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In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death," the author/narrator meticulously describes the seven-room suite within the castellated abbey to which Prince Prospero has retreated with his one-thousand guests in his effort at evading the plague sweeping the continent. The prince rules over his fiefdom with nary a thought for the welfare of his subjects, a sentiment gleaned from the narrator's description of Prospero as "happy and dauntless" despite the horrible fates awaiting those outside his castle gates. To entertain his guests for the duration of the pestilence ravaging the principality beyond the castle walls, Prince Prospero has summoned ballet dancers, musicians, buffoons, and all matter of physical beauty. He fully intends to ride out this pestilence in safety and comfort. And the costumes worn by his guests at the masked ball reflect the prince's character. As he parties and indulges his fantasies despite the suffering being endured by his subjects, his masked ball is a macabre exercise in narcissistic excess. The narrator provides the following description of the atmosphere within the abbey during this magnificent if decadent party:
"Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm—much of what has been since seen in “Hernani.” There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust."
This description of the costumes worn by Prince Prospero's guests is apt. In Victor Hugo's play Hernani, the titular character is a rogue, a bandit and interloper in the refined imperial court that Hugo modeled after those of 16th century Europe. Guests are disguised as various macabre figures, including those intended to depict the criminally-insane. The purpose of Poe's description of the guests at the ball is fully intended to amplify the debauchery and decadence that defined Prospero's world in defiance of the enormous suffering he and his minions sought to ignore. By their choices in costumes, the guests are mocking the less-fortunate who are maimed and crippled and ultimately killed by the Red Death.
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