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The antimasque is a type of masque that occurs before the main masque and is usually presented to great contrast. 

Antimasques are usually humorous or grotesque in some way. They should include the features of dance and be entertaining for the audience members. The term “antimasque” is not commonly used or known today. It is easiest to understand as a part of theatrical performance that contrasts in tone with the rest of the performance. 

Antimasque pronunciation: ahn-tee mah-sk

Antimasque definition and meaning

Antimasque Definition

An antimasque is a short section of a masque that purposefully contrasts with the rest of the performance.

For example, an optimistic, bright, and cheerful masque about the hopes of a couple, country, or group, might be preceded by a darker series of actions that show the opposite. This makes the masque proper all the more effective. 

The best example that’s commonly read/performed today can be found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is explored in detail below, but the opening scene acts as an antimasque and is contrasted with the rest of the play. 

What is a Masque? 

A masque is a theatrical genre that dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries. They were dramatic in nature and included songs, dances, pantomimes, and more. They were usually performed at court and were therefore viewed by the very wealthy and those in the court’s favor. These productions were often quite elaborate, with over-the-top stage design. There could be architectural elements of the stage that were designed by an architect, likely one well-regarded by the crown, and costumes designed with the same care for detail. 

Professional actors were sometimes hired, but many of the performers did not speak and were, therefore, better versed as dancers. Sometimes, the king or queen would take part in a masque. There are records of this occurring with Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France. 

Origins of the Masque 

The masque originated in France in the Middle Ages. They were offered as a way of showing respect and deferences to the king or queen and usually included a type of moral message or political meaning. They might contain relatable elements that the viewers would recognize from their lives. 

Masques were often organized in order to celebrate events. This includes births, marriages, and more. These elements might also be included in the masques themselves. Politics was more than often included as part of the content. 

What is a Dumbshow? 

A dumbshow, like an antimasque, is another element of the masque. It originated in England, unlike the masque tradition as a whole which came from France. A dumbshow was a silent interlude during which one or more performers would mime an allegorical story that related to the main masque. There is a very famous example in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. In Act III Scene 2, actors perform a dumbshow in which the king and queen show their love. The king is murdered while he’s sleeping, and the murderer tries to sleep with the queen, who eventually gives herself over to him. The dumbshow hints at what’s to come in the story of Hamlet itself. 

Example of an Antimasque 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare 

The best-known example of an antimasque can be found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play, there are masques that detail the primary parts of the storyline. They feature information about Prospero and his intentions, as well as his plot to marry Miranda to Ferdinand, the future King of Naples. 

The masque in The Tempest begins with a storm at sea, the antimasque that comes before the rest of the play and Prospero’s plans. Here are a few lines, spoken by the boatswain, from the first act of The Tempest

Down with the topmast! Yare! Lower, lower!

Bring her to try wi’ th’ main course.(A cry

within.)A plague upon this howling! They are

louder than the weather or our office.

Yet again? What do you here? Shall we give o’er and

drown? Have you a mind to sink?

 It presents a very interesting contrast with the feast. The chaos in the first scenes transitions abruptly into something different. Here is another example of the struggle in the first scene: 

Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my

hearts! Yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to th’

Master’s whistle.—Blow till thou burst thy wind, if

room enough!

These lines are also spoken by the boatswain right at the beginning of the play. 

Read William Shakespeare’s poetry

Why is Antimasque Important? 

The antimasque is an uncommonly discussed element of 16th and 17th-century theatre. But, it provides insight into how playwrights and performers, and organizers of masques, considered their subject matter. They provide these performances with a new kind of depth that’s interesting to analyze. 


What is the antimasque in The Tempest?

the opening scenes in which readers hear from characters like the master, the boatswain, and which features Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Ferdinand, and more, aboard a ship. It’s being tossed in a storm and seems destined to sink.

Who invented antimasque?

The antimasque was coined and invented by Ben Jonson in the early 1600s. 

What are the characteristics of masque?

The characteristics of a masque are highly elaborate stage design, singing, dancing, humor, political allusions, and acting. They were usually performed at court for a royal and aristocratic audience

Related Literary Terms 

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other. 
  • Coherence: the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Play (theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
  • Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
  • Antithesis: occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve a desired outcome.
  • Paradox: is used in literature when a writer brings together contrasting and contradictory elements that reveal a deeper truth.

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