Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. Maturity; Prosperity

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 4. Maturity; Prosperity

In Sejanus, acted by Shakespeare’s company in 1603, Jonson carried his theories of dramatic art into tragedy. The “war of the theatres” was now over, and his reconciliations were made with his enemies; furthermore, the accession of James I brought him acceptable employment—for an entertainment at Althorp, and, in collaboration with Dekker, for the royal progress in London. Jonson seems to have been living at this time with lord d’Aubigny and to have won the patronage of several men of prominence; but, apparently, he had made enemies as well as friends at court. In connection with Sejanus, he was accused by the earl of Northampton of papacy and treason; and, in connection with Eastward Hoe, 1604/5, he was imprisoned with his collaborators, Marston and Chapman. Letters by Jonson and Chapman, recently discovered by Bertram Dobell, probably refer to this later imprisonment Jonson, though fearing the loss of his ears, apparently escaped without punishment.

The year 1605, moreover, marked not only the escape from these difficulties but the beginning of Jonson’s happiest days. His Masque of Blacknesse was the first of the long series with which he delighted the court of James; and his comedy Volpone achieved a triumph both in London theatres and upon its presentation at the two universities. The ensuing decade was Jonson’s prime. He produced his four masterly comedies: Volpone in 1605 or 1606, The Silent Women (Epicoene) in 1609, The Alchemist in 1610 and Bartholomew Fayre in 1614; and his tragedy Catiline in 1611; he wrote nearly all the important masques for the court, and won increasing favour with his patrons and the king; and, at the Mermaid tavern, which beheld his wit-combats with Shakespeare and the meetings vividly described by Beaumont, he gained recognition as a leader among London poets and wits. Of his occupations outside literature, we know little, except that he was employed in connection with the discovery of the gunpowder treason, and, in 1613, was tutor to Ralegh’s son in France.

In 1616, there appeared a folio edition of his works, carefully edited, including his entertainments, masques and plays (except The Case is Altered) already produced, with collections of poems entitled Epigrams and The Forest. This edition set an example for the recognition of the drama as literature. In the same year, his play The Divell is an Asse was acted; and, in 1618, he made a pedestrian expedition to Scotland, where he was entertained by the literati of Edinburgh, and was a guest of the poet Drummond of Hawthornden who proved an unadmiring Boswell. On his return, he spent some time at Oxford, where he met with the welcome due to him as a scholar and a poet. In 1616, he had been granted a pension of a hundred marks, and, later, he received the reversion to the mastership of the revels; but he did not live to enjoy the benefits of that lucrative office. This was an era of great prosperity for Jonson. James considered the question of making him a knight; his masques continued to be received with great favour at court; and he was able to withdraw entirely from the public stage. At the Apollo room in the Devil tavern he had established a new court of wits, whither young poets thronged to hail him as oracle. Outside literary circles as within, his friends included the greatest and worthiest of the time—Camden, Selden, Clarendon, Falkland, d’Aubigny, the Pembrokes and the Cecils. Clarendon tells us that “his conversation was very good and with men of most note.”