The Masque Essay - Critical Essays

The Masque


The Masque

The masque was a form of entertainment, popular in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was specifically designed for an aristocratic audience, and which was noted for the extravagance and splendor of its performances. Originating in courtly dances, spectacles, and holiday pantomimes, the masque combined elements of singing, dancing, poetry recitation, and acting. Because novelty of presentation was highly prized, the masque had few fixed elements. One constant feature, however, was the concluding dance, called the revel, in which both masquers and audience participated. From the first, masques were intricately involved in the world of the court. They celebrated particular court occasions and, as the genre evolved, included allegorical representations of members of the nobility. Courtiers often took non-speaking roles in performances; speaking parts—a later innovation—were assumed by professional actors. Many masques were based upon classical and Biblical characters and myths, but reflected contemporary political, religious, and other concerns. By allegorically depicting court personages as deities and classical figures, authors of the masque created an idealized representation of the monarch and the court.

As the word suggests, the masque involved the wearing of disguises; and although entertainments featuring dancing and the wearing of disguises were long known in England, the masque as an identifiable genre seems to have arisen during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry himself is known to have taken part in a masque performed as part of the Twelfth Night festivities of 1512, and masques became a regular part of Christmas celebrations throughout his reign. Less prominent in the reigns of Henry's Tudor successors, the masque achieved its highest level of sophistication in the courts of James I and Charles I. James began the practice of employing professional writers to create court masques, Ben Jonson chief among them. Under the literary ambitions of Jonson—who composed more than twenty-five masques—and the creative genius of stage designer Inigo Jones, the masque was transformed into an inspiring and educational marvel. Jonson believed masques could both honor the monarch and instruct him in proper rule. For this purpose, in such works as The Masque of Queenes (1609), he devised the antimasque, disruptive intervals which provided counterpoint to the calm order of the masque and which suggested the consequences of vice. Jones' elaborate designs for presenting visual illusions and wonders were revolutionary in an age in which professional plays were performed on an essentially bare stage. At the death of James I, Jonson fell out of favor with the court; under the patronage of Charles I, Jones continued to collaborate on masques with a series of poets, including Thomas Carew and William D'Avenant. It was during this period that the masque reached its greatest degree of extravagance, offering idealized visions of the grandeur and wisdom of Charles' rule. Increasingly, however, Puritans protested masque performances, and there was growing criticism of the excessive amounts of money spent on the productions. During this period, John Milton wrote his masque Comus (1634), a call for reform of the genre. The last major court masque, a collaboration between Jones and D'Avenant, Salmacida Spolia, was produced in 1640. The Civil War brought about the end of the court masque.

Early Puritan critics of the masque viewed the performances as frivolous or worse—as idolatrous in their representations of monarchs as gods. Subsequent historians, noting that James I and Charles I were absolutist monarchs, regarded masques as works of propaganda, servilely flattering tyrannical kings. Since the twentieth century, however, critics have begun to reject such simple characterizations of the genre. Several commentators have observed that Renaissance culture highly valued display and both visual and verbal elaboration; from this perspective masques can be seen as rich tapestries of symbols and images. Scholars such as Stephen Orgel and Carol Marsh-Lockett have analyzed masques as didactic works, intended to instruct monarchs on the functions and proper uses of power. David Norbrook has detected evidence of the religious disputes of the Jacobean and Caroline periods reflected in the masques of the time. Lesley Mickel has argued that Jonson's development of the antimasque was a reaction to larger social and cultural disruptions. Yumna Siddiqi, Marion Wynne-Davies, and others have explored gender and race relations depicted in the masque. The diversity of such approaches to the study of masques somewhat paradoxically attests to a critical consensus, which considers them complex reflections of their age, projections of the desired—if not the actual—social order.

Representative Works

Ben Jonson
The Masque of Blackness (1605)
The Masque of Beauty (1608)
The Haddington Masque (1608)
The Masque of Queenes (1609)
Oberon the Fairy Prince (1611)
Love Freed From Ignorance and Folly (1611)
Love Restored (1612)
The Irish Masque at Court (1613-14)
Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court (1616)
Neptune's Triumph (1624)

Samuel Daniel
Vision of the Twelve Goddess (1604)

John Milton
Comus (1634)

James Shirley
The Triumph of Peace (1634)

Thomas Campion
Lord Hay's Masque (1607)
The Lord's Masque (1613)

Thomas Carew
Coelum Britannicum (1634)

James Shirley
Cupid and Death (1653)

Thomas Middleton
The Triumphs of Honour and Virtue (1622)

George Gascoigne
Posies (1575)

Sir Philip Sidney
The Lady of May (1578)

Aurelian Townshend
Albion's Triumph (1631)

Criticism: Development Of The Masque

Stephen Orgel (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Masque,” in English Drama to 1710, edited by Christopher Ricks, Barrie & Jenkins, 1971, pp. 354-69.

[In the following essay, Orgel, a noted scholar of the masque, places the genre in the context of the history of literature, outlining its distinctive characteristics and development.]

The masque is only in a very qualified sense a chapter in the history of English drama. Its origins are to be found in Christmas mummings, in courtly dances and in spectacular entertainments, but not until the seventeenth century is the composition of court masques regularly undertaken by a professional playwright. Ben Jonson gave the masque its most characteristic...

(The entire section is 6203 words.)

David Norbrook (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Reformation of the Masque,” in The Court Masque, edited by David Lindley, Manchester University Press, 1984, pp. 94-110.

[In the essay below, Norbrook outlines the efforts made to reform Jacobean and Caroline masques in light of Protestant beliefs.]

At the beginning of Shelley's unfinished tragedy Charles the First, some London citizens are watching a procession of masquers on their way to perform at court. The year is 1634; the masque is James Shirley's The Triumph of Peace, performed by the lawyers of the Inns of Court. A young spectator is dazzled by the sight:


(The entire section is 7819 words.)

Carol Marsh-Lockett (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Ben Jonson's Haddington Masque and The Masque of Queenes: Stuart England and the Notion of Order,” in CLAJ: College Language Association Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 362-78.

[In the following essay, Marsh-Lockett examines Jonson's efforts to educate King James on the tenets of successful monarchy through The Haddington Masque and The Masque of Queenes.]

In the canon of criticism of Ben Jonson's work, treatments of the masques and entertainments occupy relatively little space. For many years they were dismissed as subliterary types with little thematic significance, and only commentaries made by Jonson himself indicated a...

(The entire section is 5289 words.)

J. Andrew Hubbell (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Comus: Milton's Re-Formation of the Masque,” in Spokesperson Milton: Voices in Contemporary Criticism, edited by Charles W. Durham and Kristin Pruitt McColgan, Susquehanna University Press, 1994, pp. 193-205.

[In the essay below, Hubbell considers Milton's efforts to shift the nature and focus of the masque in his Comus.]

As Stephen Orgel demonstrates, the specific function of the masque is to represent the social order, making particular reference to the monarch as the regal head of both the masque and society. Since the masque proposes to create a political fiction that would glorify the establishment, the praise of the court is an inherent...

(The entire section is 5378 words.)

Lesley Mickel (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Introduction to Ben Jonson's Antimasques: A History of Growth and Decline, Ashgate Publishing, 1999, pp. 1-25.

[In the following excerpt from a larger study of Jonson's antimasques, Mickel provides an abstract of his argument that Jonson's antimasque is a complex, dialectical response to political and cultural events and thus helps to enforce the ideal of the masque.]

This book focuses on the court masques of Ben Jonson, but the sheer number of these masques (there are twenty-eight) makes a selective discussion of them necessary, although I have tried to pick out those masques that seem to be particularly significant for a study of the genre's development. My...

(The entire section is 11199 words.)