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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
IV/ Black and White Power

The devil looks ten times worse with a white face”: Colours in Richard Brome’s The English Moor



Le but de cet article est d’étudier les multiples significations de l’opposition du noir et du blanc, qui est à la base de l’intrigue de The English Moor de Richard Brome. Cette opposition binaire peut être considérée comme un contraste entre anglicité et altérité, ainsi que le suggère le titre en forme d’oxymore. Dans cette pièce l’usurier Quicksands déguise son épouse Millicent et d’autres dames en servantes maures en leur appliquant un maquillage noir sur le visage. La façon dont Brome utilise le noir comme procédé théâtral pour véhiculer une idéologie culturelle concernant l’altérité constitue une nouveauté en termes de politique sexuelle, de genre, de cosmétique et de race.
Le dualisme qui émerge de l’intrigue est représenté par l’utilisation de l’espace qui, à mon avis, est une opposition entre l’espace de la « blanche anglicité » et de la « noire altérité » : l’un des lieux choisis comme décor par Brome, la célèbre taverne du Diable et de St. Dunstan, contribue à renforcer la dichotomie qui caractérise l’œuvre, en raison de sa double référence au diable, souvent associé au noir, et à un saint. De plus, l’unique scène qui se déroule dans la Taverne du Diable occupe une position stratégique dans l’œuvre. Elle est positionnée au milieu de la pièce comme une sorte de tournant qui divise le blanc du noir (après cette scène, Millicent et les autres dames sont maquillées en noir) et elle reprend plusieurs thèmes développés dans la scène précédente, comme la transformation de Millicent en femme maure ainsi que l’idée d’altérité et de secret, cela à propos du passé de Quicksands.
Ce qui complique la question, c’est que Brome ne met pas en scène une réelle altérité, mais qu’il utilise le procédé théâtral du déguisement ainsi que l’opposition du noir et du blanc pour représenter les préjugés de ses contemporains à propos de la diversité raciale et culturelle.

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  • 1 Mason Vaughan (50) mentions The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy, a collaborative work by Dekker, Haughton an (...)

1One of the most recurrent characters in early modern drama is the Moor: ‘real’ Moors like Aaron in Titus Andronicus (1594), Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604) and little Jacques, in Webster’s The White Devil (1612); or white European characters impersonating black Moors, like Clarindor’s wife Beaupre, disguised as a black servant in Massinger’s The Parliament of Love (1624), and Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson’s Masque of Blackness (1605) in which, as requested by Queen Anne, she and her ladies could pretend to be black Moors on stage. Yet, despite the popularity of the character, The English Moor (1638) by Richard Brome is unexpectedly the only play of Renaissance drama featuring a Moor in the title1. The identity of the English Moor is not revealed till the very end of the comedy, leading the audience to wonder about the real meaning of this oxymoronic title, which echoes the idea of the “white devil” in Webster’s eponymous play. Brome’s title, moreover, puts the emphasis on the binary black and white (black Moor opposed to white Englishness), which is used to vehicle a cultural ideology about otherness, but also to negotiate multiple and conflicting meanings in terms of morality, sexual politics, gender, cosmetics, beauty and race.

2The English Moor has been mainly investigated in relation to Jonson’s Masque of Blackness and as a work featuring blackface characters in early modern drama (Mason Vaughan 2005, Barthelemy 1987); other lines of investigation have taken into consideration the recourse to place realism (Steggle 2004), with an emphasis on racial and gender issues (Hall 1995), or on the play’s meta-theatrical qualities and the theatrical representations of black beauty through cosmetics (Efsthatiou-Lavabre 2003, Karim-Cooper 2007). Even though all these scholars have noticed and discussed some aspects of this binary, they have concentrated on the scene of Millicent’s transformation into a black Moor and other scenes with supposedly black characters on stage, without analysing more systematically how this opposition actually pervades the whole play. Yet, this dichotomy is extremely significant since it is at the origin of the way human beings experience colours: black and white stand as archetypal symbols owing to the primitive white-light association as opposed to black-darkness and, consequently, with good and evil, which preceded the awareness of symbolic meanings related to the use of verbal language (D’Aloe 49). Moreover, their symbolism has stratified thanks to the copious, and even contrasting meanings, provided by different cultures throughout the centuries so that, despite the apparent dichotomous relation, black and white have striking similarities: “both are achromatic and extremes of brightness, and in these respects are interchangeable as symbols, as if what has to be symbolized is an extreme state” (Schapiro 47) like death, which can be represented by the black of mourning and the white of paleness. My paper purposes to discuss the complex and multiple meanings of this dualism in early modern England and how it is reflected also in the use of space in which, nonetheless, white and black do not refer only to racial connotations but acquire a wider significance.

1. Blackness on stage: “Never came so deep in blackness yet” (4.4.717)

3A brief summary of the play is needed owing to its complexity and the multiple levels of plot. Before the beginning, the gentlemen Meanwell and Rashley quarrel and disappear, leading the audience to surmise that they may have killed each other. This leads to a feud between the children of the two families, respectively, Dionysia and Arthur Meanwell, and Lucy and Theophilus Rashley. Theophilus is in love (and is loved in return) by Millicent, who has been obliged to marry the old usurer Quicksands. He has several enemies, among whom the womanizer Nathaniel and his friends, who want to take revenge on the evil usurer: they predict that he will be made a cuckold on his wedding night. In order to avoid it, Quicksands pretends that Millicent has died and that he wants to remarry a black servant, who is actually the young woman in disguise. After a month, Quicksands invites the gentleman to see a masque at his house, during which Nathaniel sleeps with a black woman whom the usurer supposes to be his wife, so that he immediately demands a divorce from her. Yet, when Nathaniel proposes to the black Moor, the woman turns out to be Phillis disguised as a black servant, a gentlewoman who had been seduced and then abandoned by the young man earlier in the play. All the conflicts are solved with the return of Meanwell and Rashley and the marriage between Arthur and Lucy, Millicent and Theophilus, and Nathaniel and Phillis.

4The first association between a colour and a character occurs at the beginning of the play, when Dionysia describes her brother Arthur’s mood. Here, she refers to the theory of humours, which associates colours with four humours related to four main temperaments — yellow for choleric, red for sanguine, white for phlegmatic, and black for melancholic like Arthur:

  • 2 All quotations from the play are from The English Moor, Modern Text, edited by Matthew Steggle, Ric (...)

I may not, brother.
What! suffer you to pine, and peak away
In your unnatural melancholy fits;
Which have already turned your purer blood
Into a toad-pool dye?

5Interestingly, humours were also believed to affect skin colour (Loomba 53), so that, in metaphorical terms, not only is his blood turning black, but his skin also becomes black due to a “toad-pool”, “a mass of corrupt poisonous matter” (OED toad n, 7b) that may be the cause of his melancholy. His mood probably has an impact on the whole household, made “dark with sighing” (1.1.14) and, even without actually meeting her, on his lover Lucy, who shows a similar melancholic attitude: “How long has this disease affected you? This melancholy, mistress?” Phillis asks her, “not ever since / You lost your father, I hope” (2.1.215). Black is “the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame” (Harvey 10) and, for Arthur and Lucy, it represents the grief for the loss of a father and for the impossibility to love each other openly. Furthermore, it also stands for guilt and shame as far as he is concerned, because he can neither comply with his sister’s plans to revenge the wiping out his enemy’s family nor reveal his love for Lucy. This black “toad-pool” actually stands for the secret interior conflict in Arthur’s soul between love and familial duty that is poisoning his life.

  • 3 For a discussion of the performance of this scene see Richard Brome Online edition, n. 2575

6Yet, the character most often associated with black in the play is the usurer Quicksands. When Nathaniel is informed there is some news about the usurer, he asks: Is he then hoisted into the Star Chamber / For his notorious practices? /Or into the High Commission for his blacker arts?” (1.1.56). Quicksands’s actions are compared to black magic, obscure arts that he employs as if he were a kind of devil. Interestingly enough, his first name is Mandeville, which may reflect his Mephistophelian nature and his close bonds with the devil as a “man-devil”, as Steggle reminds us (The English Moor n. 2327). His surname is thus appropriate for a character who is defined as a “bottomless devourer of young gentlemen” (1.1.25), as deceptive and treacherous as quicksands which one only notices by being sucked down under; it also evokes the idea of a painful death, a slow fall into a dark hell. Moreover, Mandeville recalls Sir John Mandeville, whose book of Travels, translated into English in 1499, provides a clear idea of the culturally relativistic vision of Africa in early modern Europe. Therefore, not surprisingly, it is the devilish Quicksands who decides to disguise the “fair mistress Millicent” (1.1.20) as a black Moor using black make-up. In this scene, Brome not only exploits a popular and successful plot device, but he is also using black as a symbol. Unlike Mason Vaughan who claims that “the application of black make-up is not nearly as important as the moment of its removal” (109), I find this episode more fascinating than its counterpart and much more complex, too, since it takes place in front of the audience (Millicent’s face is painted on stage3) and raises a number of questions about race, otherness, beauty and morality. Quicksands uses black paint to conceal Millicent’s identity, to make her dead to the world as well as invisible by degrading her to the rank of servant and to the status of foreigner in order to obscure her beauty, to make her seemingly undesirable so as to protect her honour and chastity (as if the black make-up were a wall) and, metaphorically, to make her experience his spiritual darkness, his moral obscurity.

7Millicent’s transformation into a black Moor articulates different perspectives on beauty on moral, religious and aesthetic levels:

[QUICKSANDS shows MILLICENT] a box of black painting.

Millicent: Bless me! you fright me, sir. Can jealousy
Creep into such a shape? Would you blot out
Heaven’s workmanship?

Quicksands: Why, thinkst thou, fearful beauty,
Has heaven no part in Egypt? Pray thee tell me,
Is not an Ethiop’s face his workmanship
As well as the fair’st lady’s? nay, more too
Than hers, that daubs and makes adulterate beauty?
Some can be pleased to lie in oils and paste
At sin’s appointment, which is thrice more wicked.
This, which is sacred, is for sin’s prevention.
Be fearless, love; this alters not thy beauty,
Though, for a time, obscures it from our eyes.
(3.1. 434-5, 7)

8On the one hand, Millicent’s words reflect an early modern anti-cosmetic argument that “expressed disdain for the appropriation of divine materials. Re-creating the body was blasphemous” (Karim-Cooper 3) and associates the idea of make-up, in this case even black, with sin and damnation. Yet, Quicksands, defending his position, tries to convince Millicent that this device is a kind of sacred rite to prevent sin and which will not affect her beauty permanently. It is ironic to consider that, in terms of the actual make-up, white powder was far more dangerous than the black one: while white make-up was mainly based on a rather toxic blend of white lead and vinegar, “the materials likely used to paint faces black were not poisonous. They were literally harmless” (Karim-Cooper 146).

9The argument supporting Ethiopian beauty is fairly cynical if we consider Quicksands’s association with Mandeville’s Travels which describe a series of African countries and cultures. As in the case of Ethiopia, they are presented as a negative inversion of European civilization in terms of geography, physical appearance, social and sexual behaviour, as well as values and laws. As Hall claims, “the descriptions found in Mandeville are a very early constellation of the increasingly complex links between the fear of the alien cultures and the destructive powers of sexuality associated with blackness” (27-28). The usurer’s main aim is to conceal Millicent’s beauty as well as her identity in order to cool down the lust of young gallants like Nathaniel, eager to sleep with her and cuckold him: “After this tincture’s laid upon thy face,” he tells Millicent, “’Twill cool their kidneys and allay their heats” (3.1.432). Quicksands’s assumption is that a black woman is far from being desirable, that “de fine white Zentilmanna / Cannot-a love-a the black-a thing-a” (4.4.726). When introducing Millicent, disguised as the black Moor Catalina, to the young gentlemen, he says:

Stay, Catalina. Nay, she may be seen. / For know, sirs, I am mortified to beauty/ Since my wife’s death. I will not keep a face / Better than this under my roof, I ha’ sworn.

10Yet, he does not take into account the fact that black women were associated with lechery and promiscuity. An exception to the rule is the womanizer Nathaniel whose lust is aroused by blackness, so much so that, in front of the black Catalina, he exclaims: “This devil’s bird, /This Moor runs more and more still in my mind” (4.4.742). Earlier in the play, he had expressed his own view on beauty boasting his varied sexual experience with women by claiming: “briefly, all sorts and sizes I have tasted” (3.3.571), regardless of age, stature, condition and complexion:

I think I have had my share,
And have loved every one best of living women;
A dead one I ne’er coveted, that’s my comfort;
But of all ages that are pressable
From sixteen unto sixty, and of all complexions
From the white flaxen to the tawny
And of all statures between dwarf and giantess;
Of all conditions, from the doxy to the dowsabel;
Of all opinions, I will not say religions
(For what make they with any?); and of all
Features and shapes, from the huckle
-backed bum-creeper,
To the straight spiny shop
maid in St. Martin’s.

11Catalina would be a new prey that he may add to his rich palmarès: interestingly, as Loomba reminds us, “complexion was originally another word for temperament, and its shift to a primarily somatic meaning can be related to the sharpening of colour-consciousness” (53). Therefore, the term ironically acquires a psychological connotation that Nathaniel had not taken into account when describing his numerous female partners. His attraction to the black Moor seems to be irresistible:

Nathaniel: [Aside] It is the handsomest rogue
I have e’er seen yet, of a deed of darkness;
Tawny and russet faces I have dealt with,

But never came so deep in blackness yet.

Quicksands: Come hither, Catalina. You shall see, sir,
What a brave wench she shall be made anon:
And when she dances, how you shall admire her!

Arthur: Will you have dancing here tonight?

Quicksands: Yes! I have borrowed other Moors of merchants
That trade in Barbary, whence I had mine own here,
And you shall see their way and skill in dancing.

Nathaniel: [Aside] He keeps this rye loaf or his own white tooth
With confidence none will cheat him of a bit.
I’ll have a sliver, though I lose my whittle.

12Different uses of black are present here. First, the expression “deed of darkness” is a reference to a possible sexual intercourse with Catalina, an immoral act with an unmarried black servant, “a negative version of the white positive that embodies hidden desire and fantasies” (Mason Vaughan 77). Secondly, Nathaniel compares Catalina to a “rye loaf”, a loaf of black bread, thus marking her inferiority and exploitability. This foodstuff image may recall Titus Andronicus, when Demetrius explicitly compares Lavinia to a slice of bread (2.1.87), a metaphor underscoring his sexual appetite. Finally, despite the experience he had boasted of before, he had never slept with a woman with a coal-black complexion (“But never came so deep in blackness yet”) and he had never reached such a level of sinfulness, as Steggle suggests, making an equation between blackness and sin (The English Moor n. 3831).

13Another scene in which the polarity black and white is extremely important is the masque in act 4, scene 5, which is Brome’s answer to the Masque of Blackness, often evoked throughout the play. The objective of the masque organized by Quicksands is taking revenge on the young gallants who had put on stage a masque suggesting his imminent cuckoldry on his wedding night:

The Queen of Ethiop dreamt upon a night
Her black womb should bring forth a virgin white

Edmund: Black womb!

Inductor: Till this white dream filled their black heads with fears,
For ’tis no better than a prodigy
To have white children in a black country.
So ’twas decreed that if the child proved white,
It should be made away. ‘O cruel spite!’
The queen cried out, and was delivered
Of child black as you see: yet wizards said
That if this damsel lived married to be
To a white man, she should be white as he.

Vincent: The moral is, if Quicksands marry her,
Her face shall be white as his conscience
4.5.783-4, 90-1)

14Brome turns upside down the dynamics of black and white but, despite the change in the dominant colour, the possibility of combination is still forbidden since a white child was not allowed within the black community where marriages can only occur between people of the same skin colour. This masque has to explain and justify his fictitious interracial marriage with the black Moor. The inductor of the masque reveals that while Quicksands was not paying attention, Nathaniel slept with the black servant (actually Phillis in disguise), thereby committing a “deed of darkness”:

Inductor: Marry, sir, a naughty business. This gentleman has
committed a deed of darkness with your Moor, sir; we all saw it.

Testy: What deed of darkness? Speak it plainly.

Inductor: Darkness or lightness; call it which you will. They
have lain together; made this same a bawdy house; how will you have it?

Quicksands: Undone, most wretched. O, I am confounded.
I see no art can keep a woman honest.

Nathaniel: I love her, and will justify my act.

15The expression “darkness or lightness” obviously hides a pun: “a ‘light’ woman”, as Steggle (The English Moor n6765) reminds us, “is one who is sexually promiscuous”, but it may also imply the fact that the woman is actually the white Phillis. Barthelemy emphasizes the paradoxical situation in which Phillis finds herself: “to gain a husband for herself and to regain her honour, Phillis, while she remains blackened, must again commit that sin that darkens her name” (143). While Nathaniel, showing an unexpected moral preoccupation, is now ready to marry her, the usurer, thinking that the gallant had slept with Millicent, pleads for divorce.

2. Whiteness on stage: Merry England, the fairest nation

16In the scene in which Millicent is dressed up by her devilish husband as a Moorish servant with black make-up, she is associated with other colours besides black:

Now red and white, those two united houses
Whence beauty takes her fair name and descent,
Like peaceful sisters under one roof dwelling,
For a small time farewell Oh let me kiss ye
Before I part with you — now, jewels, up
Into your
ebon casket.
(3.1.439; my emphasis)

17This passage refers to white and red, the third colour introduced after white and black as a symbol of blood and life; when associated with white, as in this context, it symbolizes beauty and health, but originally it was opposed to white (the chessboard had white and red squares) and sometimes its opposition was even stronger than the one with black (Castoldi 6). Three colours thus coexist on stage while Quicksands is painting Millicent’s face: white, red and black (the ebon casket). It is worth noticing here that the association of these shades was already highly popular in the Middle Ages, and that it reappears in a number of tales such as the Grimm Brothers’ story of Snow White who was indeed “as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood” (1). This may give to the scene a fairy-tale flavour depicting Millicent as a princess imprisoned by the villain Quicksands, a sort of jealous Bluebeard.

18White is a colour more frequently associated with Millicent. It represents her virtue, chastity and truth, which may explain her horror in front of the black make-up, a disguise concealing both her identity and her respectable condition: “This is the face / On which the hell of jealousy abused / The hand of heaven, to fright the world withal” (4.4.763). These words reinforce the opposition between the devilish Quicksands and the pure Millicent, often associated with heaven: “Heaven was married / To my first love” (5.2.969), says Theophilus thinking of Millicent’s supposed death”; or “See, see, the heaven that I am justly fallen from!” (5.3.1065) Quicksands complains when he sees his wife reappearing without the black make-up. When Arthur meets Millicent for the first time after she has removed her disguise, he exclaims:

A goodly creature!
The room’s illumined with her; yet her look
Sad, and cheek pale, as if a sorrow sucked it.
How came she in? What is she? I am fear
’Tis some unresting shadow. Or, if not,
What makes
a thing so glorious in this house,
The master being an enemy to beauty?
She modestly makes to

19Later on, when he leads her to her beloved Theophilus, he defines her a “white gift” (5.2.968) since she is probably dressed in white but also to mark her purity and chastity.

20A careful reading of the play undermines our certainties about the complete positivity of white as a symbol, showing that, like the blend for white make-up, it can be much more dangerous than black. As Batchelor reminds us, “whiteness is woven in the fabric of culture: since the classical age white is associated to female beauty, to divinity, to goodness, purity and chastity but also to ghosts and to skeletons, carrying “an uncanny sense of coldness, inertia and death” (19). White is mentioned seventeen times in the whole play, with eleven occurrences in act 4 only. Now, let’s take into consideration the extract analysed earlier but focusing on the significance of white:

The Queen of Ethiop dreamt upon a night
black womb should bring forth a virgin white

Edmund: Black womb!

Inductor: Till this white dream filled their black heads with Fears,
For ’tis no better than a prodigy
To have
white children in a black country.
So ’twas decreed that if the child proved
It should be made away. ‘O cruel spite!’
The queen cried out, and was delivered
Of child
black as you see: yet wizards said
That if this damsel lived married to be
To a
white man, she should be white as he.

Vincent: The moral is, if Quicksands marry her,
Her face shall be
white as his conscience.

Inductor: The careful queen, conclusion for to try,
Sent her to merry England charily,
The fairest nation man yet ever saw,
To take a husband.
(4.5.783-4, 90-2; my emphasis)

21The passage reveals a predominance of white, even though it describes the dream of a black skinned Ethiopian Queen, which may suggest a preponderance of dark colours. Turning white has a racial connotation but mainly a moral one: not only a transformation as “a metamorphosis to expunge the darkened alien” (Mason Vaughan 109) but also to enhance the whiteness of the soul and insist on the supposed moral virtues. The reference to Quicksands’s conscience is satirical: if his wife’s face is supposed to be the same colour as his conscience, it definitely has to be black, not white, so that a dark-skinned wife seems very appropriate for him. Even though white is associated with virtue and black with vice, the vicious and dishonest characters are white skinned: the perfidious usurer Quicksands, the unscrupulous womanizer Nathaniel and Phillis who has used various disguised to hide her identity and deceive Nathaniel; moreover, unlike Millicent, who has always been morally ‘white’ despite the disguise, Phillis has given herself to Nathaniel and she regains her socially honourable position only when he accepts to marry her: “[…] her new reappearance marks her transition from the blackened character of the fallen woman to the whitened status of the gentle wife” (Mason Vaughan 120). Only her status is white, not her soul or her intentions. When Nathaniel realizes who she really is, he exclaims: “The devil looks ten times worse with a white face. Give me it black again” (5.3.1047). The traditional association between blackness and the devil seems to fade and to be replaced by a more threatening concept: evil is not to be found only in the ‘dark other’ or in a culture perceived as inferior but it can be hidden everywhere in early modern England, “the fairest nation” (4.5.792) and in Europe, and in any person, even those whose moral conduct is apparently immaculate.

22White is part of a wider discourse about fairness, which variously recurs in the play as a noun or adjective: Millicent is the usurer’s “fair wife” (467), her honour is “fair” (1.2.112) in Theophilus’s words, she pleads for “fair justice” (2.2.320) when imploring her uncle Testy not to oblige her to marry the usurer. According to the OED, the adjective “fair” covers a wide range of meanings both related to physical and moral features: “Beautiful to the eye; of attractive appearance; good-looking” (A1); “Of a person’s character, conduct, reputation, etc., free from moral imperfections; exemplary, unblemished” (12); “Of a person: characterized by equitable or lawful conduct; honest, just; reasonable” (14b), “Of hair or complexion: light as opposed to dark in colour. Of a person: having such colouring” (17). Actually, “fair” is also connected to justice, represented on stage by Testy, a justice of the peace. Efstathiou-Lavabre (229) sees the end of the play as the triumph of fairness in all its shades which deletes the blackness, both physical and ethical, so that “Justice and Law lights every one his way” (4.5.909), as Testy exclaims. The black Moors are washed white and justice is actually done since all the characters get what they deserve, either a prize or a punishment, but it is also the triumph of the white devil Phillis that casts a shadow over the moral and cultural significance of being white as well as on female morality.

3. Geographies of black and white

23The concept of blackness runs in a wide geographical space: from England to Africa through Venice. The idea of black painting indeed comes from Venice (“it was the quaint device / Of a Venetian merchant, which I learnt / In my young factorship”(3.1.431), one of the major trading ports between Western Europe and the Levant, a place full of theatrical resonances (Othello, The Merchant of Venice) and economic and social implications. Quicksand’s idea of blackness is loaded with all the negative racial connotations and is evoked in relation to the slave trade: when the usurer says “I have borrowed other Moors of merchants / that trade in Barbary, whence I had my own here ” (4.5.720-21), he recalls his mercantile activities with Barbary, that is, North Africa and suggests the presence of other Moors as servants in his house. As Habib records, merchants were then not only the main agents in bringing black people to Britain, but they also feature significantly in the records of those who had black servants in their households (88-93). This play seems to reflect the beginning of the gradual integration of black people in the English lower classes since Africa is represented as an inferior country, exploitable economically and sexually and with one distinctive feature — blackness.

24This dichotomy between black and white with many of its implications is reflected in the use of space, in particular in the two tavern scenes. The first takes place in a famous eating establishment staged in act 3, scene 2: the tavern of the Devil and St. Dunstan at no. 2, Fleet Street, was one of the leading and oldest of Temple Bar. It is named after the legend of the 10th-century Saint Dunstan: while he was working at his forge, the devil tried to tempt him in the disguise of a beautiful woman. Dunstan pulled the devil by the nose with pincers so that he regained his original shape. As Burn reminds us, devils used often to appear to monks in the shape of Ethiopian men or boys; which was why, in all probability, painters began making the Devil black (103-05). Interestingly, while painting Millicent, Quicksands speaks of the beauty of an “Ethiopian face” compared to a white one.

25As Steggle has pointed out, the location works as a literary homage to Jonson, a regular of the place who had passed away in 1637, when the play was being written. Firstly, there is a remarkable profusion of references to his works such as the Masque of Blackness (1605), as for the blackface make-up used to disguise Millicent, Epicoene (1609), The Devil is an Ass (1616) and The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621). Therefore the history of the Devil Tavern is intertwined with the fame of Jonson, one of its most renowned and assiduous patrons.

26Despite being used as a setting in one scene only, the location is highly significant in the dynamics of the play for multiple reasons. First of all, the Devil Tavern is evoked metaphorically by the numerous references to the devil: beside Mandeville, the name of the usurer, the noun and its adjective recur eighteen times throughout the play and become a leitmotif: the name of the devil is evoked in numerous proverbial phrases such as “what devil’s this, raised?” (1.2.97), “the devil take the hindmost” (1.1.184), “This devil’s bird” (4.2.742) and in curses like “that unworthy Quicksands, devil take him” (1.2.112). Most of the allusions are, in fact, connected to the usurer Mandeville. When the servant Buzzard hints at the disappearance of Millicent, he describes Quicksands’s house as full of devils, as if it were their natural habitat: “I shall ne’er forget it, that riotous wedding night: when Hell broke loose, and all the devils danced at our house, which made my master mad, whose raving made my mistress run away, whose running away was the cause of my turning away” (3.3.500). Interestingly, these lines recall what Ferdinand is reported to have said in the middle of the shipwreck in The Tempest, i.e. “Hell is empty, / and all the devils are here” (1.2.214-15). As has been noted by many scholars (Steggle 2010: n 2535, Maison Vaughan 117), the phrase “quaint device” used by Quicksands to define the practice of black make-up as in Venice also recurs in the stage direction of The Tempest (3.3.53) to describe the vanishing of Ariel’s banquet. This is no coincidence since the play is also deeply concerned with alterity by virtue of the presence of the savage Caliban, called by his master a “thing of darkness” (5.1.278).

27Moreover, the scene set in the Devil Tavern has a strategic position in the unfolding of the action: it is placed right in the middle of the play as a sort of ‘watershed’ which divides white from black (after this scene Millicent and Phillis have black make-up) and recalls many issues developed in the previous scene, such as Millicent’s transformation into a black Moor, the idea of otherness related to a secret in Quicksands’s past, namely the existence of a disabled son hidden in Norfolk. At the beginning of the scene, we immediately realize that we are inside the Devil Tavern looking at the sign of the tavern, which represents the devil reassuming his true shape (he changes from a beautiful woman to a black monster), hanging over the stage. “Some sixteenth-century Court plays appear to have used both title and locality boards” (Gurr 180) often in the form of inn signs, to establish the location. In this case, it also reminds the audience of Millicent’s and Phillis’s transformation into black Moors, which is the main point of the plot. The womanizer Nathaniel with his friends Vincent and Edmund meet Quicksands’s ex-servant Buzzard at the Devil Tavern, where they try to figure out about what happened to Millicent, the usurer’s wife. Even if they do not succeed in getting any information about Millicent, they are unexpectedly told that Quicksands is the father of Timsy, a 27-year-old mentally disabled illegitimate child who has been hidden “in the further side of Norfolk” (3.2.529). This dark secret reveals such weakness in the usurer that the gallants decide to be revenged against him by working out a plan that will prove no less devilish than his. Therefore, otherness, in its double form of Africa and Norfolk, is deeply connected to the idea of blackness and all its implications. The darkness of Africa with its black-skinned inhabitants and the darkness of Norfolk, at the outskirts of the “fairest nation” (4.5.792), both remain somehow neglected and unknown.

28If the relevance of this scene actually lies in the strong iconographic and symbolic value of the Devil Tavern, the value is its being set in an anonymous tavern. In act 5, scene 1, Brome takes stock of the situation both for the characters on stage and the audience, giving details of previous events and introducing characters unknown to the public. Actually, within the familiar place of the inn run by a reliable old friend, Meanwell, Rashley and Winloss (Phillis’s father) reappear after a long absence in order to confide in the host by telling him what they had been doing for the past years:

Now, my good host, since you have been our friend and only counsel-keeper
in our absence, to you, before we visit our own houses, we’ll render a
relation of our journey and what the motive was that drew us forth. ’Tis true,
we did pretend a deadly quarrel at a great bowling match upon Blackheath;
went off; took horse; and several ways, forecast to meet at Dover, where we
met good friends, and in one bark passed over into France: here, ’twas
supposed, to fight, like fashion-followers that thither fly, as if no sand but
theirs could dry up English blood.

29These words reproduce the basic binary black and white of the play: the place where they agreed to meet is Dover, famous for its white cliffs, whereas the name of Blackheath, where they pretended to have killed each other, recalls blackness. On the other hand, there is also a hint at the Englishness-otherness contrast through the reference to English blood and France, to Dover which faces France (later on, there is a reference to Dunkirk, in the north of France) and Blackheath, which is the place where Henry V was welcomed after the battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War.

30The two tavern scenes are so relevant in symbolic terms because they mirror the dichotomy that characterizes the play. On the one hand, the renowned Devil Tavern which hints at Millicent’s transformation into a black Moor and is ‘haunted’ by the immortal spirit of the recently deceased Ben Jonson; on the other, an ‘obscure’ inn, without a name, not frequented by famous clients but which puts on stage certain characters believed to be dead, yet still alive. Nevertheless it is this anonymous inn that Brome starts the denouement of the play which will lead to the final punishment of the devilish usurer Quicksands and the reappearance of the white Millicent.

Conclusion: a masque of whiteness

31The way in which Brome uses a black face as a theatrical device to vehicle a cultural ideology about otherness is new in terms of sexual politics, gender, art and race. What makes the issue more complex is that Brome does not in fact stage real otherness but uses the theatrical device of the disguise and of the play-within-the-play to satirize his audience’s prejudices in the area of ethnic difference by highlighting the pervasive phobia of blacks at the time. He also wishes to subvert common clichés about the conventional meanings of black and white: the former being related to lasciviousness, evil, cultural and social inferiority, lack of moral values, while the latter was regarded as the epitome of virtue and moral superiority. Brome’s stage is full of English Moors, to be metaphorically comprehended by the reader / spectator as morally unsound, white English characters, like the usurer Quicksands whose jealousy recalls not only that of Othello and Nathaniel, but also that of Dionysia, the revengeful virago, and that of Phillis, the English Moor of the title. This may suggest an integration of the two communities through the revelation of a symbolic co-existence of black and white in the same characters. Yet, the English Moor is a (mere) figment, since none of the Moors are real black people. This integration movement is brought to a halt at the end of The English Moor, when the characters put off their masks. They are all Londoners who have performed their own play on otherness, their ‘Masque of Blackness’, within the boundaries of the city of London.

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1 Mason Vaughan (50) mentions The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy, a collaborative work by Dekker, Haughton and Day, which was known as Lust’s Dominion, or The Lascivous Queen. In his edition of The English Moor Steggle draws a connection between Mr. Moore’s Revels, an amateur entertainment performed at Oxford in 1636, two years before The English Moor. In this amateur entertainment in honour of a student called Moore, Oxford students impersonated black Moors.

2 All quotations from the play are from The English Moor, Modern Text, edited by Matthew Steggle, Richard Brome Online (http://www.hrionline., 17 January 2010). In this edition, against all odds, the text is not divided into lines but into speeches.

3 For a discussion of the performance of this scene see Richard Brome Online edition, n. 2575

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Cristina PARAVANO, « The devil looks ten times worse with a white face”: Colours in Richard Brome’s The English Moor »E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 20 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Milan
Cristina Paravano wrote her PhD on Richard Brome at the University of Milan where she obtained a post-doctoral research fellowship. Her areas of interest include Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline drama, source studies, Biblical studies and modern-contemporary theatre studies.

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