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.