Phrases such as ‘Elizabethan drama’ and ‘Jacobean theatre’ rightly evoke a sense of ‘public’ theatre (whether played outdoors or indoors), but it is important to remember that theatre in the period meant far more than the drama of Marlowe or Shakespeare as seen at the Rose, the Globe, or the Blackfriars. Another vital form of theatre lay in the display and performative nature of majestic court ritual and ceremony. ‘Court entertainments’ could include civic entries of the monarch into a city such as London. Similarly, royal ‘progresses’ - as the court travelled the country, lavishly entertained on the way at aristocratic houses - form another type of élite performance in the period of the Shakespearean playhouses.

Once James I came to the throne in 1603, it is generally accepted that the English court became more centralised, focusing its attention and time more exclusively on Whitehall Palace. This notion is to some extent supported by the startling growth in popularity of the court masque in the Jacobean period. The court masque was a type of performance strongly influenced by court theatre on the continent, particularly in Italy and Spain. The masque consisted of a series of dances and spectacles that employed lavish scenery, costumes and specially constructed displays. Although it should not be seen as a precursor to opera, the use of music and dance in masques does allow a kind of comparison to be made. Writers such as the poet and public dramatist Ben Jonson typically supplied the masque text (in reality a series of speeches and choruses), while the neo-classicist court architect Inigo Jones supplied Italianate perspective scenery. Throughout the Jacobean period up to 1625, Jonson and Jones were active at court as chief writer and designer (Jones designing costumes as well as scenery) for the court masques, with other writers occasionally providing the text for Jones’s designs. In the Caroline period the two men argued, leaving Jones as the supreme mastermind behind the performance of spectacles at Charles’s court. Furthermore, as well as Jonson and the dramatists, another link between the masque and the public stage was the fact that the formal speeches in the entertainments were usually delivered by professional actors from London's theatreland, with the King's Men or the'Shakespeare' company often employed in this respect at Whitehall and elsewhere.

The printed texts show us that the entertainments were not plot-driven, and were very different to the plays of Shakespeare and the public dramatists. Rather, these invitation-only élite performances displayed wealth and extravagance to the courtly audience, which, in addition to the immediate court, included English aristocracy and, perhaps more importantly, foreign ambassadors who were visiting to enter the grand English space of diplomacy and politics. These performers did not therefore ‘act’ as such, but rather, costumed in their luxurious outfits, danced their elegant way through the glorious pageantry of the élite and private occasion that they were helping to produce. A key difference from the Shakespearean theatre therefore lay in the masque’s active involvement of the aristocracy in performance, with the leading males and females of prominent aristocratic families taking their place year after year as masquers, members of the royal family occasionally joining them.

Although James I always remained as chief observer of the events, both his sons (Prince Henry, and later Prince Charles) danced in the masques, while his royal consort Anna of Denmark became one of their prime-movers, commissioning them, providing enthusiasm for their presentation, and being involved in the performances herself. The masques were largely ignored by literary critics up to the twentieth century – frequently being seen as bland shows that merely celebrated the monarch and the court. But since the 1970s they have been reassessed entirely as often embodying similar force to the drama written for the public theatres. The public theatres could not have been built without the imaginative flair, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit of men like James Burbage and Philip Henslowe, but we should remember that they were only allowed to flourish in London because drama, previously embraced by Henry VIII as a form of power display and enjoyment, always remained close to the hearts of the ruling courtly élite. This was taken a stage further in the time of Charles I, when the court witnessed not only the masque performances of Queen Henrietta Maria herself, but for the first time, those of the King of England and Scotland too.

The masque therefore challenges our assumption that the early English stage was always ‘all-male’. Recent research on Queen Anna and on Queen Henrietta Maria has shown the importance of gendered readings of the masques, helping us to see the masque phenomenon as part of the power politics of court life in England. Key ideas to note in these new readings include the way performativity and display, costume and ceremony, pageantry and role-play, as well as patronage (who is or isn’t chosen to perform), all contribute to our understanding of how masque performances (usually only performed for a particular occasion) enact in an élite theatrically entertaining form the power of the monarchy and aristocracy. Furthermore, we should remember the growing centrality of the courtly location at Whitehall and, to a lesser extent, other royal palaces such as Hampton Court, where masques occasionally took place.

Yet the association of the masque with Whitehall has rightly retained importance, particularly as many of the masques were performed at the variously built structural forms of the surviving Banqueting House. The neo-classically designed 1622 version by Inigo Jones, with its famously elaborate painted and fitted ceiling by Rubens, can still be seen today in Whitehall, a witness to the days when the Stuart dynasty used the glitter of theatrical performance to consolidate its hold on power.

Under Charles and Henrietta Maria, court theatre flourished even more richly than it had under James. Both were very keen on theatre and display, especially Henrietta Maria, who had been raised at court in France, with its lavish tastes. Masques were taken to a new level of cost and spectacle in the 1630s and early 1640s. Both king and queen took parts in the Caroline masques, whereas King James had only sat as a viewer of these expensive shows. Jones was certainly the dominant force behind the shows of the 1630s. Visual spectacle dominated at court through the grand staging of classical architecture and spectacular costumes. Song and dance in masques became their prize features. In the later Restoration, Davenant was to add these features to the new kind of public theatre, turning several of Shakespeare’s plays into musicals.

The fact that Charles’s court developed and extended the expense and splendour of the masque on from the spectacles of the Jacobean court is in no way surprising. Although it is a mistake to view Charles as a kind of absolutist monarch in the European vein, it is true that he saw himself as the very definition of authority in England and Scotland, something that would cause him great harm in the later 1640s. He wanted to present his glory as an idealized monarch in the European tradition. He therefore set about amassing one of the largest and finest art collections in Europe. His assembly of Renaissance aesthetic objects included portraiture, the famous Rubens ceiling in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, and many statues and tapestries. He hired one of the greatest living painters in Europe, Anthony van Dyck, to be his principal court artist, a role which produced some famous images of the Caroline court and its leading aristocrats. In many ways the visual splendour and flashiness of the Caroline court masque was an obvious manifestation of the kind of European court Charles wished to foreground.

At the Whitehall palace, masques continued until the eve of the outbreak of civil war, and although Ben Jonson had left the masques to Jones it is worth pointing out that the court still looked to the public stage for the writers of these masque texts. Shirley’s The Triumph of Peace and Davenant’s The Temple of Love were staged at court in 1634 and 1635. Players, including some of the King’s Men, took speaking parts in several masques. There can be no doubt that they viewed these spectacles as desirable models for some of their own work.