The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment that flourished in 16th and early 17th century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy, in forms including the intermedio (a public version of the masque was the pageant). A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. Often, the masquers who did not speak or sing were courtiers: King James I's queen consort, Anne of Denmark, frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611, and Henry VIII and Charles I performed in the masques at their courts. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The masque tradition developed from the elaborate pageants and courtly shows of ducal Burgundy in the late Middle Ages. Masques were typically a complimentary offering to the prince among his guests and might combine pastoral settings, mythological fable, and the dramatic elements of ethical debate. There would invariably be some political and social application of the allegory. Such pageants often celebrated a birth, marriage, change of ruler or a Royal Entry and invariably ended with a tableau of bliss and concord. Masque imagery tended to be drawn from Classical rather than Christian sources, and the artifice was part of the Grand dance. Masque thus lent itself to Mannerist treatment in the hands of master designers like Giulio Romano or Inigo Jones. The New Historians, in works like the essays of Bevington and Holbrook's The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (1998), have pointed out the political subtext of masques. At times, the political subtext was not far to seek: The Triumph of Peace, put on with a large amount of parliament-raised money by Charles I, caused great offence to the Puritans. Catherine de' Medici's court festivals, often even more overtly political, were among the most spectacular entertainments of her day, although the "intermezzi" of the Medici court in Florence could rival them.
In English theatre tradition, a dumbshow is a masque-like interlude of silent pantomime usually with allegorical content that refers to the occasion of a play or its theme, the most famous being the pantomime played out in Hamlet (III.ii). Dumbshows might be a moving spectacle, like a procession, as in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1580s), or they might form a pictorial tableau, as one in the Shakespeare collaboration, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (III,i)—a tableau that is immediately explicated at some length by the poet-narrator, Gower. Dumbshows were a Medieval element that continued to be popular in early Elizabethan drama, but by the time Pericles (c. 1607–08) or Hamlet (c. 1600–02) were staged, they were perhaps quaintly old-fashioned: “What means this, my lord?” is Ophelia's reaction. In English masques, purely musical interludes might be accompanied by a dumbshow.
The masque has its origins in a folk tradition where masked players would unexpectedly call on a nobleman in his hall, dancing and bringing gifts on certain nights of the year, or celebrating dynastic occasions. The rustic presentation of "Pyramus and Thisbe" as a wedding entertainment in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a familiar example. Spectators were invited to join in the dancing. At the end, the players would take off their masks to reveal their identities.
In England, Tudor court masques developed from earlier guisings, where a masked allegorical figure would appear and address the assembled company—providing a theme for the occasion—with musical accompaniment; masques at Elizabeth's court emphasized the concord and unity between Queen and Kingdom. A descriptive narrative of a processional masque is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Book i, Canto IV). A particularly elaborate masque, performed over the course of two weeks for Queen Elizabeth, is described in the 1821 novel Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott. Later, in the court of James I, narrative elements of the masque became more significant. Plots were often on classical or allegorical themes, glorifying the royal or noble sponsor. At the end, the audience would join with the actors in a final dance. Ben Jonson wrote a number of masques with stage design by Inigo Jones. Their works are usually thought of as the most significant in the form. Sir Philip Sidney also wrote masques.
William Shakespeare wrote a masque-like interlude in The Tempest, understood by modern scholars to have been heavily influenced by the masque texts of Ben Jonson and the stagecraft of Inigo Jones. There is also a masque sequence in his Romeo and Juliet and Henry VIII. John Milton's Comus (with music by Henry Lawes) is described as a masque, though it is generally reckoned a pastoral play.
Reconstructions of Stuart masques have been few and far between. Part of the problem is that only texts survive complete; there is no complete music, only fragments, so no authoritative performance can be made without reconstruction.
The English semi-opera which developed in the latter part of the 17th century, a form in which John Dryden and Henry Purcell collaborated, borrows some elements from the masque and further elements from the contemporary courtly French opera of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The 18th-century masques were less frequently staged. "Rule, Britannia!" started out as part of Alfred, a masque about Alfred the Great co-written by James Thomson and David Mallet which was first performed at Cliveden, country house of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Performed to celebrate the third birthday of Frederick's daughter Augusta. It remains among the best-known British patriotic songs up to the present, while the masque of which it was originally part is only remembered by specialist historians.
Of all the arts of the Renaissance, the masque is the artistic form most alien to audiences today. The most outstanding humanists, poets and artists of the day, in the full intensity of their creative powers, devoted themselves to producing masques; and until the Puritans closed the English theatres in 1642, the masque was the highest artform in England. But because of its ephemeral nature, not a lot of documentation related to masques remains, and much of what is said about the production and enjoyment of masques is still part speculation.
20th century 
While no longer popular, there are some later examples of the masque. In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Job, a masque for dancing which premiered in 1930, although the work is closer to a ballet than a masque as it was originally understood. His designating it a masque was to indicate that the modern choreography typical when he wrote the piece would not be suitable.
Constant Lambert also wrote a piece he called a masque, Summer's Last Will and Testament, for orchestra, chorus and baritone. His title he took from Thomas Nash, whose masque was probably first presented before the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps at his London seat, Lambeth Palace, in 1592.
List of notable masques 
- 'History of the Masque Genre'
- David Bevington and Peter Holbrook, editors, The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque 1998 ISBN 0-521-59436-7).
- It was a "comedy" when it was printed, in 1600 as A Pleasant Comedie, call'd Summers Last will and Testament, but, as a character announces, "nay, 'tis no Play neither, but a show." With Nash's stage direction "Enter Summer, leaning on Autumn's and Winter's shoulders, and attended on with a train of Satyrs and wood-Nymphs, singing: Vertumnus also following him" we are recognizably in the world of Masque.
- Ravelhofer, Barbara, (2006), The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music, Oxford University Press.
- Sabol, Andrew J. (editor), (1959), Songs and dances from the Stuart Masque. An edition of sixty-three items of music for the English court masque from 1604 to 1641, Brown University Press.
- Sabol, Andrew J. (editor), (1982), Four hundred songs and dances from the Stuart Masque, Brown University Press.
- "The Elizabethan origins of the masque"
- Cambridge History of English and American Literature: Popularity of the Masque in the age of Elizabeth
- Cambridge History of English and American Literature: The Masque in Spenser
- Florimène, 1635: the next-to-last masque of the court of Charles I
- "The Masque at Ashby": John Marston's only extant masque, written for the Dowager Countess of Derby's 1607 visit to Ashby-de-la-Zouche, recreated by students
- Elizabethan Authors: Thomas Nash, Summer's Last Will and Testament on-line text and notes
- Masque of Anarchy, A Poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- "The Society of the English Masque"