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Home » , » Discuss Ben Jonson as a writer of Masques?
Ben Jonson's masques are an important part of his work, but are neglected. They have generally been considered as fanciful mixtures of spectacular and dramatic elements, characterized by a heavy display of learning and a troublesome flattery of the King. They have seldom been accorded the dignity of serious literary efforts.
Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson

We can obtain Jonson's own definition of a masque from his remarks about his aims and methods in writing masques. A masque, according to him, is a form of dramatic entertainment in which the logical working out of a central idea or device provides the action. The action resides in the symbolical representation of contrasted con-ditions, usually of order or virtue as opposed to disorder or depravity. By several means, a masque accomplishes its purpose of honouring magnificence, in the ethical sense, and of inciting in the beholders a conscious moral imitation of the virtues embodied in kingship. Jonson based his whole theory and practice of the masque on three broad principles: the principle of decorum, the principle of hierarchical unity, and the principle of profit conjoined with pleasure.

By decorum Jonson largely means that the device, the central idea of the masque, must express what is proper to the occasion. Decorum, thus, motivates both the selection of the central idea and the manner of working it out, determining also the kind of dialogue and action and the type of decoration to be used.

By hierarchical unity Jonson means that the distinct parts of the "one entire body or figure" which a masque always aims at presenting do not blend into each other to form an organic unity: each part exists rather for its own value and expresses itself in its own sphere but is so disposed and connected as to make a clearly defined contribution to the illustration of the whole. A corollary of hierarchical unity is Jonson's law that no one element is to infringe on the duties proper to another.

It was by way of magnificence that Jonson's masques achieved the traditional goal of profit conjoined with pleasure. And the con-ception of magnificence, as Dolora Cunningham observes, obviously owed a good deal to Aristotle's definition of virtue. Jonson took great care to remind his audience that the wonderful was to load them not merely to a fatuous delight but to knowledge and respect.

Admiration, or wonder, as an effect of a Jonsonian masque has four aspects: it gives pleasure, it is a motive to knowledge, it is an incitement to respect; it is a basis of moral imitation. Here it must be observed that his means of securing wonder helps us to distinguish the Jonsonian masque from the work of others who, in general, depended largely upon spectacle.

Of the antimasque in his masques it must be said that Jonson did not confuse them with comedies. He used comic material, and characters in the antimasque to give variety and to act as foils to the noble persons who performed the main masque. For example, in Oberon, The Faery Prince, the Satyrs of the anti-masque are opposed to the Fairies of the main masque, and in The Masque of Queens Ignorance of the opposite of Fame.

Jonson's originality in developing the anti-masque is guided by three principles which he explained in the preface to The Masque of Queens: contrast, continuity, and variety. The anti-masque is not magnificent like the main masque, but it is strictly accordant with the device of the main masque. Its main function is to provide a pur-poseful variety within s given masque as well as the variety of novelty with respect to past entertainments. He was careful to decline not only from others' steps but his own in that kind. Since in one of the earlier masques he had an Anti-Masque of Boys, in 'The Masque of Queens' he "devised that twelve Women, in the habit of Hags, or Witches......should fill that part."

Of Jonson's masques T.S. Eliot has observed that they "can still be read, and with pleasure, by anyone who will take the trouble... to imagine them in action, displayed with the music, costumes, dances, and the scenery of Inigo Jones. They are additional evidence that Jonson had a fine sense of from, of the purpose for which a particular form is intended ; evidence that he was a literary artist even more than he was a man of letters." 

To conclude, Ben Jonson defined and practised the masque as a literary form with success achieved by no one else.

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