Masque (mask): A lavish form of courtly entertainment that flourished in England during the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline ages until it was brought to an abrupt halt by the Puritan Revolution in 1642. The masque generally had a very thin plot line, typically dealing with mythological or allegorical figures, which served only to provide a framework (or excuse) for the dancing, music, elaborate costumes, and general spectacle that were its main features. The dancers and speaking characters wore masks, hence the name masque. Noble or even royal amateurs were the actors and dancers in these productions; commoners were only permitted to perform in the antimasque, a grotesque or bawdy interlude developed by Ben Jonson, a noted masque writer, as a foil to the elegant masque. Many Elizabethan playwrights also used the masque as an element of their popular dramas.
Over time, the masque developed from pure spectacle to spectacle with a more artistic or literary purpose. The essential masque, the early form, placed the greatest emphasis on astounding the eye and ear with its parade of beautiful and fabulous figures and rapidly changing scenes, all accompanied by music. With the development of the antimasque, the literary and dramatic qualities of the performance increased significantly, to the point that poetic effect and significant action became elements of the form. The masque achieved its greatest height under Jonson and the architect Inigo Jones, who designed the visual aspects (sets, stage machinery, costumes, etc.) for performances of Jonson’s plays.
EXAMPLES: John Milton’s Comus (1634). William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610—11) includes a masque in Act 4. Peter Greenaway’s movie Prospero’s Books (1991) also includes a masque.