the peculiarly English stream. In that tradition it takes a high place; not perhaps as high as Molière's, but nearly so; and that is in itself no mean achievement.


IV

Jonson's comedies, however, are only part of his work, although to us by far the most important part. He himself would have put equal or greater weight on his masques and tragedies, to say nothing of his non-dramatic verse. The masque was a dramatic form which in England reached its peak in the reign of King James, and Jonson was its foremost practitioner. Magnificently spectacular, it was also inordinately expensive--too expensive for the frugal Elizabeth. James was naturally extravagant, and felt it part of his duty as a great Prince to have these 'shows' staged for the entertainment of his Court. Jonson wrote his first Court masque in 1605; it was a great success, and from then onwards his services were in steady demand; he produced an average of one masque a year until King James's death in 1625. Writing these masques not only provided him with a good income, it gave him enhanced social position and literary prestige. He was able to regard himself as 'the King's poet', and there is evidence that he hoped to be given the (as yet non-existent) post of Poet Laureate. So secure did he feel that for ten years, from 1616 to 1626, he gave up writing for the public stage altogether, and devoted himself entirely to poetry and to his work for the Court and his noble patrons. This must have seemed to him the crown of his career, after his early struggles to make his name and the period from 1605 to 1616 in which he was consolidating his reputation (and in which, as we now see, he was writing his greatest plays). The death of King James, however, broke his connection with the Court. Although he wrote a few more masques he was never as highly regarded by Charles I as by his father, and in con-

-25-

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Ben Jonson
Table of contents

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  • Title Page 3
  • Chapter I 5
  • Chapter II 9
  • Chapter III 16
  • Chapter IV 25
  • Chapter V 36
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