Our research team does a lot of work getting under the skin of a play to help the actors immerse themselves further in the production,;and to understand the world in which Shakespeare was writing. Once the actors have had a chance to familiarise themselves with the text they come up with a list of questions for the research team. The cast of The Tempest wanted to know more about the masque that takes place during the wedding scene.
Masques were a major innovation in royal entertainment in the Jacobean period, possibly introduced by Anne of Denmark (the queen). They featured allegorical figures, some very heavy obsequiousness, music, verse and elaborate staging and costumes.
Shakespeare’s company, being closely involved with royal entertainments, increasingly introduced masques and masque elements to their plays.
What was a masque?
Masques of the form presented in The Tempest were introduced to the English court by Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen,[i] developed from a type already popular in Italy. Throughout his reign, James I spent vast amounts of money on producing masques.[ii]
The first masque performed under Anne’s patronage, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’s Masque of Blackness (1605) established what would remain the masque’s principal purpose and characteristics:
‘A fable that was a piece of high fantasy and royal compliment, and an action that revealed something of the mysterious power of kingship. Set on a single stage with music, song and dance to amplify the action, with costume of unprecedented extravagance, with scenery and illusionistic effects, and novelty in lighting, The Masque of Blackness was a composite art form.’[iii]
Masques were performed by a mixture of professional actors and costumed aristocrats. The characters represented were a mixture of grotesques and allegorical, classically-derived gods, goddesses, mythical figures and personified virtues.
A particularly innovative aspect of the masque was the use of highly-engineered stage sets, often incorporating a ‘machina versitalis or “turning machine” … [and also] … sophisticated series of flats slid in on shutters or dropped from flying galleries’.[iv]
The above descriptions may seem rather dry, but an extract from the stage directions of Samuel Daniel’s Tethys Festival gives some flavour of the masque’s florid ambition and technical sophistication:
‘The scene itself was a port or haven … within this port were many ships, small and great, seeming to lie at anchor, some nearer, and some further off, according to perspective. Beyond all appeared the horizon or termination of the sea, which seemed to move with a gentle gale … from this scene entered Zephyrus with eight naiads…’[v] (my italics)
As the masque form developed, the idealised figures of the court were grotesquely mirrored in ‘antimasques’ performed by professional actors. These antimasques often included comic elements, setting up a disruptive force to be dispelled by the entrance of the principal (courtly) masquers. In Jonson’s Masque of Queens, a group of hideous ‘hags’ cavort and perform comically ineffectual conjurations until
… on the sudden, was heard a sound of loud music … with which not only the hags themselves but the hell into which they ran quite vanished … but in the place of it appeared a glorious and magnificent building … in the top of which were discovered the twelve masquers…’[vi]
Inigo Jones’s costume designs for his masques reveal the central influence of classical sources and the elaborate richness of the materials. Pictured here, ‘A Star’ and ‘Queen Atalanta’.
In recent criticism, masques have often been considered little more than ‘an elaborate frame for nothing more nor less than an aristocratic knees-up’,[vii] containing only unquestioning sycophancy toward the royal household and noble patrons. Ben Jonson, however, argued that a masque was not mere flattery, but ‘presenting an ideal to which [the sovereign or nobleman] should aspire’.[viii]
Indeed, close examination of the political conditions in place at the moment of specific masques’ performance can reveal subtle criticism of royal policy, even of attitudes toward class and – on one occasion – the failure of patrons to pay poets for writing masques.
Shakespeare, masques, and The Tempest
The professional actors performing in many of these masques, as hags, gods and – in Jonson’s Neptune’s Triumph – a turkey and other kitchen ingredients, would often have been the King’s Men: Shakespeare and his colleagues.[ix]
Andrew Gurr states that masques within plays ‘became a conspicuous feature of King’s Men plays after 1610’[x] although ‘there is no record of [Shakespeare] having composed an independent masque’.[xi] The ‘satyrs dance’ in The Winter’s Tale is thought by many to be drawn from or at least reference the masque Oberon.[xii]
There is a tradition that The Tempest contains, or was itself, a court masque.[xiii] Even if this isn’t the case, David Daniell states that ‘it is probable that the first performance of The Tempest was spectacular and masque-like’.[xiv] Daniell also notes that the scene wherein Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano are chased by “divers Spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds” (IV.i.253) could be thought of as a variation of the antimasque.[xv]
The earliest comment we have on The Tempest must be the king’s command performance at court, to take place in the Banqueting House at Whitehall on 1st November 1611, Hallowmass or All Saints Day – thus opening the winter season of court entertainments.
The Tempest had probably played at the Blackfriars before that[xvi], but at the Banqueting House it would go well in the hall so fitted up for court masques, with machinery for transformation scenes, flying chariots, clouds, and performers’ flying entrances.
It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s masque draws many elements from Jonson’s Hymenaei (1606), including several of the same mythical characters.[xvii] Prospero’s masque, however, ‘continues Jonson’s hymenal theme but with several important differences’[xviii] in terms of the thematic emphases.
Prospero’s masque: style and themes
Trevor R. Griffiths provides a useful analysis of the ways in which Shakespeare uses verse, form and language to stylistically isolate the masque from the ‘real’ world of The Tempest:
‘The language of the masque itself is clearly marked off from the rest of the play by use of couplets, the choice of vocabulary and the formal, rather convoluted used of language, where the build-up of epithets creates a rather Latinate, almost Miltonic, atmosphere. Reversed word-orders create a stiff and hieratic tone that is perhaps appropriate to the theme of chastity.’[xix]
The Arden third series edition of The Tempest includes a detailed thematic analysis of the masque, outlined as follows:
The masque is shaped by Prospero’s insistence on abstinence: “Do not give dalliance/Too much the rein… Be more abstemious” (4.1.51-3). His concern for his daughter’s chastity is linked to his hopes for her fruitful marriage and the legitimacy of his dynasty.
The threat to chastity from love is represented mythologically by Ceres’ inquiry about the whereabouts of Venus, the goddess of sensual love, and her Cupid, purveyor of passion:
Since they did plot
The means that dusky Dis my daughter got,
Her and her blind boy’s scandaled company
I have foresworn. (4.1.88-91)
The songs of Ceres and Juno celebrate chaste love, a temperate union that eschews extremes of passion.
Ceres’ wish for the lovers is an eternal spring that arrives just as the harvest ends. The dance of temperate nymphs and reapers signals the conflation of the seasons of planting and reaping. Through the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero hopes to see his dynasty continue in peace and prosperity, with his grandchildren as heirs to both Milan and Naples.
The mythological figures chosen for Prospero’s masque resonated richly for an audience steeped in classical lore:
Iris, signified by the rainbow, was messenger to the gods (particularly Juno) and sister to the harpies. Her airy qualities and relation to the harpies associate her with Ariel.
Juno, Jove’s sister and wife, was the goddess of light and childbirth; she represented the maternal side of marriage. Juno represents fecundity, the iconographic theme of the magician’s masque.
Ceres represented the fecundity of the cultivated earth. Wheat and barley were sacred to her. She presided over the labours of ploughing, tilling, planting and harvesting, and was known as a maternal fertility goddess.
In a parody of the formal masque in which actors assume the roles of goddesses, Stephano and Trinculo in Act Four seize the magus’s clothing, prance about in borrowed robes and adopt an identity not their own. This parodic vision instantly disappears when spirits in the guise of dogs chase the conspirators from the stage.[xx]
The Research Team
[i] Parry, Graham, “Entertainments at Court”, in A New History of Early English Drama, David Scott Kastan an John D. Cox (eds.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p.200
[ii] David Daniell, The Critics Debate: The Tempest, London: Macmillan, 1989, p. 20
[iii] Parry, Graham, “Entertainments at Court”, in A New History of Early English Drama, David Scott Kastan an John D. Cox (eds.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p.200
[iv] Lindley, David (ed.), Court Masques: Jacobean and Caroline Entertainments 1605-1640, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.ix
[v] Daniel, Samuel, “Tethys Festival” in Court Masques: Jacobean and Caroline Entertainments 1605-1640, David Lindley (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.57
[vi] Jonson, Ben “The Masque of Queens” in Court Masques: Jacobean and Caroline Entertainments 1605-1640, David Lindley (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.44
[vii] Lindley, David (ed.), Court Masques: Jacobean and Caroline Entertainments 1605-1640, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.x
[viii] Lindley, David (ed.), Court Masques: Jacobean and Caroline Entertainments 1605-1640, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.xiii
[ix] Trevor. R. Griffiths, The Shakespeare Handbooks. The Tempest: a Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 62
[x] Andrew Gurr, Philaster, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, ed. Gurr (London, 1969) ‘Introduction’, p.xxxix-xl
[xi] Trevor. R. Griffiths, The Shakespeare Handbooks. The Tempest: a Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 62
[xii] Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), (London: Methuen Drama, 2010), p. 92
[xiii] David Daniell, p.19
[xiv] David Daniell, p.20
[xvi] David Daniell, p.19
[xvii] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (eds.), (London: Thomson Learning, 1999), p.68
[xviii] Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (eds.), (London: Thomson Learning, 1999), p.70
[xix] Trevor. R. Griffiths, The Shakespeare Handbooks. The Tempest: a Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 62-3
[xx] Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, The Tempest, Introduction. Arden Shakespeare, 1999. Pp. 67-73