Masques were hugely popular as extravagant courtly entertainments in the reign of James I and VI. These two risqué designs for masque costumes were painted in watercolour by the architect, Inigo Jones (1573–1652).
What are masques?
Masques were costly multimedia shows which combined music, dance, stylised language and mime with spectacular costume. Often they had moving sets, requiring complex mechanics, painting, lighting and sound. Though they were performed only once, the cost sometimes ran to thousands of pounds. Their content was allegorical or mythological, with characters representing virtues and vices, gods and goddesses.
Risqué design for an aristocratic lady
No women performed in the public playhouses, but Queen Anna and her noble ladies (as well as noble men) had silent roles in the court masques. This revealing costume, with its wings and transparent top, would have been worn by an aristocratic lady performing at King James’s court around 1610.
Design for a winged fiery spirit
The second image shows the design for a winged fiery spirit from The Lord’s Masque written by Thomas Campion (1567–1620). The masque was performed, alongside The Tempest, as part of the festivities in 1612–13 to celebrate the marriage of James I’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick the Elector Palatine.
Campion describes the lavish costumes for ‘Sixteene Pages like fierie spirits’ dressed in clothes ‘composed of flames, with fierie Wings and Bases, bearing in either hand a Torch of Virgine Waxe’ (sig. C4r).
Masque elements in The Tempest
The Tempest incorporates a formal masque-like scene involving the classical goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno to celebrate the love of Miranda and Ferdinand in Act 4, Scene 1. More broadly, there are also elements of masque in the theatrical illusions staged by Prospero and Ariel, particularly the banquet in Act 3, Scene 3 – with its dance, music and theatrical ‘device’ to make the food disappear.
The play is exceptional for Shakespeare in its precise stage directions and extensive use of sound effects and music – from ‘the tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’ at the opening to the ‘noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs’ of the island (3.2.135–36), the banquet’s ‘solemn and strange music’ (Act 3, Scene 3), and the songs of Ariel.