In literature, the term “masque” refers to a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and early 17th century Europe. It was the most important kind of entertainment in the English court during Shakespeare’s time. It is characterized by visual spectacle, costumes, music, song, symbolic action, dialogue, and poetry. The productions were extremely elaborate and very expensive. They focused on spectacular, surprise effects to create a deferential allegory that was flattering to the monarchy.
The Tempest, performed at court during the same time as famous masque plays, is masque-like in many ways. First and most obviously, is the visual spectacle of the setting. The island, the central setting of the play, is a fantastical place full of magic spirits. It has potential for brilliant and startling imagery on stage, which would be impressive to the audience. The effect of the tempest itself, as well as the songs and dancing within the play, also add to the extravagant effect of the masque.
At a more fundamental level, The Tempest can also be interpreted as a celebration of the monarch figures. This is created through the contrast of the courtly plot involving Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo, with the crude and low farce of the uncivilized monster Caliban, the drunk butler Stephano, and the jester Trinculo. In the masque, mere visual contact with the royalty ennobles and civilizes the “savage” characters.
The implications of this masque-centered interpretation are that the analysis of the play then becomes more like it was originally perceived, rather than the modern post-colonial interpretations of The Tempest. Because the masque focuses on praise of the authoritarian figures, this reading of the play makes the “low” characters like Caliban less sympathetic than they would be to many modern critics.