If I could travel back in time to the late sixteenth century, I know the first question I’d ask Shakespeare: what is the deal with that stage direction in Love’s Labor’s Lost?
It appears in both of the play’s early texts—the 1598 quarto and the 1623 folio—toward the beginning of the final scene. When the King of Navarre and his lords enter, disguised as Russians and ready to perform a masque, a stage direction reads: “Enter Black moores with musicke, the Boy with a speech, and the rest of the Lords disguised.”
I started by investigating what the stage direction might reveal about the play’s history. Because it is so specific, it seems to offer evidence of early performance practice. Most modern editors of the play instruct readers to understand the Blackamoors as white actors in blackface. In the Folger edition of the play, Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine imagine them as Navarre’s white attendants, disguised as dark-skinned Africans. This argument makes sense in the context of a masque, a kind of performance that emphasized strangeness and disguise. In masques, white English aristocrats frequently wore exotic costumes and racial prosthetics. In a 1509 Henrician masque described in Holinshed’s Chronicles, white female dancers disguised themselves as Blackamoors by covering their faces, necks, arms, and hands in a fine black material. The Gray’s Inn revels of 1594-5 had white male dancers dress as dark-skinned characters. Both masques paired Blackamoors with men in Russian disguises, making them potential sources for the masque in Love’s Labor’s Lost. It is certainly possible that actors in Shakespeare’s company blackened their skin to represent these musicians.
A second possibility is that early performances of Love’s Labor’s Lost featured Black musicians, as Matthieu Chapman has argued.1 The archival research of Imtiaz Habib indeed reveals the presence of Black entertainers and enslaved people at Elizabeth’s court—the same court where Love’s Labor’s Lost would be performed, as its quarto’s title page claims.2 Whether the play included actual Black people or actors in blackface, the dialogue’s absence of commentary about these musicians implies that Black entertainers were an unremarkable presence in high-ranking circles.
I also wanted to know how later performances staged this direction. Because there was no known performance of Love’s Labor’s Lost between 1660 and 1800, the play was transmitted only in textual form in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During most of that time, readers encountered no Blackamoors in the play. Nicholas Rowe—the play’s first named editor—removed the Blackamoor musicians in 1709, having the servant Moth bring the music instead. Later editors would follow suit for more than a century.
Yet Rowe’s edition does not entirely dispose of the idea that masques feature exotic, non-English people. The frontispiece to Love’s Labor’s Lost in Rowe’s edition depicts the play’s ladies and their female attendants standing outdoors underneath a canopy. Their faces and arms are light in color. The light-skinned man bowing in front in the ladies—surely Boyet—wears the fancy dress and curly wig of an early eighteenth-century gentleman. In the foreground are three men dressed in elaborate costumes: armored tunics, bulbous hats covered in feathers or fur, and kilt-like skirts with tall boots. They are accompanied by three small attendants, two of them playing trumpets. In contrast to the women and man in the center and back right of the image, these men and boys have darkened faces. Visible necks of two of the men are lighter in color. The effect is that these versions of Navarre, his lords, and his servants all seem to be in blackface. Might this image represent an imagined performance of the scene?
Blackface is part of the scene’s staging history too. By reading reviews in the British Newspaper Archive database, I learned that several amateur drama clubs and English grammar schools performed Love’s Labor’s Lost in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In many cases, reviewers delighted in the “good fun” of blackface performance. In March 1922, for example, the Barnstaple Grammar School for girls held three performances to benefit local charities. In this production, the Blackamoors were not musicians, but dancers who wielded knives. Three girls played these roles “with their faces and hands blackened.” Reviewers liked the effect and praised the dance as “picturesque” (high praise for performances at the time) and “quaint” (elegant and agreeably unusual). This single stage direction, therefore, carries with it histories of Black servitude, exploitation, and impersonation.
Now that I know this history, my next step is to decide what to do with it. As a literary scholar, I wonder: how might a focus on this curious stage direction and its history lead to new interpretations of Love’s Labor’s Lost?
The “Black moores” stage direction encourages me to think more deeply about how race and gender work in the play. I suggest that the musicians help the play construct what Arthur Little calls “white-people-making.”3 Their presence—however staged or imagined—draws attention to the racialized language surrounding the ladies in the rest of the play. Earlier, the men tease Berowne by describing his beloved Rosaline as black, and characters repeatedly assume that whiteness is a key component of ideal feminine beauty. When the ladies mock the masquers and interrupt their performance to make clear that the men are not in control, they also ignore and silently accept the Blackamoor musicians. At this moment, the play underscores the extent to which the female characters’ authority derives from the privileges of their status, beauty, and whiteness, all of which the play insists are intertwined.
- Matthieu A. Chapman, “The Appearance of Blacks on the Early Modern Stage: Love’s Labour’s Lost’s African Connections to Court,” Early Theatre 17.2 (2014): 77-94, https://doi.org/10.12745/et.17.2.1206.
- Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677 (London: Routledge, 2008).
- Arthur L. Little, Jr., “Introduction: Assembling an Aristocracy of Skin” in White People in Shakespeare: Essays on Race, Culture and the Elite (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 12.
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