The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and early 17th century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy. (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. Sometimes the masquers were courtiers: the Queen's ladies performed the masque of Florimène at the court of Charles I in 1642. Othertimes, professionals were joined by amateurs in a final dance. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Lully.
The masque tradition developed from the elaborate pageants and courtly shows of ducal Burgundy in the late Middle Ages. Masques were typically a complimentary offering to the prince among his guests and might combine pastoral settings, mythological fable, and the dramatic elements of ethical debate. There would invariably be some political and social application of the allegory. Such pageants often celebrated a birth or marriage and invariably ended with a tableau of bliss and concord. Masque imagery tended to be drawn from Classical rather than Christian sources, and the artifice was part of the charm. Masque thus lent itself to Mannerist treatment in the hands of master designers like Giulio Romano or Inigo Jones. The New Historians probe the political subtexts of masques in works like the essays in The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (David Bevington and Peter Holbrook, editors, 1998 ISBN: 0521594367).
Of all the arts of the Renaissance, the ephemeral masque, which occupied the most outstanding humanists, poets and artists at the full intensity of their powers but was generally as utterly lost after its single performance as a fireworks display, (though some poetical terxts might survive, and some preparatory drawings for scenery), is the artistic form most alien to audiences today. Until the Puritans closed the English theaters in 1642, the masque remained the highest artform in England.
The masque has its origins in a folk tradition where masked players would unexpectedly call on a nobleman in his hall, dancing and bringing gifts on certain nights of the year, or dynastic occasions. (The rustic presentation of "Pyramus and Thisbe" as a wedding entertainment in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a familiar example. Spectators were invited to join in the dancing. At the end, the players would take off their masks to reveal their identities.
In England, Tudor court masques developed from earlier guisings, where a masked allegorical figure would appear and address the assembled company— providing a theme for the occasion— with musical accompaniment; masques at Elizabeth's court emphasized the concord and unity between Queen and Kingdom. A descriptive narrative of a processional masque is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Book i, Canto IV). Later, in the court of James I of England, narrative elements of the masque became more significant. Plots were often on classical or allegorical themes, and were usually acted out by amateurs. At the end, the audience would join in a final dance. Ben Jonson wrote a number of masques with stage design by Inigo Jones. Their works are usually thought of as the most significant in the form. Sir Philip Sidney also wrote masques.
Shakespeare wrote a masque-like interlude in The Tempest. There is also a masque sequence in his Henry VIII. John Milton's Comus (with music by Henry Lawes) is described as a masque, though is generally reckoned as a pastoral play.
The part-opera which developed in the latter part of the 17th century and in which form John Dryden and Henry Purcell collaborated, is somewhat related to the masque. In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Job: A Masque for Dancing, although the work is closer to a ballet than a masque as it was originally understood. His designating it a masque was to indicate that choreography typical when he wrote the piece would not be suitable.
Constant Lambert also wrote a piece he called a masque, Summers Last Will and Testament.
The word masque is sometimes also used to mean a masquerade ball.
- "The Elizabethan origins of the masque"
- Cambridge History of English and American Literature: Popularity of the Masque in the age of Elizabeth
- Cambridge History of English and American Literature: The Masque in Spenser
- Florimène, 1635 : the next-to-last masque of the court of Charles I
- "The Masque at Ashby" : John Marston's only extant masque, written for the Dowager Countess of Derby's 1607 visit to Ashby-de-la-Zouche, recreated by students