Katharine Ashe on Masks and Mischief
Just in time for Mardis Gras, author Katharine Ashe talks masks and all of the delicious trouble that happens when we don a disguise.
Do you remember the ball scene in Romeo and Juliet? It’s one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare moments, for two reasons. First, the ball is when the young lovers meet and fall into infatuation. Their words, their gestures, their desire for each other — so immediate, so intense — take them lightning-fast from touching, to teasing, to kissing. From there it’s an intoxicating spiral of emotion into full-blown love.
Second, I love this scene because in order to enter his enemy’s house, Romeo arrives masked. In disguise he believes he’s safe. He has no idea that he’s never been in greater danger. A paper mask, after all, is a feeble barricade against the power of love.
In a gorgeous rendering of that moment in the play, in the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film, Romeo wears the mask until he sees Juliet. At that moment he removes it and she sees his face.
In seeing his face — his eyes full of her — she sees the real man behind the mask, heart stripped of disguise, vulnerable and ready to fall.
I remember the first time I visited Venice during Carnevale. There were masks everywhere. No one was recognizable. You couldn’t tell the Venetians from the other Italians, or the Italians from the tourists. Old men were young, young men were girls, and girls were ancient sorceresses. Even the city wore a mask; confetti covered all, sprinkling pristine stone with rainbows of glitter that tangled in hair and floated on the canals like stardust come to earth.
I think masks are the biggest reason people love Mardi Gras. Sure, the holiday is about good food and drink and out of control partying. But Mardi Gras is much more than overindulging and cutting loose.
It’s about inversion. Turning the up side down, and the in side out. During Carnevale, poor men strut like gods while rich men fade into crowds. Peasants feast like kings and fools speak like wise men.
But I write romance. And in the thrilling cliff-dive of falling in love, a little insanity can be a really good thing.
So I adore a hero in disguise, especially a disguise that flips everything we expect of an alpha hero on its head. Such a disguise convinces everybody he’s harmless, only to reveal — when it is most dangerous — that he is nothing of the sort. Nothing at all.
In my new book, When a Scot Loves a Lady (available one week from today!), London spinster Lady Kitty Savege has vowed to give her heart to no man, and she’s certain she has the measure of the Earl of Blackwood. He’s everything she doesn’t want: barbarian, rogue, incorrigible flirt. Yet every time he comes near, she is entirely at the mercy of her desire. She just can’t keep her hands off him.
So she fights it. He does too. With reasons of his own that include a secret mission, the earl resists and resists and resists. But their rational minds are no match for passion. And when his mask finally falls…
Insanity. The best kind.
Happy Mardi Gras!
Have you ever hidden behind a mask for a party or Mardi Gras, or perhaps for some bigger reason?
Katharine Ashe is an author of historical romance and a professor of European History. Visit her website to learn more.