Contemporary Contexts of Jonson's The Devil Is an Ass


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Ben Jonson's The Devil Is an Ass is not one of his best known plays, but in many respects it is one of his most interesting. Written in 1616, the same year in which Jonson received a royal pension and witnessed the publication of his massive first folio, the play was produced at a time when its author must have seemed near the height of his public career. Although the work has rarely been judged·. a complete artistic success, it has hardly been considered a total failure. Instead, critical assessments have usually been mixed, with many readers acknowledging the play's genuine strengths. Anne Barton, in fact, has recently called it "an immensely courageous play, far better and more interesting than most of its critics have made out"; she sees it as both a summation and a new departure in Jonson's development as a dramatist.1 Her discussion invites new attention to the play' s aesthetic success, but our understanding of the work can also profit from a renewed examination of its place in history, of the ways it at once is embedded in and emerges from specific historical contexts. Leah Marcus has recently gone far towards helping us to understand those contexts,2 yet a wealth of further evidence links the work to contemporary personalities, issues, events, and texts that have yet to be fully explored. Examining this evidence will reveal how tightly the play can be tied to its own time and place and thus how many resonances it may have had for its original audience. Reading the play with a fuller awareness of its historical dimensions can heighten rather than reduce our sense of its artistry and complexity. Moreover, the test case which the play provides may suggest the need to re-examine many of Jonson's other works with renewed attention to their historical contexts.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.