Black, White and Blue: Pregnancy and Unsettled Binaries in The Masque of Blackness (1605)

Authors

  • Pascale Aebischer University of Exeter
  • Victoria Sparey University of Exeter

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-8530.22.02

Keywords:

masque, blackface, body paint, performance, set design, Queen Anna of Denmark, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, pregnancy

Abstract

This article examines the construction of national and racial identities within Ben Jonson’s and Inigo Jones’s Masque of Blackness against the backdrop of King James’ investment in creating a ‘British’ union at the start of his reign. The article re-examines the blackface performance of the Queen and her ladies in the contexts of the Queen’s and Inigo Jones’ European connections, the Queen’s reputation as ‘wilful’, and her pregnant body’s ability to evoke widespread cultural beliefs about the maternal imagination’s power to determine a child’s racial make-up. We argue that the masque’s striking use of blue-face along with black and white-face reveals a deep investment in Britain’s ancient customs which stands in tension with Blackness’ showcasing of foreign bodies, technologies, and cultural reference points. By demonstrating the significance of understanding Queen Anna’s pregnancy and her ‘wilful’ personality within the context of early modern humoral theory, moreover, we develop existing discussions of the humoral theory that underpins the masque’s representation of racial identities. We suggest that the Queen’s pregnant performance in blackface, by reminding the viewer that her maternal mind could ‘will’ the racial identity of royal progeny into being, had the power to unsettle King James I’s white male nationalist supremacy in the very act of celebrating it before their new English court and its foreign guests.

Author Biographies

Pascale Aebischer, University of Exeter

Pascale Aebischer is Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Performance Studies at the University of Exeter. She has a long-standing research and teaching interest in the theatrical cultures of early modern England. She is the author of Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (2004), Jacobean Drama (2010), Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare (2013) and, most recently, Shakespeare, Spectatorship and the Technologies of Performance (2020). She has also co-edited several collections of essays, including Performing Early Modern Drama Today (with Kathryn Prince, 2012) and Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience (with Susanne Greenhalgh and Laurie Osborne, 2018).

Victoria Sparey, University of Exeter

Victoria Sparey is a lecturer at the University of Exeter. Her research and teaching focus upon sixteenth and seventeenth-century English literature, especially the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her work specializes in examining the ways contemporary ideas about the body informed the performance of age and gender within early modern writings and entertainments. She has had work published in Shakespeare Bulletin and Social History of Medicine and is currently writing a monograph entitled Performing Puberty: Representations of Adolescence in Shakespeare’s Plays.

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Published

2020-12-30

How to Cite

Aebischer, P., & Sparey, V. (2020). Black, White and Blue: Pregnancy and Unsettled Binaries in The Masque of Blackness (1605). Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance, 22(37), 15-36. https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-8530.22.02