The Masque of Hymen has been no better received than the rest of Shakespeare's masques, Jupiter on his eagle and the chanting ancestors in Cymbeline, the wedding masque in The Tempest, and Queen Catherine's vision of angels in Henry VIII, which have not in the past been popular with editors and are often suspected of being by another hand than Shakespeare's. 'The foolery of masques', says Capell, 'was predominant: and the torrent of fashion bore down Shakespeare' (Notes, I, p. 69). Grant White doubts that Hymen's part is by Shakespeare, especially the song. 'There is', says Dover Wilson, 'no dramatic necessity for this masque-business; the appearance of Hymen is completely unexpected, seeing that we have been led to anticipate a magician (4.2.58-68; 5.4.31-4). Hymen's words, whether spoken or sung, do not seem to us in the least Shakespearian; and they might all be omitted without loss to the context.' He agrees with Capell that the popularity of masques as a court entertainment under James I accounts for what he takes to be an interpretation, and compares the rhyming couplets 'in their obscurity and tortousness' with similar couplets in Measure for Measure, which he considers to be of similarly doubtful authenticity.(1)
It is generally agreed that the masques in the late plays of Shakespeare are related to the masque form in the seventeenth century. But even early plays show a tendency to some kind of formalism at the conclusion. Not obviously a masque, yet serving a similar purpose, is the scene at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the fairies bless the sleeping house, and Puck falls into rhymed couplets, with 'Now the hungry lion roars'. An extremely slight but telling instance of more than human power being called upon to achieve a comedy dénouement is the sudden appearance of the Abbess at the end of The Comedy of Errors. A riot of marrying and giving in marriage is the usual end of a Shakespearian comedy. What is important from the point of view of the masque ending is the tendency to present this with a certain formality, to give it a sacramental or symbolic value. It is notable that Wilson Knight, whose reading of Shakespeare's plays is largely in terms of symbolism, is an ardent defender of the authenticity of the masques.
The unique character of the masque, as a literary form, lies in its power to show human life momentarily as an ideal tableau, which dissolves when the compliment to the guest of honour is spoken and the masquers leave the stage for the dance floor, entering ordinary life again. Thus the Lady, in Comus, changes from the champion of virtue, putting by the magic cup, to Lady Alice Egerton presented to her parents. This is an effect that a stage play cannot hope wholly to achieve, since in a play the actors must remain actors. They cannot mingle with the audience and reveal themselves as creatures of like kind. If at the end they abandon their roles, they are still professionals, in undress.
On the stage a masque has the function of a play-within-a-play. Its heightened illusion makes the rest of the play seem momentarily more real. The emphasis on reality is particularly important at the end, when Shakespeare is anxious to clarify the relation of his fable to life as it is lived. It is, as in the masque, a two-way traffic. We must see that the fiction, though it is only a fiction, has something to do with fact, and at the same time see that fact can be illuminated by the fiction. The happy ending is more than superficial entertainment, more than wishful thinking; it is a vision of an inward truth. It is implicit in the epithet 'romantic' applied to Shakespeare, and it is present in its most concentrated shape in the four plays that are specifically called 'romances'. The nearer the story comes to fairy tale, the deeper the intuitive truth it conveys. At the moment when the masque formalizes it we become aware of two things simultaneously, that life is and is not like that.
The effect can be best tested in performance, which is as it should be, for a masque is very emphatically something to be seen, not something to be read. The 'still music', the mysterious appearance of the robed and crowned Hymen, presenting Rosalind to her father and her lover, provide a serene and solemn moment, after which everyone can join in the ordinary rejoicing that accompanies an ordinary wedding. As for the magician-uncle, who is present as a minor plot device in the source book, he paves the way for a promised resolution which it seems only magic can achieve, just as Paulina, in The Winter's Tale, affects to call Hermione's statue to life by a 'spell', while protesting it is 'lawful' and that she is not 'assisted / By wicked powers' (v. iii. 105 and 90-1). The appearance of Hymen, even if he is demonstrably attendant lord or a singing-boy, provided with a torch and a wreath, is a kind of magic and an appropriate one, in that he is no major god from a machine, no intrusive pagan deity, and not to be though of by modern readers as any sort of panomime fairy activating a mechanical happy ending. He is merely a 'presenter', a familiar personification, who must have presided over innumberable homemade wedding masques within the period. His business is to make manifest a daily mystery, in which unity and harmony bring happiness and increase.
Readers who reject Shakespearian masques are probably unsympathetic to the masque form as such. They see it as something frivolous, idle and unreal. When it is allied, as it often is, with Shakespearian doggerel, it becomes doubly distasteful, because they don't like doggerel either. Shakespeare did. He habitually uses it, or someting very like it, especially in the form of four-stress couplets, when he is handling the preterhuman, the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the witches in Macbeth. Couplets are the language of prophecy and of gnomic statement hen the Duke uses them in Measure for Measure. They explicate the contents of the caskets in The Merchant of Venice. A high polish would be inappropriate in lines addressed to an unsophisticated level of understanding. They are heavily stressed and the rhymes fall heavily. At times they are riddling and oracular, compressed to the point of obscurity. Nothing could be further from natural speech. That is their purpose. They range from Puck's jingles, to which nobody has ever objected as unworthy of Shakespeare, to the clear inhuman bell notes of The Phoenix and the Turtle. Hymen's lines fall somewhere between. They are a conjuration. They put a spell on the assembled company, establish the atmosphere of reconciliation in which the play ends, and call up Rosalind in her true shape.
Then is there mirth in heaven,
When earthly things made even
(1) On these couplets see J. W. Lever's note in the New Arden meas., at III.ii. 254. He accepts them as 'a sententious finale to an act full of surprises . . . a much-needed point of rest'.