The Tempest begins with the spectacle of a storm-tossed ship at sea, and later there is a second spectacle—the masque. A masque in Renaissance England was a festive courtly entertainment that offered music, dance, elaborate sets, costumes, and drama. Often a masque would begin with an "anti-masque", that showed a disordered scene of satyrs, for example, singing and dancing wildly. The anti-masque would then be dramatically dispersed by the spectacular arrival of the masque proper in a demonstration of chaos and vice being swept away by glorious civilization. In Shakespeare’s play, the storm in scene one functions as the anti-masque for the masque proper in act four.
The masque in The Tempest is not an actual masque, it is an analogous scene intended to mimic and evoke a masque, while serving the narrative of the drama that contains it. The masque is a culmination of the primary action in The Tempest: Prospero’s intention to not only seek revenge on his usurpers, but to regain his rightful position as Duke of Milan. Most important to his plot to regain his power and position is to marry Miranda to Ferdinand, heir to the King of Naples. This marriage will secure Prospero’s position by securing his legacy. The chastity of the bride is considered essential and greatly valued in royal lineages. This is true not only in Prospero’s plot, but also notably in the court of the virgin queen, Elizabeth. Sir Walter Raleigh had in fact named one of the new world colonies "Virginia" after his monarch’s chastity. It was also understood by James, king when The Tempest was first produced, as he arranged political marriages for his grandchildren. What could possibly go wrong with Prospero’s plans for his daughter is nature: The fact that Miranda is a young woman who has just arrived at a time in her life when natural attractions among young people become powerful. One threat is the 24-year-old Caliban, who has spoken of his desire to rape Miranda, and "people this isle with Calibans". and who has also offered Miranda’s body to a drunken Stephano. Another threat is represented by the young couple themselves, who might succumb to each other prematurely. Prospero says:
- Look though be true. Do not give dalliance
- Too much the rein. The strongest oaths are straw
- To th'fire i'th'blood. Be more abstemious
- Or else good night your vow!
Prospero, keenly aware of all this, feels the need to teach Miranda—an intention he first stated in act one. The need to teach Miranda is what inspires Prospero in act four to create the masque, and the "value of chastity" is a primary lesson being taught by the masque along with having a happy marriage.