Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 1. Popularity of the Masque in the age of Elizabeth

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 1. Popularity of the Masque in the age of Elizabeth

THE ELIZABETHAN drama, being without scenery and elaborate stage apparatus, made its appeal to the mind rather than to the eye, and used language as the main instrument by which the imagination of its audience was aroused and satisfied. This familiar fact goes far to explain the essentially intellectual character of the Elizabethan drama, and the wonderful literary power of the great dramatists. But we should misinterpret the facts very seriously if we allowed ourselves to suppose that the Elizabethan age was indifferent to the appeal of the eye, or to imagine that, because the Elizabethan playgoer was without the elaborate scenery and staging of the modern theatre, he was disdainful of spectacle, and unwilling to spend time and money on gorgeous shows in which the master art of pageantry combined music, singing, painting, dancing and architecture in united effort to charm and delight his senses.

The Elizabethan, for all his intellectual energy, was intensely sensuous. In this respect, he represents the end of the Middle Ages rather than the beginning of modern times. We cannot here consider the meaning of that reaction against pageantry which was an important part of puritanism, but we may note that the modern student does not see the Elizabethan age as it saw itself; for he overlooks as childish those things which it most cared for. The drama meant, broadly, the introduction into popular entertainment of a new intellectual element, which gradually discredited pageantry, so that it ceased to be the art of the educated and refined. But, all through the Elizabethan age and until the closing of the theatres in 1642, masque and pageantry held their place in the public eye, and in the public interest, as the most important and honourable and magnificent of the arts. The masque at court and among the nobility, and the pageant among the citizens, were practised with an energy that, for the time being, made them the most obvious, if not the most characteristic, of the national activities, the means by which corporate and national feeling most readily expressed itself. This old world splendour of masque and pageant has, for the most part, perished. Neither antiquarian researches nor modern adaptations can make it live again, but, before it died, the intellectual power of the new dramatic art came to the rescue and infused into the Elizabethan masque a literary element, which has been a preservative against decay. The leading dramatists were pressed into the service of masque and pageant, and contributed an element to the spectacle which, in many cases, has survived. The words supplied to pageants and masques by Munday and Middleton, by Campion, Chapman, Beaumont and Brown and, above all, by Jonson, form a small, but very interesting, appendix to the many volumes of the drama. The extant masques have considerable literary merits, and they lead on to Milton’s Comus, in which masque expands into pastoral: with pastoral, generally, they have an important connection. But, in studying masques as a literary form, we have to bear in mind that we are not dealing with essential masque. Even Ben Jonson’s words are not much more than the stick of the rocket after the firework has flamed and faded. Essential masque was the appeal of the moment to the eye and the ear, the blaze of colour and light, the mist of perfume, the succession of rapidly changing scenes and tableaux, crowded with wonderful and beautiful figures. All the gods of Olympus, all the monsters of Tartarus, all the heroes of history, all the ladies of romance, the fauns, the satyrs, the fairies, the witches—all these were presented to the eye, while every kind of musical instrument charmed the ear, and eye and ear together were delighted by an elaboration of dance and measured motion which has never been known since. We have put away these childish things: but our maturity has elaborated no art equally joyous and whole-hearted. The actual remains of the masque with the careful description of the scenes, written, afterwards, in cold blood by the deviser, even though that deviser were Jonson himself, are but broken meats of a banquet that is over.

The curious modern reaches a direct and adequate conception of the vanished splendour and joy, and is enabled to comprehend clearly the medieval instinct, only when the medieval passion for masque and pageant receives imaginative expression in the work of a great descriptive poet. Such a poet there was, but he was not a dramatist. Spenser came before the drama. The masque was not drama; in many respects, it was the antithesis of drama. Dramatists who wrote while the masque was still alive often, in some metaphor or description, thrill us with a touch of its glamour. Shakespeare, for instance, regards the masque as a symbol of the evanescent. This world and all its inhabitants

  • shall dissolve
  • And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
  • Leave not a rack behind.
  • The words express negatively the delight of the spectator in the show by exhibiting his dismay that it must stop—“Our revels now are ended.” But we require a positive description, in which the masque is not what it must be to the dramatist, unreal and unsatisfying; rather, on the contrary, the expression of life’s wonder and joy. This positive description is given us with extraordinary power and fulness in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, especially in the first three books, which were published in 1590, before English drama had developed its strength.