This is an autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queenes. The masque – featuring design or ‘invention’ by Inigo Jones and music by Alfonso Ferrabosco – was performed at Whitehall Palace in February 1609. Queen Anne and her ladies played the roles of virtuous queens in the House of Fame, an allegorical house that valorised the Jacobean court. The masque was put on in honour of the 16-year-old Prince Henry. The manuscript, which Jonson executed in a stylish Italian cursive hand and annotated with scholarly notes, was presented to King James in 1612 after Henry’s death. The opening scene, shown here, is an antimasque of a dozen witches.
Masques were hugely popular as courtly entertainments in the reign of James I. These elaborate productions often included silent roles to be performed by noblemen and (more notably) women of the court, for an elite audience of their peers. They were costly multimedia shows combining music, dance, stylized language and mime with spectacular costume and moving sets, requiring complex mechanics, painting, lighting and sound. Their content was allegorical or mythological, with characters representing virtues and vices, gods and goddesses. Masques are often interpreted as allegorical expressions of the harmony of state rule.
An antimasque was a dance or set-piece that came before the main masque or between its acts. It was a performance of disorder by professional actors in grotesque or comic roles. In Jonson’s opening pre-amble to The Masque of Queenes, he defines an antimasque for the first time, describing it as a ‘spectacle of strangeness’ (f. 3r) and positioning the antimasque roles in direct opposition to the virtues presented in the masque. The lead antimasquer chants: ‘Let us disturbe it then; and blast the light; / Mixe Hell with Heaven; and make Nature fight / Within her selfe’ (f.6v). Usually, the main masque had a restorative function, as seen at the end of Jonson’s antimasque when the witches are dispersed and replaced by the courtly masquers and the character Heroic Virtue. This transition symbolises the role of the monarch and aristocracy in establishing order.
It is possible to think of Macbeth’s witches as fulfilling a dramatic function related to that of an antimasque. This highlights the major contrast with the masque structure in Macbeth: the witches are neither dispersed nor countered by any virtuous or restoring influence. Part of why the play is so unsettling is that the disorder and darkness that the witches represent persists to the end of the play and beyond.