History of the Masque Genre

     The masque as a genre stemmed out of various court entertainments and folk customs, was most fully developed during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and became almost immediately obsolete during the British Civil War as a result of the challenge to the monarchy. A masque was a spectacle performed at court or at the manor of a member of the nobility; its purpose was to glorify the court or the particular aristocrat. The masque included various elements at different stages in its development but invariably included choreographed dances by masqued performers; members of the nobility were often participants. These choreographed dances ended in the masqued dancers' "taking out" of audience members, making concrete the glorification of the court by meshing the symbolic overtones of the masque's praise with the reality of the attending court's presence.

     The masque has its origin in several different traditional entertainments. Something similar to a masque occurs as early as 1377, at the court of the future Richard II, when the young prince took part in a "mumming" performed at the court. A group of citizens from London, disguised as members of a papal court, visited the prince, "gambled" with him over jewels (the use of loaded dice ensured that the prince would win), and then ended the visit with a dance, the mummers and the members of court dancing on separate sides of the hall (Chambers 150). The general term for such an event was a "disguising"; "mumming" signified the particular inclusion of the "dicing" (Chambers 151). "Disguising" also often suggested an element of surprise, as in a surprise visit by the performers (Demaray 17). Other forms of entertainment at the court included pageants, mimed tournaments, allegorical dialogues, and interludes. The disguisings often attached themselves to these various other court entertainments (Chambers 150). Another popular form of entertainment was the morris or morisco dance, thought perhaps to stem from a Moorish dance (Welford 29). The morris dance was one performed by villagers, the morisco a variation performed by members of the court. This dance eventually with the disguisings, and by the reign of Henry VII, the distinct genre of the masque was beginning to appear. The "music and dancing had become a staple element of a form that was beginning to show real consistency" in the typical silence of the performers and the reliance on "elaborate choreography and symbolic scenic effects" to convey the meaning of the masque (Orgel 22). Aspects of the other court entertainments were also included at times. The dance of the masked performers and its varying additions began to be a central form of court entertainment.

     Another development in the genre of the masque was the addition of the "revels." Typically the nobility waited until the professional mummers or disguisers were finished with the entertainment before moving to the dance floor. However, during the reign of Henry VIII, courtiers began to take a greater role in the entertainment, often entering as the masquers or disguisers, and the entertainment began to include the "taking out" of nobility, the invitation to dance that was extended to nobility in the audience by the masqued entertainers. These revels indicated "the breakdown of the barrier between stage and spectator" (Orgel 26); such a breakdown blurs the line between performance and reality, making allegory and symbolism significantly more suggestive. During this time, "masque" becomes the common term for the type of entertainment, "disguising" as a name is dropped from use, and the masque continues to incorporate and adapt elements of the other popular court entertainments such as the pageant (Chambers 154). The importance of the masque as a vehicle for celebrating the monarch increased with the inclusion of members of the court.

     The Tudor monarchs played a large part in the development of the genre of the masque, in part, at least, because they had a vested interest in doing so. Henry VIII often took part in the revels, and masque designs self-consciously factored in the role of the king as spectator, again blurring lines of reality and illusion. Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I continued to commission masques(Chambers 155). While the monarchs supported the masque, the role they played as spectators or participants varied. For instance, Elizabeth I was not as likely as Henry VIII to take part. Throughout the sixteenth century, as Stephen Orgel notes, "the court continued to see all the traditional kinds of masques, from pageants to elaborately costumed dances" (38). In these various productions, however, "as in the conventional masque, the unifying factor is the occasion, the central figure the monarch" (Orgel 37). Regardless of the monarch's role and the varying elements that augmented the masque, it remained primarily a form of entertainment that culminates in the revels and celebrates the monarchy.

     The latter part of the sixteenth-century and the early seventeenth-century saw the development of several distinct elements of the masque, such as the dances that were involved. The dances in which the masqued performers took place became increasingly complex. They could involve the formation of geometrical shapes and intricate patterns. Demaray suggests that the later highly choreographed dances of the late Tudor and early Stuart period had some root in Italian balletto, a "figured dance, performed by masked revelers in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries" (12). Such an influence is a likely one, with the increasing amount of communication and travel between England and the Continent.

     The masque also evolved as a literary form. The masque had developed in some ways as such by the time of Elizabeth's reign, filled with classical references, Petrarchan sonnets, and other recognizable literary conventions (Orgel 36). Ben Jonson is generally credited with further advancing the masque as a literary form. Jonson took the poetry of the masque seriously, attempting to create a "work whose text was no longer dependent on its production" (63). While many masques had tended to move in one of two directions, either "wholly literary and dramatic or wholly choreographic and theatrical," Jonson aimed to unify the poetic and spectacular elements into a cohesive whole (116-117). Jonson also developed the anti-masque, an addition which enabled him to achieve this cohesive whole. The anti-masque introduces comic or grotesque characters and plot material to act as foils to the main masque or to allow the main masque to provide a resolution (Cunningham 110; Orgel 76). Such a literary convention, the introduction of the evil or grotesque in the anti-masque, served to further enhance the primary purpose of the masque to glorify the court and, in particular, the monarch.

     Jonson was the preferred court masquer from 1605 to 1625, reflecting James I's and Anne's literary tastes and political awareness. Jonson's attempt to unify the various elements of the masque into a stronger literary and dramatic form that suggested the glory of the monarch occurred at a time when the monarchy sought ways to strengthen its authority. Jonson's work manifested in varying degrees the wishes of the court that commissioned his masques; the Stuart monarchs "used the masque to foster an exalted conception of the divine right of kings" (Creaser 118). While James I did not perform in the masques, Anne did, and she also began to utilize the masque for more political purposes and "diplomatic occasions" in addition to the traditional celebrations of marriages (Barroll 123). Milton's A Maske is used in just such a way, to celebrate an official state occasion.

     While Jonson was developing the masque as a literary form, his collaborator Inigo Jones was developing the spectacular effects of the masque. A figure well-known for his elaborate set designs for plays and masques, Jones and Jonson worked together on several different masques. Eventually their increasing insistence on their respective elements of the masque as the genre's central focus led to their infamous dispute over whether the masque rightly revolved around the poetry of the text or whether the text merely provided some occasion for the spectacle of the scenery, choreography, and costuming (Norbrook 97-98, Chambers 180). Perhaps this difference in focus explains why Jonson was not as much of a favorite of Charles I as he was of James I; Barbara Lewalski notes that the Carolinian court seemed to prefer more elaborate masques than the Jacobean court (296).

     While the monarchs had supported the masque form as a measure to further establish the authority of the monarch, it was not viewed as such in some corners. James I's favoritism and its connection to masquing seemed corrupt to certain members of the nobility; for some, "the court masque had come to be a symbol of the dissolution, rather than the defence, of the traditional hierarchical order" (Norbrook 102). With the downfall of the monarchy during the British Civil War, masques fell out of favor for a period of time. A form that was meant primarily to celebrate the monarch and the monarchy was no longer desired (Demaray 3). However, the 1650's saw the revival of the genre, as several masques were performed for official or "court" occasions, as the new government under Oliver Cromwell sought to establish its own authority (Norbrook 106-107). While masques continued to be revived and performed, on the whole the British Civil War marks the end of the masque's evolution as a genre.

     At the height of its development, the genre included the following main parts:
  • a poetic induction or prologue
  • antimasque(s)
  • main masque
  • revels
  • epilogue (Randall)
  • costuming.
Although a script for a masque might be only eleven pages, the actual performance could last for hours. Milton's A Maske is well-known for the ways in which it adapts masque conventions.

     While the typical masque revolves around the glorification of the court, in various ways A Maske seems to subvert such a message. Conventional masques complimented in verse the monarch or member of the nobility they were meant to honor; A Maske, however, does not contain much of this flattery (Barber 193, Leishman 189). Various scholars have noted the fact that while in the typical masque, the honoree is usually represented as the hero, resolving the situation and saving the society from evil, in A Maske the final resolution comes only with the aid of Sabrina, a supernatural force. Other critics have noticed the Lady's unusual emphasis on the benefit of a more equal property distribution toward the end of the masque; the typical masque reflects the hierarchized world of the court (Norbrook 106, Creaser 128). In these ways it would seem the work offers a critique of the court or the ruling body.

     Milton's A Maske also plays on typical masque conventions in ways that might suggest a commentary on religion. Scholars have noted the masque's dependence on music rather than on visual elements; David Norbrook suggests that this might reflect "Milton's suspicion of idolatry" (105). The masque also consistently merges Christian or biblical references with the conventional masque references to pagan or classical figures. Whereas in the typical masque, the court appears as a safe haven from evil simply by virtue of being, Barbara Lewalski notes that in A Maske, the children must make a pilgrimage to get to that world; thus, "evil is conceived of in Protestant, not Platonic terms" (308-309). Comus's character, usually a figure for an anti-masque, appears as a protagonist throughout the masque, and contains hints of Paradise Lost's Satan as much as being a pagan deity connected to Bacchus and misrule. Thus, Milton's flouting of generic conventions affects the significance of the religious themes of the work.


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