'Glorious Spangs and Rich Embroidery: Costume in The Masque of Blackness and Hymeniae'

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Until the late twentieth century Francis Bacon's scorn for early modern court masques as "toys" had been much echoed, exceptions being studies by academics largely interested in Renaissance iconography. However, the domination of Renaissance studies in the 1980s and '90s by New Historicist and Cultural Materialist critics witnessed the masque revivified as the archetypical event of the period, displaying a complicated nexus of patronage and power relations. This enthusiasm for the masque as an historico-political occasion largely glossed over its various constituent parts, an oversight which is compensated by current work into its material and visual properties and effects such as music, dance, performance, the body, set design, and costume--the last being the focus of this essay. In fact, the trajectory of recent masque criticism mirrors Bacon's essay in that critical embarrassment at these lavish ephemerae has been rapidly followed by fascination with their political function and magical visual effects. Despite the scoffing introduction to his essay "Of Masques and Triumphs," Bacon presents them as sources of great beauty and pleasure enhancing the dignity of the state. And as C. E. McGee and J. C. Meagher have evidenced, it is also telling that Bacon funded The Masque of Flowers, performed at court in 1613-14, indicating his appreciation of the central role played by masque in the forging and cementing of socio-political alignments.

The Masque of Blackness (1605) is one of a few Jacobean court entertainments--including The Masque of Queens (1609), Oberon (1610), Prince Henry's Barriers (1611), and Neptune's Triumph (1624), for example--that have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention over the last ten years in comparison with other masques. Some of the most notable work recently done in this area includes that by Hardin Aasand, Bernadette Andrea, Ann Cline Kelly, Barbara Lewalski, Richard Peterson, Yumna Siddiqui, Marion Wynne Davies, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. The fact that this particular masque has merited such extended attention must be due to its status as Ben Jonson's first experimentation with the form which he dominated for so long and to the fact that the masque's governing trope resonates with continuing critical preoccupation with the issues of race and gender. And from a pragmatic point of view, Dudley Carleton's entertainingly dismissive eye-witness account of Blackness has been useful for critics researching the aesthetics and ideology of masquing (Orgel, The Complete Masques 4). Yet this focus on the particularity of Blackness is symptomatic of general critical inattention to the development of formative aspects of masque practice as well as its immediate material qualities. Albeit New Historicism has been instrumental in rehabilitating the court masque, the predominant failure to view individual masques as part of the genre's development is a result of New Historicism's dominance of masque criticism. This is because New Historicism tends to view the court masque as a self-contained historical moment, synchronically expressing a discursive network which operates to reinforce the ideology of royal power. The emphasis on historico-political context usually identifies dissident issues within the masque (or more specifically, the antimasque), which are then shut down by the masque's dominant ideology in an unbreakable cycle of royal self-confirmation; although a Cultural Materialist perspective would shift the emphasis in this analysis, it would largely reproduce the argument's general terms. While this may be a crude summary of the critical bent of much New Historicist analysis, theoretical preoccupation with historical context has elided the historical contingency of masque because it views history as being processed in the same circular manner, time and again. Most obviously, this relates to the notorious subversion/containment debate that has dogged New …
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in the Literary Imagination
EditorsAllan Ingram
PublisherGeorgia State University
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • masque costume early modern renaissance Ben Jonson Inigo Jones


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