The Masque was a kind of dramatic entertainment popular in the age of Shakespeare. It was called a Masque or Masquerade because the actors wore masks or vizards on their faces. In the beginning, it was merely a series of dances which also illustrated some story, as if in dumb show, but gradually it came to be a play with a good deal of music, dancing and scenic display. Ben Johnson was its chief exponent, and the masques penned by him are still good entertainment.
Characteristics of a Masque
The salient features of a Masque are:
(1) The use of Allegorical and mythical subjects.
(2) The characters are usually gods and goddesses of classical mythology, or personified qualities such as Delight, Grace, Love, Harmony, Revel, Sport, Laughter.
(3) The number of characters is usually small and often equally divided between males and females.
(4) The entertainment is much shorter than the regular drama.
5) The scenes are laid in some ideal region, such as the Hill of Knowledge, the House of Chivalry, the House of Oceanus, the Fountain of Light, or at least in some far off region, picturesque and romantic.
(6) The rhymed verse is used.
(7) The Masques were performed privately and the actors and actresses were amateurs.
(8) Their object was usually to celebrate marriages in high life. They were written for particular occasions. Hence they were characterised by music and dance used on a lavish scale.
(9) Most costly and elaborate scenery and costume were employed so that the Masques were characterised by the spectacle and scenic display.
(10) Within the masque proper there is usually a ridiculous masque or “anti-masque” performed partly by servants, partly by actors hired for the purpose, and generally separated from the actual masque by a change of scene.
Some Examples of Masque
Milton’s Comus is one of the finest masques in the English language. Its superb poetry has made it immortal. Another example is Lady of May by Philip Sidney, Love Restored by Ben Johnson.