Word of the Day: Ebony

July 7, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Only three mentions of this rare wood occur in Shakespeare, twice in Love’s Labour’s Lost and once in Twelfth Night. The word itself could and still can refer to any of several different varieties of timber, found in India, Africa, and Indonesia. These valuable woods were extensively exported by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, but even by the end of the sixteenth century a rich trade in Ebony flourished in Antwerp and Paris. One legacy of this trade is the fact that French people still call cabinet-makers “ébéniste” to this day. As with ‘alabaster’, mention of ebony evokes rich blackness, ornament and beauty, as well as worldwide trade.

It is the blackness of ebony that most interests Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night Feste the clown (disguised as Sir Topas the priest) tortures the imprisoned Malvolio with a nonsensical description of the steward’s surroundings.

FESTE Say’st thou that the house is dark?
MALVOLIO As hell, Sir Topas.
FESTE Why it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the north are as lustrous as ebony; and yet complain’st thou of obstruction?

The joke of course is that Feste accurately describes the “barricadoes” and ebon darkness of the prison, only to draw the conclusion that the “barricadoes” are “transparent” and the ebon “clerestories” (church windows) are “lustrous”. In reply to this, Malvolio can only insist that “I am not mad, Sir Topas. I say to you this house is dark.”

The uncomfortable comedy of Feste torturing Malvolio is far removed from the use made of “ebony” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Here the word is used by the King of Navarre to describe Berowne’s beloved Rosaline.

KING By heaven, thy love is black as ebony!
BEROWNE Is ebony like her? O word divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? Where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack
If that she learn not of her eye to look.
No face is fair that is not so full of black.

Whereas Feste was busy contorting his language to befuddle Malvolio, Berowne’s ornamental punning is aiming straight for courtly wit. To understand him, it is necessary to recall both the value of ebony and the fact that blackness might also be shameful (cf. Malvolio’s “[black] As hell” above, or Gertrude’s “black and grained spots” of guilt in Hamlet). Consequently, the King’s “black as ebony” pulls two ways: beautiful as ebony yet ugly as blackness. Berowne takes this doubleness as improvises upon it, emphasising the beauty of darkness, and particular of Rosaline’s dark eyes. Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works similar reconstruction of blackness takes place: the dark lady of the Sonnets is praised, for example, with the comment that “now is black beauty’s successive heir”. Shakespeare’s near contemporary, Philip Sidney, also praised dark beauties, focussing like Berowne on the beloved’s eyes. Stella in Astrophil and Stella (1592) is thus possessed of eyes “in beamy black”.

Overall then, blackness is the dominate feature of ebony when it appears in Shakespeare’s works, with the added complexity occuring when Berowne uses its beautiful, ornamental properties to challenge (like Sidney) other preconceptions about blackness in the period. I should probably mention Othello at this point, but would rather avoid a lengthy article.

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