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There it was often used to reinforce outright racist attitudes.

The story concerns the owner of a black slave who imagines that he has been neglected by his former master and tries to wash off the blackness. Some versions mention that this goes on so long that the poor man is made ill or even dies of a cold.

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He goes on to comment that 'when men aspire to eminence in any of the various arts or sciences, without being gifted with the innate powers or abilities for such attainments, it is only like attempting to wash the Blackamoor white. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fable was used to underline the perception of the black man's 'natural' inferiority, both moral and social. So, while Bewick's generalising conclusion seems innocent enough, its uglier subtext becomes apparent when referred back to the allusion to the fable in The Pilgrim's Progress There the travellers come across the characters Fool and Want-Wit 'washing of an Ethiopian with intention to make him white, but the more they washed him the blacker he was.


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They then asked the Shepherds what that should mean. So they told them, saying, Thus shall it be with the vile person.

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All means used to get such an one a good name shall in conclusion tend but to make him more abominable. In the 15th century the proverb appeared in the Greek collection of Michael Apostolius 1. Firstly Aethiopem lavas or dealbas You wash or make the Ethiopean white , which appeared in a list of other impossible tasks.

Though the Adagia' s many editions were one source for the proverb's widespread use in Europe, another work was equally influential. This was Andrea Alciato 's Book of Emblems , first published in with frequent later editions. Here a despondent Ethiopian is pictured seated at a fountain where two Europeans are attempting to wash away his colour; the illustration is followed by a translation into Latin of Lucian's epigram.

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The long verse commentary by the latter draws the conclusion that Nature is not to be withstood; therefore in all dealings 'Let reason rule, and doe the thinges thou maie'. A third source reinforcing use of the fable in Christian Europe was an apparent reference to it by the Jewish prophet Jeremiah : 'Can the Nubian ['Cushite' in the Hebrew] change his skin or the leopard his spots?


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  • Dating from the turn of the 6th century BCE, it suggests that a proverb of West Asian origin may even have preceded the fable. The ability to undo the created order of the world is through the action of divine grace , and it is this doctrine which underlies the Renaissance pagan presentation of Ben Jonson 's " The Masque of Blackness " In it Niger, the god of the Nile, emerges from the ocean in search of a country where the skin of his black daughters can be whitened.

    The Ethiopian moon-goddess reassures him that his quest is at an end in Britain, which is. The same idea is returned to in Jonson's later masque, "The Gypsies Metamorphosed" , which also involves change of skin colour from tawny to white.

    For all that, a number of allied proverbs maintaining the opposite still persisted: they include negative statements such as 'black will take no other hue', 'one cannot wash a blackamoor white' [14] and 'a crow is never the whiter for washing'. Although attention will be paid mostly to the non-European Other, papers addressing a European 'exotic' are also welcome.

    Definitions of 'exotic': -Is the non-European Other on stage really 'exotic'?

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    Staging the 'exotic' body: -How are costumes, make-up, scenery, movements employed to construct the 'exotic'? Is the acting career informed by bringing the Other on stage? Did their composition have an impact on the performance of the 'exotic'?

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    Cultural and political backgrounds: -To what extent did audiences' expectations affect theatrical representations of the Other? The travelling 'exotic': -How do texts such as Arabian Nights, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Mazeppa 'travel' between dramatic and non-dramatic genres?