In the Elizabethan era, rich families would throw large masquerade style parties for events like weddings and religious holidays. These parties would ask their guests to wear beautiful costumes along with even more beautiful masks, as seen in Romeo and Juliet. In modern day parties though, the only ones that are similar to masquerades are college Halloween parties that contain drunken young adults, plastic red solo cups filled with alcoholic beverages and people conversing with one another. Although it seems that the beautiful masquerade style ball died and evolved into a mediocre drunken college costume party, it sort of did, so let’s talk about what masquerades used to be.
Masque is a French word which translates to mask in English. Masquerade style parties started off in France in the late middle ages but were most popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in England. These types pf parties were mainly for upper classes, for they had the money, space, and land to contain, feed and comfortably fit a lot of people.
For a masquerade to be a masquerade, you need costumes. The costumes ranged from party to party because every party had a different theme. The themes usually were based on mythical ideals like Greek mythology, if a party was themed around this you would expect party guest to dress up like gods, goddesses, hero’s and even mythical creatures like fairies. “When masquerades began as just costume balls designed around a theme, costumed guests would perform a dance before the host and company.” The most notable thing about masquerades would be the beautiful and extravagant masks. There are many types of masks, there’s the stick mounted mask, head mask, full face mask, and half face mask. In a masquerade party, you would see all types of these masks, but none would look the same. Some would look like animals, others decorated with feathers and jewels, but none would look the same.
At a masquerade party, there was a certain order in how things went. When everyone enters the party area, everyone would have their masks on, and servants of the host or hosts would bring out supper for the guest that would be picked at by the guests throughout the night. As the night goes on everyone would dance, drink and in some cases gamble till early morning. Right before the banquet that would close off the evening would be a revealing. A revealing is the time when everyone takes off their masks before the main banquet. Sometimes, these revealing’s end in physical fights and this happened often.
Masques started out more like carnival events where everyone, even commoners, would buy tickets and attend where they would drink, gamble and dance till morning light. For masquerade balls though, they started out differently. “The idea of the masquerade ball comes from mummers, mimes who led processions of torches during Christmas and wore costumes called “Guisers” that the tradition of wearing masks stems from. Mummers got their start in ancient Egypt, but the first masquerade balls occurred in Italy, particularly in the city of Florence.” One part that’s really cool is that if you were an upper class woman, you could take part in the performances that provide entertainment for both the hosts and guests. The only downside to this is that only upper-class women could perform, if a lower-class woman tried to perform in one, “it would have very lewd connotations” meaning the preformane would include inappropriate and sextual topics.
The connection these masquerade parties have with Romeo and Juliet theme is in one of the most important scenes in the play. In Act 1 scene 5 “A hall in Capulet’s house”, the Capulets are having a party, a masquerade party. This is meant to give the guests and the room a mysterious atmosphere. We read that in the scene before Romeo and Mercutio found out about the party exclusively for the people of Capulet blood and decided to crash the party. In “A hall in Capulet’s house” we read that Romeo sees Juliet across the room and instantly falls head over heels for her and the same happens to Juliet with Romeo. They then meet up and confess to each other that they love each other and have a short make out session before the party comes to a close and Romeo has to leave. This is a key part in the play because this is where Romeo and Juliet meet, fall in love and start the whole reaction that will end with both of them and a few of their family dead.