in defense of African identity. These narrative intrusions reveal an ambivalence toward African people, who, as travelers, increasingly came before the eye of merchants abroad and ordinary people at home in Renaissance England (see Jordan 1968: 56-60; Jones 1971: 16; Andrews 1984: 103-14; Barthelemy 1987: 4-6). However, as thematic devices within the play's dominant discourse, they only enhance the masque's overall celebratory message of cultural and political superiority by including an easily defeated resistance movement. Niger's engaging rebuttal is transformed into a "straw-man" argument by his own eventual rejection of an African priority and by the play's dramatic and theatrical developments. By familiarizing the self/other dichotomy, through representing the other in terms of the self, the play re-appropriates its own creations, casting otherwise disturbing challenges as familiar. Jonson's depiction of co-opted, transformed, and banished Africans seems proleptic, an anticipation of the cultural and economic appropriations of British colonialism which in the early Stuart era was only beginning to imitate the colonial projects of other European powers undertaken in the sixteenth century.
As the English increased contact with diverse peoples throughout the sixteenth century, new moral alternatives appeared, despite the muffling effects of the dominant voices and official agendas. Niger's intrusion into the cultural and geographical spaces of Albion reflects a particularly complex response to these new phenomena. Although the speech of Niger is perhaps the most direct articulation of non-European alterity on the English Renaissance stage, it has not received appropriate critical attention (not even in Cowhig 1985; Aasand 1992; and Stallybrass 1988). Moreover, the important dialectic between Niger as an advocate of [End Page 28] African identity and Aethiopia...