Masques were a form of artistic performance in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were designed to privately entertain a court, such as the courts of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, with the public version of a masque being a pageant. The art form actually has its roots in earlier traditions, and various forms of the masque endure in modern culture; many historians believe that the tradition of opera, for example, evolved from Italian masques.
In a masque, the players typically wore lavish costumes and various masks, accented by rich sets and accompanied by music. The players acted out a brief story, often drawing from mythology and popular allegory, and accompanied with social or political commentary which would have been favorable to the host. The masque included dancing, singing, and poetry, and when the masque ended, dancing would open to all.
The earliest masques appear to have been held in Italy, and they quickly spread to France. Henry VIII was instrumental in bringing the masque to England and elevating it to an art form, although previous entertainments such as mummeries were quite similar. A mummery is a parade and performance which may be public or private, in which the players also wear masks. Mummers used to travel through the English countryside, putting on performances in towns and in the homes of lords.
Elaborate entertainment was very popular in the Tudor court, although masques were also performed in later years. The masque often alluded to ongoing political events, usually complementing the sovereign's wisdom, justice, and kindness. The players would also interact with the audience, declaiming poetry to attractive women or drawing spectators into the dances between acts. At the end of the masque, the players removed their masks to reveal their faces; it was not unusual to see high ranking courtiers among the players, and sometimes higher members of state. Henry VIII and Charles I, for example, both participated in court masques.
Generally, a masque would have been put on as part of a festive occasion such as a wedding or christening. When monarchs and lords traveled, they might be greeted by masques at various locations along the way, celebrating the visit and the monarch. The event would have accompanied with dinner, dancing, and other celebratory activities, with choice members of society and lucky members of the community being invited to participate or watch. As often happens in stratified societies, the concept of the masque filtered out into the general community, with masques becoming a part of celebration for all classes.