Monday, March 26, 2018
Blackface Folly and Blotting Beauty
William Kempe, Nine Daies Wonder
To the true Ennobled Lady, and his most bountifull Mistris, Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to the most sacred Mayde Royall Queene Elizabeth.HOnorable Mistris in the waine of my litle wit, I am forst to desire your protection, else euery Ballad-singer will proclaime me bankrupt of honesty. A sort of mad fellows seeing me merrily dispos'd in a Morrice, haue so BEPAINTED ME in print since my gambols began from London to Norwich, that (hauing but an ill face before) I shall appeare to the world without a face, if your fayre hand wipe not away their foule coulors.
Blackfaced Fools, Black-Headed Birds, Fool Synonyms, and Shakespearean Allusions to Renaissance Blackface Folly
AS I have argued elsewhere,1 a comic tradition of blackface prevalent in the Renaissance, often involving episodes of on-stage blacking, has been ignored. Not only did the fool in the Morris dance appear in blackface,2 but so-called ‘natural’ fools (mentally defective, rationally-impaired fools who are either idiotic, mad, or ignorant),3 such as Ignorance in The Play of Wit and Science (hereafter Wit and Science [c.1534])4 and The Marriage of Wit and Science (c.1569–70)5 or the ill-favored and simultaneously foolish- and diabolical-looking Moros in The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art (c.1560–68),6 are sometimes depicted as inherently black. Even more frequently, as in Wit and Science, The Marriage of Wit and Science, The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom (1579),7 and Three Ladies of London (1584),8 to cite but a few examples, an everyman character—‘Wit’ in the plays that bear his name and ‘Conscience’ in Three Ladies—is seduced by a female Vice—for example ‘Idleness’, ‘Wantonness’, or ‘Lucre’, respectively—into a compromised position, as when Wit sleeps or Conscience slumbers, at which point, the vice-temptress blackens his face in token of his folly and shame. In Three Ladies, Lucre calls for a ‘box of abhomination’ that turns out to be ‘a painted box of ink’, before the stage direction informs us: Here let Lucre open the box, and dip her finger in and spot Conscience face. It is probable that the action here is not merely spotting, as has been assumed, but a metaphoric staining, a symbolic blackening that is meant to be degrading. Certainly, in the latest of the three Wit plays, Francis Merbury's The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom, there appears the stage business: ‘Here, shall [W]antonis sing … him a sleepe … then let her set a fooles bable on his hed … colling [coaling] his face’. In the song, Wantonnes further announces her intention to
trick this prety doddy
& make him a noddy, …
& now of a schollar
I will make him a colliar … (lines 431–438)
Just as blacking episodes often occur in vice-temptress scenes, blackface often appears as a device of humiliation, as well as an emblem of foolishly sinful vanity and lust, in farcical plays with a sexual focus, particularly when a foolishly lusty old man is involved. Such a figure is the laughable would-be cuckolder Lorenzo in boy company author George Chapman's May Day (1601; printed 1611). In II.iv, the old man is tricked into assuming the disguise of ‘an old chimney sweeper’ (II.iv.166) to gain access to a lady. Here, the crafty servant Angelo recounts, ‘I haue daubd his face sufficient, but [he] is at his glasse as curiously busied to beautifie his face (for as of Moors so of chimney sweepers, the blackest is most beautifull) as an Lady to paint her lips’ (III.i.11–14). A stage direction further tells us: ‘Enter Lorenzo with his glasse in his hand, and Angelo with a pot of painting’ (ff. III.i.79). Twice, Lorenzo vainly asks for ‘a little more here’ (lines 79, 84), while comparing Angelo to ‘master Painter … Michael Angelo’ (lines 84–5). Angelo in turn, referring to the tradition of the often blackfaced ‘natural’ or ‘born’ fool, jests that Lorenzo now has ‘a perfect naturall face’ (line 86; emphasis added). Of course, the would-be cuckolder has little luck and becomes the butt of much abuse, a sort of black scapegoat; his lust and lack of self-knowledge combine to make him a natural fool.
The frequent association between lustful natural folly and blackness, as well as between episodes of trickery and the blacking of a gulled comic butt, is also to be found in folkloric or proverbial contexts, specifically, prevalent colloquial synonyms for the word ‘fool’ involving black or black-headed birds. The word ‘noddy’, for instance, which we have already seen self-consciously applied in the blackface episodes of the Wit plays, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meant not only ‘A fool, simpleton, noodle’ (OED 1), but could also refer to ‘A soot-coloured sea-bird’ (OED 2), that is the ‘Black Noddy’.(snip)
Other Shakespearean allusions to the type of the fool in blackface, or to blackness as an emblem of folly, appearing in plays as disparate as The Taming of the Shrew (1593–94), Comedy of Errors (1593), Twelfth Night (1602), and King Lear (1605), go well beyond the bird synonyms we have just seen. So familiar was the tradition of painted blackface that Shakespeare invokes it in Shrew when Kate threatens Hortensio by claiming that, were she to marry him, her ‘care should be / To comb [his] noddle with a three-legged stool, / And paint [his] face and use [him] like a fool’ (I.i.63–5).13 Although the last line here is regularly glossed as suggesting being painted with blood, ‘brought by scratching’,14 in context, it is clear that since she is alluding to the natural fool tradition (i.e. ‘comb’ suggests ‘coxcomb’, just as ‘noddle’ recalls ‘noddy’ or fool), her threat more likely refers to blacking as a mark of idle-mindedness or folly. After all, when Edgar in King Lear (1605) disguises himself as the natural fool Tom o’ Bedlam, he too draws on such an allegorical association when he blackens his face: ‘My face I’ll grime with filth’ (II.iii.9), with ‘grime’ meaning, according to the OED, ‘To cover with grime, to blacken, befoul’.1
The Folly of Racism: Enslaving Blackface and the "Natural" Fool Tradition
The Play of Wit, the "Marke" of Idleness, and the Imposition of Sameness
The kind of connection between blackface and "natural" folly that I am suggesting was at work in the Devil's irredeemable folly or Moros's incorrigible foolishness appears even more clearly in three Tudor moral interludes, the "Wit" marriage plays. In each of these, a vice lulls the youth or everyman figure Wit to sleep, blackens his face, and leaves him to be discovered a fool, after which Wit is restored to whiteness and set finally on a path to redemption, ascent, and union with either Science or Wisdom. In the first of these plays, John Redford's Play of Wit and Science (ca. 1534), the vice Idleness-appearing associated with blackness as in Wager's later interlude-sings Wyt to sleep, proclaiming, "whyle he sleepeth in Idlenes lappe / idlenes marke on hym shall I clappe."62 After marking Wyt and then dressing him in the "fooles cote" (1. 598) of her attendant, "Ingnorance" [sic], Idlenes observes, "so [he] beguneth to looke lyke a noddye" (1. 587), using one of several synonyms for both a fool and a black bird.63 The Cain-like "marke" of Idleness clapped on Wyt to make him look like a noddy here undoubtedly signifies blackface, since Wyt subsequently so resembles a "naturall foole" (1. 806) that Science cannot recognize him: "Who is this?" (1. 732), she asks. Science then contrasts Wyt's "fayer" (1. 795) portrait to his now "fowle ... and vglye" (1. 796) visage. Significantly for the history of racism, it is Science who shuns a blackened character, just as pseudoscience would be trotted out to condemn blackness in later centuries. Upon examining his reflection in his "glas of reson" (1. 824), Wyt exclaims:
. . . gogs sowle a foole [,] a foole by the mas
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
deckt by gogs bones lyke a very asse
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
& as for this face[, it] is abhorninable
as black as the devyll. . . .
(11. 826, 828, 839-40; emphasis added)
Finally, after examining the audience's reflection in the mirror to test its accuracy ("How loke ther facis heere rownd abouwte?" [1. 833]), he comments on the contrast: "All fayre & cleere they, evry chone; / & I, by the mas, a foole alone" (11. 834-35). Thus, Wyt concludes that he is "a foole alone" because he alone is "black as the devyll."
The damning symbolism of blackfaced folly in Redford's play is all the more unavoidable given its depiction of the "foole" Ingnorance as a mirror image of the folly-fallen Wyt, for, like the reprobate Moros and his double Confusion, Ingnorance is indeed a black fool from the beginning. Such mirroring is clear, after Wyt's face is blackened and Ingnorance and Wyt have exchanged coats, when Ingnorance observes, "He is I now" (1. 599).64 Idlenes then asks, "Is he not a foole as wel as thow?" (1. 601), to which Ingnorance responds, "Yeas" (1. 602). Thereafter, Wyt is taken for "Ingnorance, or his lykenes" (1. 668). That the now-blackfaced Wyt has been transformed into the fool Ingnorance's double is apparent when, upon seeing Wyt so unwittingly disguised, Science mistakes her fiance for the fool, addressing him with "What sayst thow, Ingnorance[?]" (1. 737). Emphatically, then, like Wager's play and the York Pageant, this interlude includes a duo of blackfaced fools.65
Significantly, given that Wit essentially temporarily loses himself (i.e., his "wit" or very identity), after having his face blackened, the play suggests that a black face, that is, blackness alone, has the power to erase individuality, marking characters as identical-here identically ignorant. Such is the very essence of stereotyping in embryo, if not fully born. Similar assumptions appear, ironically, in arguments dismissing either racial import or effect through "popular masking" in blackface. While maintaining that black-masking represented "simple disguise," merely an "impulse to conceal," since "easily available domestic materials like soot, lampblack, or charcoal" were "all matt monotone black which blanks out the features,"66 such arguments fail to pursue the consequences of such thinking. That is, the logic of blackface as "simple disguise" alone refuses to acknowledge the damning assumption that blackness erases individuality, producing a stereotypical sameness, the imposed social invisibility explored in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. After all, the trope that blackness rendered invisibility was actually invited in blackface traditions, whether in minstrel plays in which characters could be described archly with "The rest of the characters are all so dark that they cannot be seen" or in the black-masked Harlequin's ability to "simply point to one of the black patches on his suit and become invisible, a trope that has become central to black literary tradition."67
In addition, the word "ape" itself had a number of long-standing connotations with "fool," as in OED, 4, "a fool. God's ape: a natural born fool[:] to make any one his ape, to put an ape in his hood, to befool or dupe him. c. 1386 CHAUCER Prol. 706 'He made the . . . peple his Apes . . .' 1611 SHAKS Cymb. 4.2.194 'Jollity for Apes, and greef for Boyes'" and OED, 7, as "adj. Foolish, silly, adv. Foolishly, sillily. 1509 BARCLAY Ship ofFooles (1570) 33 'Some are ape dronke, full of laughter and of toyes.'" According to H. W. Janson in Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, "The concept of the ape as the image of the fool... gradually replaced that of the 'simian sinner' in the course of the Late Middle Ages," and in England, "ape" first began to be used as an actual term for "fool" in the fourteenth century.132 Moreover, it was partly through manuscript illustrations and subsequent prints (by famous Northern European artists such as Israel van Meckenem and Hans Holbein the Younger) of "the mirror-gazing ape as a symbol of vanitas" that fools were associated with the mirrors that recur frequently in many plays featuring blackface.133 Woodcuts likewise linked captive, chained apes to court fools, since "the ape as domestic pet was the exact counterpart of the fool,"134 at least the natural fool.