Shakespeare Mas’: A Unique Celebration of the African,French and British in Carriacou’s Creole Landscape

By John Angus Martin[1], Neal Bassie Matheson[2] and Rina Mills[3]

“Mother of Children, Father of Generation,
mourn for thy only obedient son
who never yet broke a rule of his parents’ command.
But duty has compelled me this morning
to disguise myself in such a woeful manner,
warrior I was born, warrior I shall die!
I am going to the fields of battle,
if in case I get beaten,
rest my dagger on my breastplate.”

Declaration by Shakespeare Masquerader
(Hillsborough, Carriacou, 2019)

It is Carnival Tuesday in the  small, 34 km2 (13 mi2) island of Carriacou that lies in the southern extreme of the string of tiny island chain known as the Grenadines. The streets are overflowing with spectators, many dancing to the festive music pulsating through the small town as colorful Carnival masqueraders take center stage. Carriacou is the second largest of the tri-island state of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, situated to Grenada’s north and lying just south of its smaller sister island of Petite Martinique. “Kayryouacou,” as it was originally termed by the early French settlers in the region in the 16th century, is derived from the Kalinago name for the island, and probably means “Land of Ramier (Pigeon)” for the once prevalence of that bird there.[4] Carriacou has a population of approximately 8000 residents, mostly of African descent as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and plantation slavery, and have influenced its cultural traditions like the Big Drum or African Nation Dance, with some also exhibiting European ancestry like the Scots who have influenced cultural traditions like Boatbuilding. This small Grenadine island celebrates four main annual festivals, with the first and most spectacular being Carnival.

Carnival is a pre-Lenten celebration in Carriacou, derived from the island’s early colonization by the French and the imposition of Catholicism among the majority of its enslaved population via the Code Noir. It is a festival that is celebrated in the few days preceding Ash Wednesday, all part of the Roman Catholic annual religious calendar. Like it is with almost every other Caribbean island and their particular celebrations, the most unique aspect of the Carriacou Carnival is the Shakespeare Mas’, a masquerade (mask/masque) that originated in Carriacou as part of its cultural expressions. This mas’, with its brightly dressed masmen[5] reciting speeches from the works of William Shakespeare, can only be seen on this small island in the Grenadines during the annual Carnival celebrations. Like the Big Drum Nation Dance and Boatbuilding, it is unique to Carriacou and its Creole cultural landscape that have defined the small Grenadine island for generations.

From the month of December to just after the Christmas celebrations, men, throughout all the villages in Carriacou, start preparing for Carnival Tuesday. Many will tell you that it is not only the men, but women and children, are just as excited for that day when colorfully dressed masqueraders journey from the surrounding villages to the town of Hillsborough, to compete in the recitation of speeches from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. No wonder the mas’ is known as Shakespeare Mas’! Despite the English origin of the speeches recited by these masmen, its origin in Carriacou is not in doubt, and Carriacou is the only place in the world where one can experience this incredibly beautiful and competitive speech mas’.

Carnival officially begins in Carriacou on the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday, which is known as “Camboulay Sunday.” On that day, the masmen gather together to “paper” their Crowns; I will explain what that is shortly. When they are finished, they collect their brightly colored Shirts from the seamstress, now beautifully adorned with a “Black Heart,” “Wooloes,” and “Mirrors.” A white Petticoat, with colorful embroideries completes the costume. The women, at this time, are busy putting the final arrangements for the preparation of the refreshments for the masmen, with the children keenly looking on.

When the Shakespeare Mas’ take to the streets of Carriacou they carry with them, tucked into their colorful costumes or hidden beneath their kingly Crowns, the creativity and traditions of generations of masmen who created and celebrated this unique cultural expression. They blend the beautiful design of colors and accoutrements that tell a tale of ancient origins, forged in the suffering of plantation slavery, but celebrated in the expressions of an entangled Creole cultural heritage that is often difficult to decipher.

On the Morning of Carnival or Strove Tuesday

Tuesday morning, everyone wakes up very early, with lots of excitement in the air. The men, while changing the animals in the fields that morning, can be heard from all parts of the island practicing the speeches as they work. Housewives wake early to prepare breakfast for their husbands and masmen. Every home in every village is involved in the preparations. If the dad is not playing then a family member usually plays; every family will be part of this truly Carriacou celebration.

After having a light but hearty breakfast, the families journey to the village mas-camp to be dressed. There is someone at each camp to skillfully dress the masmen, which includes tying their Crowns so it will not fall easily during their performances. The women join together in cooking the food, or waiting at the meet-up area ready to greet the mas’.

“Dressing the Mas’”

A typical Shakespeare Mas’ costume will comprise a Petticoat, Shirt, Kata, Crown, Bull-Whip and face Mask. The Petticoat is a long, embroidered, white (under)skirt that reaches slightly above the ankles. It is covered by the Shirt, a multi-colored tunic decorated with overlapping pieces of colored triangular cloths, and a Black Heart that signifies the terrifying mood of the mas’ to intimidate opponents. Small silver bells or Wooloes and circular Mirrors adorn the Shirt, adding noise and spectacle to the masmen when in motion. Hidden beneath the Crown and reinforcing it is the Kata, a circular ring made from the dried air roots of the Fiji or Ficus tree, and wrapped in colorful pieces of cloth for splendor. A cap is placed on the masman’s head over the Kata atop which sits the Crown to fully protect the head from expected blows. The long, flowing Crown that drapes from the head to the buttocks is made of old cement bags hardened with cassava starch and then covered with colorful pieces of cloth that accent the costume once dried. The stiffened Crown is fitted unto the Kata and falls all the way along the back and waist. Long, colorful socks and boots adorn the legs and feet, respectively. The final piece of the costume to be worn is the Mask, the most defining part of the costume that covers the face, rendering the masquerader anonymous, though many will recognize the players by their distinctive styles, voices and the colors of their Crowns and Shirts. The Mask is made from soft wire mesh laced with cloth used for the Shirt and painted with different colors. This piece of the costume goes on last when “dressing the mas,” and all Shakespeare masmen admit that it is what alters their persona to transform them into a true Shakespeare Mas’ warrior. Before they rush out the door to greet the spectators and descend on their opponents, they grab the Bull-Whip in their hand and are ready to do battle and Varee! In recent times, the Bull-Whip is made from cable, thus making it flexible, but banded with tape to soften the blows to opponents’ Crowns when they forget or utter incorrect lines in their speeches. In bygone days, a wooden stick was used, taken from the Big Drum dance performers held at Camboulay and shared just for the Tuesday activity since Big Drum Nation Dance was only performed the Sunday night of Carnival.

Celebrating in the Villages and Streets of Carriacou on Carnival Tuesday

The first mas’ to leave the mas-camp is the Peacemaker. He gracefully journeys to the meeting-up point, reciting speeches loudly to summon the villagers who are still in their homes. The masmen are usually dressed at the highest point in every village so they can be seen and heard from a distance as they descend into the awaiting crowds. The Peacemaker makes sure there is enough room for the portrayal of the masquerade since there will be a large crowd already waiting. The Peacemaker, together with the Backers, will position themselves between masmen in their camp to make peace when things get out of control. The Backers are usually strong individuals in the community who assist in dressing the masmen and making peace if things get out of control. The Peacemaker is followed by other masmen as they descend towards the meeting place.

The last masman to leave the camp is the King who is usually the strongest of all the masmen in each group, and knows the most speeches, as speeches should not be repeated. Proceeding him is the Second King whose role is to support the King. These roles are usually decided at the Sunday-night Camboulay festivities. In recent times, women have portrayed the once exclusive male masquerade. The masqueraders are joined by Supporters, who lead the group of performers with flags, bells and whistles, chanting and singing rivalry songs like “Who in the way clear out the way, tell them Hero coming down.”

Once they finish performing the mas’ in their village, the group of masmen and their Supporters travel through other villages and ending in the town of Hillsborough where the meeting up of the different groups take place in front of hundreds of spectators.

Shakespeare Mas’ Varee!: A Warrior Stance[6]

Ladies predom, Gentlemen predomical
When I use the words “ladies and gents”
I do not mean nothing to offend you.
I just mean “Good morning to the ladies predom
And gentlemen predomical.
How do you admire my gamet this morning?
My gamet is shinning like a morning star.
I have this bull in my hand which is made of chicken bark.
I has this bell in my hand which rings the gate of hell.
I have a shoe on my foot which is made of engine tire.
I have my job, Willie Boy
If I should drop this bull upon your back it shall tear
Clothes from your skin,
Skin from your flesh,
Flesh from bone, and
Leave you a standing skeleton.

Speech being practiced by St. John Joseph, Brunswick, Carriacou, January 1971
Recorded by Don Hill (1980)

The main encounter of the Shakespeare Mas’ masqueraders is the contest between the members to correctly recite passages from the play Julius Caesar. Though the reliance solely on text from Julius Caesar may be a recent development, text from Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Othello and Henry VIII, were common, but Julius Caesar may have been easier to memorize and adopt. It appears that verses from the Bible were also used. These verbal contests are quite common to the region and can be seen in several folk characters like the Junkanu in Jamaica and the Pierrot Grenade and Midnight Robber in Trinidad. Speechifying or the “man-of-words” is a part of education across the region, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean with historical activities as Tea Meetings and literary clubs like the Grenada Literary Society dating to the early 1900s. According to Hill (1980), “Whether original or learned, most speeches are boasts delivered in an African manner. That is, they are presented in a call-and-response fashion, with interplay between the speaker and his backers….”

Originally, speeches were selected from available texts in the Outline of British History or The Royal Readers which were the basic English-language texts in the primary school curriculum in Carriacou (and Grenada). Many of the older masqueraders alive today recall the mas’ as being more aggressive, and often escalated quickly into physical contests, bloody duels between waring villages. Mr. Mark Adams, a 71-year old past performer, remembers his father carrying brass-knuckle rings and other weapons to the performances. He suggested many of these men who fought long ago travelled the world and that brought about a change, making the mas’ more based on speeches in recent times as compared to fights of long ago. Some of the old-timers believe that the mas’ started as a form of celebration after the Emancipation of slavery and may have been held to celebrate Emancipation Day on 1st August each year. It would subsequently move to the Carnival festivities earlier in the year.

Rivalry and Shakespeare Mas’: Bandroys Versus Heroes

Carnival is about rivalry and competition, each masquerade trying to outdo the other in costume, performance, and even physical contests. So villages come together in groups to stage performers and confront rival groups of villages from across Carriacou on Carnival Tuesday or Strove Tuesday. For the Shakespeare Mas’, the groups have traditionally been the Heroes which comprises the villages to the east, west and north of the island, with Freeport comprising the central villages, and the Bandroys (from Band Royal) comprising the villages to the South of the island. Freeport can decide which group they wish to join. Historically, the competitions between the groups or villages were often fierce and violent, which led the authorities to regulate costumes so as to discourage the concealing of weapons in their baggy costumes.

Locating the Historical Significance of Shakespeare Mas’ in the Carriacou Cultural Landscape

Carriacouans know how to play Shakespeare Mas’ like it is nobody’s business! From the costumes to the speeches, to the overall performances…, they do so in a spectacular way! It is something they learned from their fathers, and their fathers before them, going back generations, as each masman adds his own distinctive touch or feel to the performance that now defines his Shakespeare persona for a lifetime. As 87-year old Thomas Lawrence, who hails from the village of Mt. Royal, recalls his dad “Prince Lawrence” portraying the masquerade when he was a little boy and it inspired him to do the same when he came of age. Few of these old-time performers can tell you the origin of the masquerade, but they can recall seeing their fathers or grandfathers playing it since they were little boys, taking it all the way back to the early 1900s, at least. Mr. Rolland Lawrence, a 68 year-old native of Carriacou, vividly remembers his grandfather playing the mas’. They also remember that the masquerade was originally called Paywo Mas’ (Pierrot Masque), or simply History Mas’ because of the historical speeches.

So what then can we ascertain was the origin and history of the Shakespeare Mas’? We can begin at the beginning, which is the end, where we are today. The Shakespeare Mas’ seen today has changed much over its long history, influenced by its performative nature and the diversity of performers who have practiced this unique masquerade. As it is maintained and exhibited as an intangible oral cultural performance, the Shakespeare Mas’ is not confined to a static performance, but changes with time as identified by some of its practitioners. Even its name has changed over the years, several times, from its original name of Paywo Mas’, Speech Mas’, History Mas’, and now Shakespeare Mas’. Each name change may signal a change in emphasis or performance.

The name Paywo Mas’, one of its first recorded names, may offer a clue to a possible origin. The colorful costume and speechifying nature of the Shakespeare Mas’ bears intriguing similarities to the Pierrot Grenade “old mas’” (derived from the French for “Grenada clown”) of the well-known and celebrated Trinidad Carnival, and the now extinct version from Grenada (Hill 1980; Payne 1990). It should be noted that the original Pierrot Grenade was a masquerade common in Grenada since the mid to late-1700s and transferred to Trinidad when many French Grenadians (and their enslaved) migrated there beginning in the 1760s, and especially after the 1780s. The masquerade was present in Grenada into the mid-1900s, after which it slowly disappeared, being replaced by other popular masquerades like Shortknee, Veku and Djab-Djab. According to Nelly Payne (1990), “the Pierrot Grenade [of Grenada carnival] appeared leaping, their tongues rolling in shrill whistle. The sunlight sent hundreds of dazzling reflections from the myriad mirrors sewn to their red, yellow, blue and green costumes. These were the accepted ‘Pretty Mas’” that colored the streets on Strove Tuesday.

Trinidad retains several of these “old[-time] mas’” characters that have their origin in Grenada, including Burrokeet (or Donkey Mas’), Clowns, Dame Lorraine, Moko Jumbie, Negre Jardin, Djab-Djab and Djab Molassie. The similarities–colorful gown-like dress, mask, whip or stick, bells, mirrors, and speechifying–between the current performances of these two masquerades illustrate they derivation from the progenitor Pierrot Grenade that was practiced in Grenada under the French in the 18th century and taken up by Grenadians in the next century and a half. Hill (1980) adds that “It seems likely that the paywo was brought to Trinidad from one of the small islands, perhaps even from Carriacou itself. It probably represents the oldest strata of French and West African Carnival culture on the island of Carriacou, though today most of the speeches are adopted from the works of English authors.” The Paywo or Shakespeare Mas’ of Carriacou, like the Pierrot Grenade in Trinidad, witnessed many changes over the years, but they still bear associations with each other and the original Pierrot Grenade. The Pierrot Grenade of Trinidad no longer wears a mask or crown, and is more of a “clown/jester,” witty and wordsmith, reveling in its intellect, unthreatening in its performance. Carriacou’s Shakespeare Mas’ also bears similarity to the Shortknee or Chantimel Mas’ in Grenada, especially as it was performed in the early 1900s when it was known as Pierrot Grenade, and described by Frederick Fenger (1916), with its long, trailing Crown, white Petticoat, colorful Shirt, and Bull-Pistle (see Figure x). Both, deriving from the once popular Pierrot Grenade speech mas’, have changed quite a lot, becoming less violent over the years, with the Shortknee losing its whip altogether and taking on a new name by the 1940s.

The origin and chronology of the Carriacou Paywo Mas’, as the initial masquerade and progenitor of the current Shakespeare Mas’, remains unclear, but is tangled up in 18th-century French Carnival celebrations, West African “nations” or ethnic dance performances, and French, and possibly British speechifying, thus creating a creole amalgam that celebrates the Carriacou cultural landscape. Breaking down the various elements of this masquerade will allow an exploration of its origins, beginning with its name. Though its usual rendition “pierrot” (<Fr “clown”) might suggest a direct connection to the French clown or court jester, Carr (1954) believes that the Trinidad Pierrot Grenade is most probably derived from the French Creole “country king” (<Fr pays roi), thus taking on a different meaning that is actually reflected in its performance like the Carriacou Paywo Mas’.

The Bull-Whip carried and used by the Shakespeare masquerader is its most noticeable accoutrements when it engages in verbal contests with opponents. This whip, or wooden stick from an early incarnation, connects it to an African practice, specifically stick fighting or Kalenda. As one informant suggested, the current Bull-Whip was in fact a long wooden stick used in stickfighting, a game that was popular at Carnival celebrations when villages confronted each other as described by Frederick Fenger (1916) in the clash between the villages of Sauteurs and Chantimelle in the 1911 Carnival. The encounters usually became violent and sometimes resulted in severe injuries and even death as was the case in February 1900 when stickman Hankey was “killed by a blow received by playing at ‘sticks’ during carnival.” The change in the type of the Bull-Whip may have to do with the restrictions on their use to control the violence. One of the informants also mentioned that the violence and bloody nature of the masquerade have also lessened, with the speechifying aspect claiming greater emphasis. Yet its characteristics—mask, long cape and baggy trousers—also resemble several African folk characters, especially the Egungun of the Yoruba (though no indentured Yoruba were brought to Carriacou as was the case in Grenada).

The Mask worn by the Shakespeare masqueraders may have derived from West African masking practices that were brought to the region and became part of several masquerades, including the original Pierrot Grenade and Shortknee. Enslaved Africans, like the Yoruba exemplified in characters like the Egungun, were well known for their masking. These masks not only hide the identities of the masqueraders, but allow them to transform their personas and assume the fulness of their characters.

The name Kata is derived from an African word from Congo nkata meaning “a pad for the shoulder or head” that have been used in Grenada and Carriacou for generations when carrying heavy loads on the head.

Specific elements of the costume have a possible African origin as a result of the importation of captive Africans to Grenada and Carriacou during slavery. This is most exemplified by the Bull-Whip that was part of the popular stickfighting brought to Carriacou by enslaved Africans and was still practiced in Grenada into the 1960s (see Alan Lomax).

Preservation of the Carriacou Shakespeare Mas’

There are many training programs to date which aims at preserving the mas’ because of the concern that it is dying out. Ms. Faithlyn George from Harvey Vale is presently training students from her community. She has been doing that from since 2015. She recalled that she was one of the first women in her village to play the masquerade. Mr. Glenroy Boastwain, a current Shakespeare Mas’ King, is training children from the primary and secondary schools in Carriacou, and is supported by a relative. Even Mr. George Andrew, a local businessman and his family who are based in the diaspora, understands the mas is costly and sends cloths for the masmen, his sister Lydia is a seamstress and sews free for them and assist in other ways. The late Stephen Alexander, who served as President of the Carriacou Historical Society and Museum, was a staunch supporter of the mas’. These communities are working with the Government and statutory bodes like the Grenada Tourism Authority who recently trained 19 students and sponsors expenses related to the mas’ annually. They also purchased microphones to attach to the performers so speeches can be more audible during performances. The Shakespeare Mas’ is a special part of the Carriacou Carnival, and some are making sure that the artform is passed on to a younger generation so that it does not disappear from the Carriacou cultural landscape as it forms an important part of the islanders cultural identity.

Glossary of Terms

Black Heart:




Dame Lorraine:


Djab Molassie:






Moko Jumbie:

Neg’ Jardin:


Pierrot/Paywo Grenade:

Second King:




Wooloes: Derived from the French roulant: meaning “shaking/rattling”

[1] Caribbean historian and archivist, currently serving as the Director of the Saba Heritage Center.

[2] Carriacou cultural activist and Shakespeare Mas’ “supporter.”

[3] Marketing Executive, Grenada Tourism Authority, Carriacou.

[4] The popular meaning of the word Carriacou as derived from “Land of Reefs” has no historical source. For discussion, see John Angus Martin, Carriacou: “Land of Reefs” of “Land of Ramiers”?, 2019.

[5] Masman/men is a local Caribbean term for the people who make or “play mas.”

[6] Vareé/varray, used by Shakespeare Mas’ performers,” is from the French Creole stick-fighting term Karray meaning “stylish movements” or “stance” that stick-fighters often perform when battling an opponent. The term derives from the French se carrer (ka-ra): “to strut or pose; anyone taking a defiant pose or posture of bravado, daring his opponents to attack him.”