Several of Shakespeare plays include masques – essentially a form of courtly entertainment containing music, dancing, singing and acting out a story. If you have ever been to the theatre on Broadway or a London West End theatre to see a musical, particularly one with elaborate sets and story telling, then you have seen something very much like an Elizabethan masque. It was popular in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth century – although it originated in Italy.
A number of Shakespeare plays contain a masque somewhere in the action, where the characters have a party where there is music and dancing. Romeo and Juliet is an example of that. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a masque celebrating the marriage of the Duke and the Amazon Queen. There is also a masque in Henry VIII.
The Tempest not only has a masque with gods and goddesses dancing in a performance for a prince and princess but the whole play can be seen as a masque, with much of the story told in music and song. As usual with Shakespeare, who never takes anything at face value, he subverts the masque. The masque is a celebration of authority whereas The Tempest is a play about the vulnerability of authority. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant masque with all its beautiful songs and constant music and its lush island setting.
Shakespeare’s plays generally accepted as including masques: