See A. Nicoll, Stuart Masques and the Renaissance Stage (1937); E. Welsford, The Court Masque (1927, repr. 1962); S. K. Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (1965); S. Sutherland, Masques in Jacobean Tragedy (1984).
Short dramatic entertainment performed by masked actors. It originated in the folk ceremony known as mummery (see mumming play) and evolved into elaborate court spectacles in the 16th–17th centuries. A masque presented an allegorical theme using speeches, dances, and songs, in a performance often embellished with rich costumes and spectacular scenery. The genre reached its height in 17th-century England when the court poet, Ben Jonson, collaborating with Inigo Jones on many notable masques (1605–34), gave it literary force. The masque later developed into opera.
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The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in sixteenth and early seventeenth century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy, in forms including the intermedio. (A public version of the masque was the pageant.) Masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. Often, the masquers who did not speak or sing were courtiers: James I's Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark, frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611, and Henry VIII and Charles I performed in the masques at their courts. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Lully.
Of all the arts of the Renaissance, the masque is the artistic form most alien to audiences today. The most outstanding humanists, poets and artists of the day, in the full intensity of their creative powers, devoted themselves to producing masques; and until the Puritans closed the English theaters in 1642, the masque was the highest artform in England. But because of its ephemeral nature, not a lot of documentation related to masques remains, and much of what is said about the production and enjoyment of masques is still part speculation.
William Shakespeare wrote a masque-like interlude in The Tempest, understood by modern scholars to have been heavily influenced by the masque texts of Ben Jonson and the stagecraft of Inigo Jones. There is also a masque sequence in his Romeo and Juliet and Henry VIII. John Milton's Comus (with music by Henry Lawes) is described as a masque, though it is generally reckoned a pastoral play.
Reconstructions of Stuart masques have been few and far between. Part of the problem is that only texts survive complete; there is no complete music, only fragments, so no authoritative performance can be made without reconstruction.
The English semi-opera which developed in the latter part of the 17th century, a form in which John Dryden and Henry Purcell collaborated, borrows some elements from the masque and further elements from the contemporary courtly French opera of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Eighteenth-century masques were less frequently staged. "Rule, Britannia!" started out as part of Alfred, a masque about Alfred the Great co-written by James Thomson and David Mallet which was first performed at Cliveden, country house of Frederick, Prince of Wales. It remains among the best-known British patriotic songs up to the present, while the masque of which it was originally part is only remembered by specialist historians.
Constant Lambert also wrote a piece he called a masque, Summer's Last Will and Testament, for orchestra, chorus and baritone. His title he took from Thomas Nash, whose masque was probably first presented before the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps at his London seat, Lambeth Palace, in 1592.