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

I. Ben Jonson

§ 9. The Sad Shepherd

His plays fall into well defined classes: masques, comedies and tragedies, with the addition of the unfinished pastoral, The Sad Shepherd. As the pastoral and the masque are treated elsewhere in this work, Jonson’s contributions to these two dramatic types must be very briefly noticed here. The Sad Shepherd, probably, represents an attempt of his last years to revise and complete for the stage (then addicted to pastorals) a play written, in part, many years before. Whenever his little excursion to Arcadia was first planned, it has since succeeded in carrying many readers thither. It is another of those delightful surprises in Jonson’s work, not unlike the trouvaille of the “Queen and huntress” hidden in the impenetrable jungle of Cynthia’s Revels. Among later comedies, The Sad Shepherd is like a breeze in a drowsy lecture-room. Its Arcadia is called Sherwood and is inhabited by Robin Hood and his merry men, but it has visitors from the fantastic Arcadia of the pastorals, and others from fairyland; and it most resembles the rural England of Jonson’s observation. The plan of bringing together Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood, Maudlin the witch of Paplewick and Aeglamour the sad, was ingenious. And Jonson managed to write about little fishes without making them talk like whales. He evidently had collected a formidable array of data in regard to fairies, folklore, rustic terms and habits; but, as he wrote, sweet fancy, for once, shared with realism in guiding his pen. No other of his plays can be read from beginning to end with such genuine refreshment.

Less refreshing are the masques, with which Jonson delighted both the pleasure-loving court and the pedantic king. The libretti of these splendid entertainments are rather flavourless, without the music, dancing and spectacle. To the elaboration of these compositions, however, Jonson devoted his ingenuity and learning, his dramatic and lyrical gifts in prodigal effort. Moral allegory, classical myth, English folklore, with realistic and satirical pictures of contemporary life, were all summoned to provide novelty, grandeur, or amusement as might be desired. For the masque, as for other forms, Jonson conceived definite rules and restrictions; but he was bound, of course, to respond to the desires of his royal patrons. Remembering the limitations and conditions, we must allow that his work in these masques displays in full all the remarkable talents which he exhibited elsewhere. The anti-masques gave opportunity for comic scenes, in which persons similar to those of his comedies find a place. The spectacular elements called for the play of fantastical invention, such as Jonson denied to his regular dramas. And the songs gave a free chance for lyrical verse. It must be said, however, that neither in dramatic nor lyric effects is there supreme excellence. No lyric in all the forty masques is unforgettable, and few rise above a mediocre level of adequacy. But Jonson virtually invented and perfected the court masque in its Jacobean form. Its history is mainly the record of his contributions.