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.
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)
Vision of the Twelve Goddess (1604)
The Triumph of Peace (1634)
Lord Hay's Masque (1607)
The Lord's Masque (1613)
Coelum Britannicum (1634)
Cupid and Death (1653)
The Triumphs of Honour and Virtue (1622)
Sir Philip Sidney
The Lady of May (1578)
Albion's Triumph (1631)
(The entire section is 88 words.)
Criticism: Development Of The Masque
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 form, and we might begin by observing that his selection as masque writer for the court of James I, and—initially at least—his remarkable success, had more to do with his qualities as a poet than as a playwright. Indeed, his gradual development of the form is paralleled by a growing dissatisfaction with and withdrawal from the world of drama and the public stage. Nor are Jonson's occasional rivals in the field associated on the whole with drama; and when professional playwrights like Chapman and Beaumont do undertake the composition of court masques, they produce works that are sufficiently different from stage plays to make it clear that they feel the masque to be a quite separate genre.
Understanding the nature of the...
(The entire section is 6203 words.)
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:
'tis like the bright procession Of skiey visions in a solemn dream From which men wake as from a Paradise, And draw new strength to tread the thorns of life.
But the older citizens are less enthusiastic. It is no time for revelry, they say, when the fidelity of the English church to its Protestant traditions seems in question and when the Protestant cause throughout Europe is imperilled. The youth admires the masquers' colourful costumes, but an older man replies that their finery is unjustly maintained at the expense of the poor: the masque is the symbol of the dominance of an unjust ruling class. He points to a group of cripples and beggars in the procession: they serve
(The entire section is 7819 words.)
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 true appreciation of the literary merits of these works. In my consideration of the Jonsonian masque, however, I have found an apparent concern on Jonson's part with the idea of a “political Eden”; that is to say a concern with stable conditions of government. I have found, moreover, that the works fall into the genre of “Instructions to or Education of the Ruler.” Because I believe the masques are didactic, I see Jonson serving his intent by careful dramatization of the virtues and nature of political harmony in the masque and the dangers of chaos in the antimasque. Such didacticism, as the history of the period reveals, was inspired by James's failure to create harmony in England. Thus, the fictive James portrayed in the masques...
(The entire section is 5289 words.)
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 element of the genre.1 Political issues are thus inseparable from formal ones, and a study of Milton's deviations from the masque traditions will reveal the political agendas within Comus.
During the two decades before Comus, Ben Jonson united the loosely connected art forms that he had inherited from earlier court entertainment writers. Drawing on a fourteenth-century tradition, Jonson engaged his aristocratic audience in his artistic productions, achieving a special intimacy between the ideal world of the masque and its audience.2 The masque's dialogue between audience and representation created a self-reflexive system that glorified what it dramatized, which was always the king and the...
(The entire section is 5378 words.)
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 primary objective in this book is to chart the growth and demise of the antimasque in Jonson's court entertainments, and to explore the way in which they respond to both his poetic aims and their historico-political conditions of production. I will suggest that the Jonsonian court entertainment develops into a dialectical investigation of contemporary affairs and is far more complex than the simple act of homage that it has sometimes been assumed to be.1 Two distinctive aspects of this book are its broadly chronological approach and an acute consciousness of the court entertainment as a fundamentally hybrid form. This diachronic emphasis is occasioned by my concern to explore the growth of the antimasque within the context of the...
(The entire section is 11199 words.)
Criticism: Sources And Structure
SOURCE: “‘Those Beautiful Characters of Sense’: Classical Deities and Court Masque,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 166-79.
[In the following essay, Dundas analyzes the use of figures of classical myth in masques, arguing that they added an aspect of beauty and enrichment to the performances.]
The flight into the imagination which was implicit in the whole production of court masques took courage from two sources, classical allusion and moral significance. However fantastic the thinly spun plots or however marvellous the stage machinery and costuming, these received some sort of anchoring to reality through recognizable myths and morally sound principles. The didactic no less than the political function of these myths has been stressed in recent criticism; in the words of Stephen Orgel, the masque fictions served to create “heroic roles for the leaders of society.”1 Such an interpretation tends to emphasize the political and ethical goals of the masque, its “Platonic Politics,” at the expense perhaps of the aesthetic purpose, the kind of enjoyment offered by an art that is above all ornamental—an art that, for the sake of pleasure, imposes a decorative form even upon the moral message and makes pattern an imperative. To this requirement, myth itself, without losing dignity, must conform; so Daedalus as dancing master instructs the court in the...
(The entire section is 5040 words.)
SOURCE: “The English Masque and the Functions of Comedy,” in The Elizabethan Theatre VIII, P. D. Meany Company, 1982, pp. 144-63.
[In the essay below, Waith compares late sixteenth and early seventeenth century masques to earlier comedies, arguing that the masque assumed many characteristics of the comedy.]
Thanks to a number of distinguished critics, it has become a staple of comment on masques to note the crucial importance of the occasions on which they were performed. They are, in fact, perfect examples of occasional art, not intended to endure, but praiseworthy in so far as their creators found or devised suitable forms. This is not to say that when a masque was performed it was appreciated in exact proportion to what we would recognize as its degree of formal coherence. We know how often the very opposite was the case. But now that the applause for the unique performance has long since died down, or the lack of applause has been largely forgotten, there is still some interest in appraising the ingenuity of those early creators in adapting various kinds of available material to their uses. If the results were sometimes a rather haphazard sequence of numbers, as in many a twentieth-century revue, they were sometimes remarkably shapely and strikingly apt.
My aim is to call attention to some of these successes and to suggest they they were due, at least in part, to the...
(The entire section is 7725 words.)
SOURCE: “The Masks of Cupid and Death,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 38-60.
[In the following essay, Dundas discusses James Shirley's masque Cupid and Death in relation to other Renaissance variations on the theme of love and death.]
The repetition of the same syllable in the Latin words amor and mors could, in the Renaissance, seem to confirm with lightning speed an essential relationship between these two apparent opposites, love and death. Amor, in short, contains mors.1 But whatever language was used in poems and the poetic drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, “love” often called for its opposite, “death.” One fable in particular epitomized and dramatized the truth of this relationship. In a widely influential version, Alciati turned the story of the interchange of the arrows of Love and Death into an emblem.2 If its moral is somewhat ambiguous, or at least subject to a variety of possible interpretations, it captured in graphic terms a topos to which both masque and drama were drawn, whether as central theme or as metaphor. But the variations on the theme also provide an instructive instance of the generic difference between masque and drama.
The fable seems to offer an explanation for at least two phenomena—the one, a literary fashion; the other,...
(The entire section is 7139 words.)
SOURCE: “Court and Country: The Masque as Sociopolitical Subtext,” in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Volume 7, edited by Leeds Barroll, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 338-54.
[In the essay below, Palmer analyzes Yorkshire historical documents to argue that the link between court and country masque performances were greater than expected, with landed gentry using performances as a means of social advancement.]
On 3 January 1588/89 James Ryther of Harewood in the West Riding, Yorkshire, described his northern neighbors' conception of entertainment to Lord Burghley in London: “By affynytie with the Skottes and borderers thes people deliver in a rude & wilde kinde of musick, to which ar sewtable rymes and songes entewnyd and songe eyther of wanton or warlyke actions[;] by our Invention in this easyly is dysernyd our distance from the Soon [Sun/King].”1
Ryther's account is hardly disinterested—he is quite piqued that he must actually live on his Yorkshire estate in order to claim it—and certainly not fair in marking the northern New Year and Hogmanay as typical behavior, but his elitist, southern bias has prevailed in later conceptions. Northern entertainment is provincial, isolated, and rude, along the lines of clog dancing to a bagpipe; London entertainment is courtly, sophisticated, and refined, Ben Jonson masques to Inigo...
(The entire section is 7879 words.)
SOURCE: “The Masque and the Marvelous,” in Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous, University of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 99-129.
[In the following excerpt, Platt contrasts the rational literary aspects of the masque as embodied in Ben Jonson's work with the fantastic and visual qualities of Inigo Jones's contributions.]
To wonder first, and then to excellence, By virtue of divine intelligence.
—Ben Jonson, Love's Triumph through Callipolis
An examination of the masque necessarily involves encountering staged versions of several conflicts treated in earlier chapters: reason and wonder, word and image, the naturalistic and the marvelous. By investigating wonder in the masque—and especially the tension between verbal and visual that unfolds—I explore from a slightly different angle the mutual dependence of politics and theater, statecraft and stagecraft, that has been covered relentlessly in recent criticism.1 The very structure of the masque not only revealed wonder and epistemological confusion in the antimasque—the chaotic, discordant, wonderful first part of a masque—but also contained them in the resolutions of the transformation scene.2 Formally, then, the masque seems to evince an Aristotelian movement from ignorance or uncertainty to knowledge, from evocation to dissipation of wonder.3 Such a...
(The entire section is 11845 words.)
SOURCE: “The Masque,” in The Essex House Masque of 1621: Viscount Doncaster and the Jacobean Masque, Duquesne University Press, 2000, pp. 70-119.
[In the following excerpt, Raylor discusses the function and sources of the Jacobean masque by examining the specifics of Viscount Doncaster's presentation of The Essex House Masquefor King James and the French Ambassador.]
Having feasted and sampled the delicacies of the first banquet, Doncaster and his guests would have retired upstairs to the “large roome” set aside for the masque. Such retirement—often to the chamber adjoining the hall—was a traditional procedure in the case of an entertainment following a banquet, allowing, in this case, for the supper to be cleared and the second banquet set out.1 From Chamberlain's remarks and a conjectural plan of Essex House in 1640, we may infer that the supper was held in the Low or Long Gallery on the third floor of the eastern extension of the house and the masque danced in the Great or High Gallery on the floor above it.2 The plan shows a long, narrow room about 25 feet wide, while Ogilby and Morgan in their late seventeenth century plan depict one double that size. The latter plan, astonishingly, would yield a masquing space barely inferior to that of the Whitehall Banqueting House itself; but if, as seems reasonable, we presume that...
(The entire section is 12965 words.)
Criticism: Race And Gender In The Masque
SOURCE: “‘Man-maid, begone!’: Women in Masque,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 96-113.
[In the following essay, Gossett explores the role of women in the masque, arguing that the views of royalty had a profound influence on how women were portrayed.]
The distance between an actor and the person he represents varies throughout theatrical history. At some times the relation is close: the actor is typecast or methodically lives the part. At other times the relation is remote. Brecht urged his actors not to identify with their roles; Greek actors wore masks. On the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage potentially different relations existed simultaneously. The theaters of the time employed all male casts, with boys taking the roles of women. Therefore Kemp may have been a “real” clown, or Burbage a convincing Hamlet, but the boys could only be women according to an understood convention. The audience was expected to ignore defects in their presentation—Cleopatra does not want to be played by a squeaking boy—and to supply the necessary imaginative effort to dissociate the part from the player. Occasionally, as in Shakespeare's comedies, the dramatist would make a series of jokes based on the sex disguise, jokes which assumed that on one level the audience knew all along that Rosalind, for example, was “really” a boy. Usually, however, the plays did not...
(The entire section is 8017 words.)
SOURCE: “Dark Incontinents: The Discourses of Race and Gender in Three Renaissance Masques,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 23, 1992, pp. 139-63.
[In the essay below, Siddiqi considers the treatment of gender and race in two court masques by Ben Jonson and a masque written for London merchants by Thomas Middleton.]
Colonial discourse is characterized by its capacity to harness a rhetoric of difference—construed in terms of race, culture, and morality—for a project of domination. During the first decades of the seventeenth century, Britain had but begun to colonize other territories. The rhetoric that underpinned its early colonizing ventures was not yet a fully developed discourse. However, even in its early moments, what one might call the protocolonial discourse of the period imaginatively constituted non-Europeans so as to legitimate British intervention and rule. This discursive expression of a will to dominate was variously shaped by the different relations of power that obtained in the imperial culture. The protocolonial discourse of the early seventeenth century—the period I examine in this essay—was markedly influenced by three factors: the accession of a male absolutist monarch, the continued ascendance of a mercantile class within England, and the expansion of commerce with various parts of the world. Thus ideologies of gender, absolutism, and mercantilism variously inflected...
(The entire section is 8580 words.)
SOURCE: “The Queen's Masque: Renaissance Women and the Seventeenth-Century Court Masque,” in Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, Harverster Wheatsheaf, 1992, pp. 79-104.
[In the following essay, Wynne-Davies discusses gender politics and the masque of the Jacobean court, examining the masques written for Queen Anne and those written by Lady Mary Wroth.]
At Night we had the Queen's Maske in the Banquetting-House, or rather her Pagent.1
These are the words Dudley Carleton chose to describe ‘The Masque of Blackness’ (1605) in a letter to his friend Sir Ralph Winwood, who had unfortunately missed the show. Today, a glance through the catalogue of any research library would reveal that this masque is closeted neatly amongst the entries relating to the dramatist Ben Jonson. It does not appear under ‘Queen Anne’, the eponymous monarch of Carleton's epistle. However, closer investigation would uncover the fact that the masque titles chosen for publication by Jonson himself concur with the seventeenth- rather than the twentieth-century attribution. The titles in both the Quarto (1608) and the First Folio (1616), and the title page of the earlier text, which are contained in Herford and Simpson's eleven-volume edition of Jonson's...
(The entire section is 10881 words.)
SOURCE: “From Woman Warrior to Warrior Reasoner: Lady Alice and Intellectual Freedom in A Mask,” in Arenas of Conflict: Milton and the Unfettered Mind, edited by Kristin Pruitt McColgan and Charles W. Durham, Susquehanna University Press, 1997, pp. 93-106.
[In the essay below, Parisi examines the character Lady Alice from Milton's Comus and discusses the portrayal of women's ability to reason.]
The evaluation of Milton's women as reasoners stirs much of the debate for or against an implied feminism in the major poetry.1 The sure-spoken Lady of A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle provides an example. Combatting Comus, she quickly moves past the awkwardness of a woman breaking silence in this period. Reason justifies her:
I had not thought to have unlockt my lips In this unhallow'd air, but that this Juggler Would think to charm my judgment, as mine eyes, Obtruding false rules prankt in reason's garb. I hate when vice can bolt her arguments, And virtue has no tongue to check her pride.
At her words, Comus, not Alice, becomes the “cold” and “shudd'ring” one, “feel[ing] … fear” (802, 800).3 For her, reason points to virtue and virtue to a psychological integritas. As an able female reasoner, she is self-affirmed: “Thou canst...
(The entire section is 6000 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Like One in a Gay Masque’: The Sidney Cousins in the Theaters of Court and Country,” in Readings in Renaissance Women's Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, Routledge, 1998, pp. 234-45.
[In the following essay, Waller, a noted scholar on Jacobean playwright Mary Wroth, offers a detailed analysis of the gender politics in her work.]
As a woman in the Jacobean court, as a lady-in-waiting and occasional dancer, Mary Wroth played an appropriately decorative and silent part in the margins of the spectacle of the court; her primary role was simply to be seen, as a graceful, minor contributor to the dazzling visual display that mirrored for its participants the gloriousness that was a central part of the court's self-image. Like one of her characters in her prose romance, Urania, she ‘both saw those sports the Court affects, and are necessary follies for that place, as Masques and Dauncings, and was an Actor my selfe amongst them’ (Urania, p. 457). Her cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke—who was her lover and fathered two children with her—was likewise a minor participant in the orchestrations of court display, but, as a man, ‘naturally’ he took on more active roles as a dancer, tilter, and challenger, and in his highly visible public roles as patron and political authority.
(The entire section is 6674 words.)
Bevington, David and Peter Holbrook, eds. The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 335 p.
Applies new insights from social and cultural history in the study of the political significance of the masque under the reign of James I and Charles I.
Burden, Michael. Garrick, Arne and the Masque of “Alfred”: A Case Study in National, Theatrical and Musical Politics. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1994, 155.
Places the masque Alfred within the context of the history of the masque genre.
Butler, Martin. “Reform or Reverence? The Politics of the Caroline Masque.” In Theatre and Government Under the Early Stuarts, pp. 118-56. Edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Reexamines scholarship on the relation of Charles I's rule and Caroline masques.
Gatti, Hilary. “Giordano Bruno and the Stuart Court Masques.” Renaissance Quarterly 48, No. 4 (Winter 1995): 809-42.
Considers the profound and widespread influence of Giordano Bruno on the masque through Thomas Carew's use of Bruno's writing in Coelum Britannicum.
Limon, Jerzy. The Masque of Stuart Culture. Newark: University...
(The entire section is 357 words.)