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.
The performance of a masque traditionally took place on festive occasions, usually at the royal court. The theatre company producing it would hire professional singers and musicians and the monarch and the courtiers would join in the dancing. It was an opportunity to praise the monarch, a celebration of his presence and of his authority.
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.