Barbara Ravelhofer. The Early Stuart Masque: Dance Costume and Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xvi+317pp. ISBN 978 0 199 28659 1.

Lesley Mickel
 Glasgow University

Lesley Mickel. "Review of Barbara Ravelhofer, The Early Stuart Masque: Dance Costume and Music." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.


  1. Barbara Ravelhofer’s comprehensive review of her subject is based on her dissatisfaction with the fact that masque has been most often approached as a purely literary phenomenon, and that the real circumstances of its production are routinely overlooked. She rightly comments that Jonson’s dominance of the masque has meant that ‘a lingering contempt for the ‘body’ seems to have been passed on to masque scholarship’ (5). Early in her introduction she points out that the performance of a court masque could be a chaotic affair, with the many foreign observers present struggling to interpret what was before them, a quite different event from that recorded by the carefully prepared texts published subsequently. She emphasizes that masque was a multisensory experience with many creators and that a fuller understanding of it may be arrived at by considering bodily aspects of the performance such as dance, music, costume, and set, together with the scripted element of performance, to ‘compare the sartorial, kinetic, iconic, and verbal languages of the event’ (6).

  2. The first part of the book is devoted to dance, and while Ravelhofer extensively surveys European dance practices she is careful to warn of the dangers of applying conclusions drawn from dance texts that may be chronologically or culturally distant from what occurred on stage as part of the Whitehall masques. There is a strong European flavour here with Ravelhofer describing the continental influence that French and Italian dancing masters had on English practice, mentioning that the Italian Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx , who created stupendous entertainments for the French court , also taught Mary Stuart to dance, and that at least one of the Jacobean court’s outstanding dancers had studied his art in Italy.  The French dancing masters de Lauze and Montagut, among others, contributed significantly to masque dances, and coached the participants. She usefully discriminates between the artful and ‘numbered’, or mathematically based, dancing of the  masque proper, and the revels where well-known, simple and inclusive dances occurred, including Elizabethan measures, the action of which allowed Stuart rulers ‘to claim dynastic legitimacy by kinetic re-enactment’ (41). She goes on to suggest that courtly dancing later influenced more popular dances recorded in anthologies such as John Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651), which offer a way into earlier courtly dance practice,  at times difficult to track given that masque choreographies are not available. Perhaps the most significant contribution to our understanding of masque dance comes when Ravelhofer trenchantly addresses the assumption that female courtly dancers were limited to submissive roles, with movement curtailed by long, stiff costumes for the Caroline female masquers: ‘Gender was an issue, but so was balletic proficiency or simply individual taste’ (115). Similarly, she takes on the Foucauldian bias of dance analysis that views formal choreography as a repression of the individual, and presents it rather as ‘a medium for social communication’ (118) where individuals might test the limits of existing rules about movement.

  3. The section on costume owes a good deal to work done by Peter Stallybrass  and Ann Rosalind Jones, who emphasize the history and cultural freight that can attach to garments of this period, which were remade and recycled  in the transmission of material and political value. Ravelhofer notes the extraordinary sums spent on lavish costumes, remarking that royal sponsors showed much interest in the matter of costume, as evidenced by Henrietta-Maria’s debenture books. Nevertheless, she also suggests that cheaper fabrics were used where possible and that costumes for the grotesque antimasques were procured from elsewhere rather than made especially for masque performance. This chimes with Bacon’s well-known comments on masque costume, that costly fabrics did not show well under artificial lighting whereas  sequins (‘oes’) and tinsel were cheaper yet infinitely more glamorous. Ravelhofer also suggests that costly masque costumes were recycled in accordance with early modern habits, noting that the shoulder pieces originally designed for Prince Henry appear in several masques, and that Henrietta Maria adapted her masque costumes for other uses. Nevertheless decorum meant that royal costumes should never appear on the public stage. In attending to the colour and design of costumes, Ravelhofer reminds us that the use of colour was highly symbolic and that ‘colour coding provided an important reading aid’ (160). Moreover, colours had to be chosen with the effects of artificial lighting in mind; thus, Inigo Jones repeatedly chose light colours as those that stood out the best in these conditions.  We are also told that masque costumes assumed an ideal physical shape, which was possibly more exacting for male than female performers, including a corset to exaggerate the waist as well as padded stockings stuffed with bombast to create a muscular leg. In addressing the question of female costume she refers to the ongoing question of whether female masquers really appeared with their breasts exposed in the manner that some costume sketches suggest. While she fails to arrive at a firm conclusion on this matter, she does suggest that prosthetic breasts may have been used, or nakedness suggested by the ‘skin coats’ used in entertainments elsewhere, remarking ‘Masques may well have aimed at a symbolic rather than naturalistic representation of female courtiers’ (p.173).  It seems to me an oversight here not to examine courtly fashion of the time through portraits and literary texts in an attempt to get closer to the truth in this perplexing matter. Further on she discusses the issue of ‘limb exposure’ and the scandal that exposed female legs caused, particularly when they were clad in the predominantly male buskin, and complemented by other masculine accessories. Could it be that that the significance of bodily exposure in this case has a bearing on the apparently naked breasts of the female masquers? This is one aspect of masque costume that requires further clarification.

  4. The concluding parts of the book are devoted to more traditional analysis of particular masques in the light of the previous theoretical analysis. She includes here Jonson’s Masque of Queens and Oberon and Carew’s Coelum Britannicum. Attention to costume and dance does not necessarily produce any startling or new readings of these, but it does extend our understanding of them in new ways; for example, leaps executed by Prince Henry and the other dancers in Oberon were also performed by antimasque figures, thus ‘rather than pitting antimasque against masque proper, the choreographies offered a wild ‘antemasque’ and a transition via the ‘lesser’ fairies’ (204). She also uses the detailed documents relating to a later masque staged at Constantinople, composed by Robert Bargrave. Given the lack of choreographies for earlier Stuart court masques, Ravelhofer views Bargrave’s creation as a window on an earlier practice, and examines the dances from the perspective of national identity politics.  The book as a whole offers a comprehensive analysis of dance and costume in the masque, although how they connect with the literary or scripted elements of the masque is not always apparent.  However, this is a timely shifting of the balance away from the literary to the kinetic and physical aspects of court masque, which was always a hybrid affair threatening to escape the literary parameters later imposed upon it.  Ravelhofer’s scholarship is rigorous and very wide in scope, yet this is allied to a lively writing style that does not get bogged down in the detail. Any general theorising of this nature risks sacrificing the particular to the universal but the later analysis of individual masques shows Ravelhofer to be attentive to the idiosyncrasies of the occasion.


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