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courtly form of dramatic spectacle, popular in England in the first half of the 17th cent. The masque developed from the early 16th-century disguising, or mummery, in which disguised guests bearing presents would break into a festival and then join with their hosts in a ceremonial dance. As the form evolved, the important elements retained were the use of the mask and the mingling of actors and spectators. Reaching its height in the early 17th cent., the masque became a magnificent and colorful spectacle, presented in public theaters and, with more splendor, in the royal courts. The actors personified pastoral and mythological figures, with great emphasis placed on music and dance. The foremost writer of the masque was Ben JonsonJonson, Ben,
1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b. Westminster, London. The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as one of the great playwrights in English literature.
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. However, it was his collaborator Inigo JonesJones, Inigo
, 1573–1652, one of England's first great architects. Son of a London clothmaker, he was enabled to travel in Europe before 1603 to study paintings, perhaps at the expense of the earl of Rutland.
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, the theatrical architect, famous for his elaborate costume designs, settings, and scenic effects, who gave the masque its greatest popularity. Some of their more successful masques include The Masque of Blackness (1605) and Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618).


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).



Around the time of the Renaissance, England's elite celebrated the Christmas season with roving, costumed entertainments known as masques. The English borrowed the French word masque, meaning "mask," to describe these events because the costumes were often designed around elaborate and sometimes bizarre masks.

Early Masques

Early English masques, sometimes called "disguisings," probably evolved out of such popular Christmas folk customs as mumming and Nativity plays. Early masques resembled mumming in that bands of costumed revelers dropped in on friends and family and startled them with their unexpected entrances and entertaining antics. Unlike the mummers, however, masquers wore elaborate costumes, often traveled about with musicians, and amused the assembled company with flowery speeches and courtly dances. For example, in 1347 some of the masquers who appeared at King Edward III's Christmas celebrations wore masks resembling angels' faces surrounded with haloes. Other more unusual masks looked like mountaintops or a collection of legs swinging wildly though the air. Yet another group of masquers came dressed as dragons, peacocks, and swans.

Although the noble and well-to-do might enjoy a masque at any season of the year, they were often performed during the Christmas season and were particularly popular on Twelfth Night. The young King Henry VIII once surprised his wife, Katherine of Aragon, by presenting her with a Twelfth Day masque. He burst unannounced into her apartments dressed as Robin Hood. His companions followed, dressed as Robin's merry men.

The fact that masked and costumed bands of men were a fairly common sight during the Christmas season eventually gave a few individuals the idea of adopting the mummer's or masquer's disguise in order to commit crimes. In the early 1400s London officials passed a law against nighttime plays, mummings, and disguisings, excepting those that took place at private homes. The city of Bristol also adopted ordinances that curbed one's rights to ride through the street in mask and costume during the Christmas season.

Although these decrees may have decreased public mummings and disguisings to some extent, courtly masques continued to flourish. King Henry VIII introduced an Italian custom whereby masquers interacted with bystanders, selecting dance partners from the audience. The presentation and narration of short dramatic scenes also became an important part of the masque. On the whole, however, masques remained short, simple, and frivolous works designed to stimulate the senses by providing an amusing, colorful spectacle.

Height of Popularity

The English masque reached its artistic height in the early seventeenth century. During this era the famous writer Ben Jonson (15721637) wrote several masques. He created one of these specifically as a Christmas entertainment. Titled Christmas His Masque (1616), it featured Father Christmas as a main character. The characters presented in Jonson's masque embodied popular Christmas foods, symbols, and customs. They included Misrule, Caroll, Minc'd Pie, Gamboll, Post-and-Paire, New-Year's-Gift, Mumming, Wassal, Offering, and Baby Cake (see also Lord of Misrule; Mincemeat Pie; Wassail). The innovative scenery contributed by designer and architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) also enriched the masques of this era. Masques began to fall out of favor in the second half of the seventeenth century, eventually disappearing altogether as a Christmas entertainment.

Further Reading

Banham, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. "Masque." In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.


, mask
1. a dramatic entertainment of the 16th to 17th centuries in England, consisting of pantomime, dancing, dialogue, and song, often performed at court
2. the words and music written for a masque
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