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.)

Criticism: Sources And Structure

Judith Dundas (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 5040 words.)

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 7725 words.)

Judith Dundas (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 7139 words.)

Barbara D. Palmer (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 7879 words.)

Peter G. Platt (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 11845 words.)

Timothy Raylor (essay date 2000)

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 entire section is 12965 words.)

Criticism: Race And Gender In The Masque

Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 8017 words.)

Yumna Siddiqi (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 8580 words.)

Marion Wynne-Davies (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 10881 words.)

Hope A. Parisi (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 6000 words.)

Gary Waller (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 6674 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 357 words.)