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Welcome to Episode 193 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

When London established a new mayor every October, there was a pageant put on to celebrate the appointment and introduce the new mayor to the city known as the Lord Mayor’s Show. This event was an extravagant affair, featuring a huge parade that followed an established route through the city. In one of the earliest accounts we have of the Lord Mayor’s Show, from 1585, records indicate that part of the parade that year was a pageant known as the King Of Moor’s pageant. This pageant is described by our guest this week, Maria Shmygol, as a Moor pageant that was performed by an actor in blackface, and other such pageant devices and dark-skinned personages (variously described as ‘Moors’ and ‘black Indians’). Maria writes that this pageant and this presentation of black moors would come again in close to 10 other mayoral inaugurations across the early to mid 17th century, including 3 within Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Maria Shmygol joins us today to explain the King of Moors pageant, including what we know about the actors, blackface makeup, and whether there was a distinction culturally between African, Indian, and Arabic, or if “moor” was a more general term. Since the images of the King of Moor’s pageant also includes drawings of a giant leopard, Maria will share with us the purpose and place of that specific animal in the pageant as well.

Join the conversation below.

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Maria Shmygol is an editor on the Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Marston edition. She will soon begin a research fellowship at the National University of Ireland, Galway, with a project on non-European geographies and early modern drama. She is a project member and regular blog contributor at ‘Medieval and Early Modern Orients’, which is an international research network that examines early English interactions with the Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Maria Shmygol about :

  • Was it standard for the Lord Mayor’s Show to feature celebrations of other countries in the pageant?
  • What part of the world is Shakespeare referring to when he uses the term “moor”? Traditionally, we assume Othello is African because he is described as black skinned, but could moor also be talking about Spain, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire? Is it possible Othello is actually Turkish or Spanish?  
  • Maria writes that the King of Moors was something like a sketch to use modern theater language, in that this presentation followed a certain pattern and included certain elements that were repeatable in several Lord Mayor’s Shows. Maria calls attention to one presentation of the King of Moors that happened in 1616 which a contemporary account describes as “Then commeth the King of Moores, gallantly mounted on a golden Leopard, he hurling gold and siluer euery way about him.” Maria, why was the King of Moors depicted as riding a golden leopard? Was the leopard specifically associated with Moors?

… and more!

I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than
you can the getting up of the negro’s belly: the
Moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

Merchant of Venice (III.5)

Colored plate by Henry Shaw (1844), based on a seventeenth-century manuscript drawing of a pageant used in the 1616 Lord Mayor’s Show. [Call # DA681 .N4 (flat)]. Photograph by Maria Shmygol, from the Folger Shakespeare Library Collection. Used by permission. Source

King of Moors Pageant featured a Giant Leopard

Maria writes that the King of Moors was something like a sketch to use modern theater language, in that this presentation followed a certain pattern and included certain elements that were repeatable in several Lord Mayor’s Shows. Maria calls attention to one presentation of the King of Moors that happened in 1616 which a contemporary account describes as “Then commeth the King of Moores, gallantly mounted on a golden Leopard, he hurling gold and siluer euery way about him.” Maria explains the surprising reason they used a leopard:

“Some of the companies….ostriches as well” There’s definitely a general link with foreign animals, like leopards, and foreign people like moors. Some companies like grocers or merchant taylors would feature a moor, riding animals like leopards, ostriches and camels as well, and in 1616 the leopard that’s present is a reference to the leopard heads that featured on the goldsmiths company emblem. In keeping with the heraldric iconography, it’s not in this instance linked to moors but linking it to the goldsmiths…These pageant devices, the creation of the device costs money and the livery company has to cover those costs, so to get their money’s worth, they would keep the device and it was kept for later use as either a decorative device or presentation at a later pageant. After they’ve invested to create the animal, it comes up repeatedly in the shows.

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The fishmongers’ pageant, on Lord Mayor’s Day, 1616. Sponsored by the Fishmonger’s Guild. Description from the Folger Shakespeare Library: “The fishmongers’ pageant, on Lord Mayor’s Day, 1616 : Chrysanaleia, the golden fishing / devised by Anthony Munday ; represented in twelve plates by Henry Shaw, from contemporary drawings in the possession of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers ; accompanied with various illustrative documents, and an historical introduction by John Gough Nichols.” Source

Lord Mayor’s Show featured Pageants from Individual Guilds

The description goes on to describe that the presentation was supported by the guild of Goldsmiths and that the King of Moors would throw coins or metal counters along the pageant route as he rode through London. Maria, this sounds a lot like a sponsored float we might see in a parade today where the participants go overboard to wear the colors of the sponsoring company and give out samples to the audience as a marketing ploy. A great comparison is like the parade floats you see today in an event similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the United States where each float or dance/dramatic presentation is sponsored by an organization who has a marketing interest in participating in the event. Maria explains the significance of the livery companies:

It is a great opportunity for the livery company in questions to show off at the city at large, very public, free to attend, drew a huge crowd–close to 20,000 people watching these shows and they market to these audiences with devices, and are similar to parade floats, floats of money reflections of the splendor and generosity of the institution they represented. Devices were a great way of reaching the audience because it was a visually striking presentation and they gave away “freebies” to the crowd and linked thematically to the company in question. In the 1616 show, that show was actually put on my the fishmongers and within that show we have a flattering homage to the goldsmith company, and they stage the kind of moors pageant, and fitting to hand out things like look like coins (metal imitations) visual visual representation of their trade… they had different pageants like an model of a fishing vessel very ornately carved, to celebrate the fishmongers, the actors in that vessel were handing out free fish.,/blockquote>

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Castillian ambassadors attempting to convince Moorish Almohad king Abu Hafs Umar al-Murtada to join their alliance (contemporary depiction from the Cantigas de Santa María)Source

The word “Moor” is not enough information to indicate dark skin

Maria describes the pageant as “The ‘Moor’ figures in this pageant were undoubtedly performed in blackface, either by means of cosmetic tinting of the skin or through the use of cloth masks, stockings, and gloves” Maria explains the history of creating blackface in theatrical environments.

Cassidy would like to note here that “moor” by itself was not enough to indicate black skin. Even the adjective “African” would not always indicate blackness, as there are many Africans who are white. Additionally, “Moor” applied to several nations, geographic regions, and the Turkish/Ottoman Empire, and that region was vast (encompassing many skin tones).

There’s a number of reasons to think blackface was used across the pageant of this period. Some of the printed accounts of the shows that were published contain speeches that the king of the moors would deliver to the audience and some of those speeches directly reference his skin color. 1613 show, king of moors and his wife arrive in London, give a speech to citizens and in this speech he asks if they’ve ever seen a king so black before, and talks about the darkness that dwells upon his face. Those references indicate the actor had to be dark in one way or another. Ian Smith chapter from his work, eye witness accounts as well, drawn by eye witnesses, sketch of the action as they saw it that day. Some of them depict figures and one that’s colored in, and it implicates that what they saw was someone wearing makeup.

When looking back into history, it is relatively easy to try and apply modern worldviews to the past and consequently punish, judge, or vilify perspectives that would be inappropriate in a modern context. When considering the past as it concerns the presentation of black skinned or dark skinned people groups, to understand that the assumption of insult. or intent to demean is historically inaccurate. As Maria explains,

In this context, It was not designed to be insulting in that sense, …It’s not the same thing as what happens later in theater (20th century).

See justice done on Aaron, that damn’d Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning

Titus Andronicus (V.3)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson
13th Century Depiction of Moors in Iberia. Source

Moor applied to countries in several geographic locations

The Lord Mayor’s Show often featured a show of items, places, and people that were emblematic of trade, business, or commerce for England. Maria explains,

Many people, commodities from other countries, India, Africa, and North America, celebration of english trade with those countries, in the early 17th century England was making more and more overseas trade connections especially in places like India. We find lots of animals and people representing those aspirations., not all livery countries were invested in foreign trade but it was very common to find the odd representations of an Indian character or a Moor in these kinds of pageants.

When we look at the word Moor, we can see many different parts of the world where the term would apply. Traditionally, we assume Othello is African because he is described as black skinned, but Moor also be talking about Spain, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire, meaning it is possible that Othello could be Turkish or even Spanish. Maria shares her thoughts,

It is a tricky questions because “Moor” is hard to pin down to an exact geographical location in the period. Issues of ethnicity, religion, migration, and other actors complicate the use of that word. Early modern english and European writers apply different terms like “moor” which is a catch all term, but there are also black moor, tawny moor, or even white moor which distinguishes between Black Africans and North African Arabs, and there’s also a term “turk” that creeps in there to complicate things further. There’s also an inconsistency with the use of the term “moor”

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Books & Resources Maria Shmygol Recommends

Maria Shmygol regularly contributes to Medieval and Early Modern Orients

Public performances of blackness: The ‘King of Moors’ pageant in the 1616 Lord Mayor’s Show, Folger Shakespeare Library

TIDE Keywords :

Anthony G. Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987)

Tracey Hill, Pageantry and Power: A Cultural History of the Early Modern Lord Mayor’s Show 1585–1639 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)

Ayanna Thompson, Blackface (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

Amrita Sen and J. Caitlin Finlayson, eds., Civic Performance, Pageantry, and Entertainments in Early Modern London (2020).

Download this map of the 1613 Lord Mayor's Show

(Created from research inside Tracey Hill's "Pageant and Power")

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