MINISTRYOF HIGHER AND SECONDARY SPECIAL EDUCATION OF THE REPUBLIC OF UZBEKISTAN
TheEnglish and Literature Department
Qualificationwork on speciality English philology
“BenJonson and his comedies.”
TojievaDilnoza’s qualification work
IntroductionSome notes on Ben Johnson’s Works
Bornin 1572, Jonson began his working life as a bricklayer and then a soldier, andit is perhaps experiences in these fields – and his prodigious intake offalling down water – that shaped his no-nonsense, confrontational personality.
Jonsonbecame an actor after serving in the army in the Netherlands. By all accounts,he was not a very good actor, but during his time with Pembroke’s Men heco-authored a play, «Isle of Dogs,» with Nashe. The play, accused ofspreading sedition, would lead to one of many brushes with the State, and hewas imprisoned for some months.
Jonsonwrote for the Admiral’s Men until 1856, when a quarrel with Gabriel Spencer,one of the company’s leading players, led to a duel. Spencer was killed andJonson only spared execution by drawing on his knowledge of Latin to invoke thebenefit of the clergy, which enabled the convicted criminal to pass as aclergyman, and therefore obtain a discharge from the civil courts. It isbelieved that while in Newgate Prison he converted to Roman Catholicism, andhere was branded on his thumb with the «T» for Tyburn (the mostfamous place of execution in London after the Tower) to ever more remind him ofhis lucky escape.
Jonson’sfirst box office successes came about with comedies like «Every Man In HisHumour,» which featured Shakespeare in the cast. It is thought Shakespearewas probably the one who first championed Jonson as a writer of note. Jonson’smethod of working began to crystallize about this time, and he began to producemore hard-edged, biting satire dispensing with a lot of the farce and fripperythat were Shakespeare’s tools. As his work became ever more distinctive andclassically inspired he began to heap disdain on other writers and their work.
Boys’ Companyperformance of «Poetaster»In the early 1600’s, Jonson embraced anew phenomenon. Boys Companies were as seductive to audiences and asthreatening to Shakespeare’s brand of theatre as N*Synch and Boys 2 Men were totoday’s Springsteens, REMs and Rolling Stones.
BoysCompanies were highly trained in vocal and instrumental music, and with theiryouthful looks and skin were probably a lot easier to relate to in women’sroles than the half shaved, former soldiers of the adult theatre companies.
Jonson,the classical scholar, and Shakespeare, the populist crowd-pleaser as Jonsonsaw him, even came to blows in a «discussion» over the merits, orotherwise, of the Boys Companies. A protracted, and wordy, War of the Poetsensued, with both sides of the argument trading digs and insults through theirwork.
Imaginean episode of the TV show Frasier that lasts three years, and features anunbroken argument between Niles and Frasier Crane on the relative merits ofJung and Freud, and you get the general idea.
Jonsonwould find himself in trouble with the State time and time again – forridiculing the Scots in «Eastward Ho!» and most seriously when he wasquestioned over the gunpowder plot, after which he renounced his«provocative» Roman Catholicism. Later his play, «Sejanus,»would also fall foul of the censors.
Jonson,always something of a misunderstood outsider in his own writing, would commenton his lot at the hands of a society rife with envy and suspicion:
Know, tis adangerous age,
Wherein whowrites had need present his scenes
Forty-foldproof against the conjuring means
Of basedetractors and illiterate apes
(It’sinteresting that spooky rock person Marilyn Manson has been quoted as referringto Limp Bizkit’s front man Fred Durst as an «illiterate ape,» Mansonbeing another artistic figure who felt his work was being misrepresented afterthe atrocious events at Columbine.)
Withthe arrival of James I on the throne, Jonson found himself in favor once again,and, with his co-writer Inigo Jones, created Court Masques for Queen Anne untiltheir inevitable quarrel. Jonson and Shakespeare seem to have called a truce ontheir dispute and become close again around 1609. Until Shakespeare’s deaththey seem to have continued their almost good natured jibes and sniping, withJonson typically dismissing his friend as having «small Latin and lessGreek.»
BenJonson clearly saw himself as a champion of intellectualism – totalitarianstates often don’t care for intellectuals to the point that they will generallykill most of them. Shakespeare could ultimately be said to be cleverer indiluting his classical influences to reach a wider audience. It’s that oldHollywood-versus-arthouse debate.
Itwas said at the time that «gentle Will» Shakespeare showed Jonson acourtesy that was not returned. Jonson certainly seems to have been brusque andvolatile, a matter not helped by his drinking. Everyone drank alcohol inElizabethan and Jacobean London because the quality of the available drinkingwater was so bad. But Jonson literally turned it into an art form, composingwhole poems about his favorite drinking holes.
Thereseems to have been an almost brotherly relationship between Jonson andShakespeare. Though their rivalry was strong, and their verbal jibes at eachother cutting, both seemed to recognize the talent in each other – Jonsongrudgingly, Shakespeare more generously. They seem to have spent a great dealof time in each other’s company. It is believed that Shakespeare may havebecome ill prior to his death after a typically uproarious night out drinking(something strong and noxious, probably with an odd name like Left Leg) withJonson and others.
Ultimatelyit was Jonson – perhaps his greatest and most constant critic – who gaveShakespeare his most enduring epitaph: «He was not of an age, but for alltime.»
BenJonson died in 1637.
Worksby Ben Jonson:
«EveryMan in His Humour»
«EveryMan out of His Humour»
«TheDevil is an Ass»
BenJonson’s Volpone: Issues and Considerations
1. Theopening scene of the play (1.1.1-27) is often considered a satire of some sorton the Catholic Mass. If this is so and considering that Jonson was a Catholicat the time of the writing, why would the author include such a scene?
2. Volpone is set against abackground of decadence and corruption in Venice. Renaissance (andEnlightenment) England was publicly suspicious of the supposed corruption thattraveling to Italy brought. How does Jonson use this background to further thethemes and purpose of his play? Are the images stereotypical?
3. Howmuch is Volpone a play shaped by monetary fears and concerns? How muchis it a play about the use and abuse of authority?
4. Howwould you map out the ascent, climax, and denouement of the main plot? Wheredoes the scene between Celia and Volpone fall? Where do the two court scenesbelong?
5. Whatis the purpose of the subplot involving Sir Pol, Lady Pol, and Peregrine? Doesit in any way reflect on the larger plot?
6. Whatis the role of Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno?
7. Howwould you play the court Avocatori? Are they primarily serious or farcicalcharacters?
8. Howcomplicit are we as a audience with Volpone and Mosca’s vices? Are they tooattractive (at first) as characters? Why is Volpone given a chance to addressthe audience in the closing speech?
9. Isthis a comedy? How do you account for the punishments awarded at the end, thevulgar attempted rape by Volpone, and the play’s more serious moments? Is the ending comic?
Does this playhave (in the end) a positive, ethical message? If so, what is it? If not, why not?
In addition tothe reading assignment on the syllabus, please read through the material onthis well-researched web page by a student (identified only as«Jason») in Professor Christy Desmet’s Renaissance Drama course atthe University of Georgia: Venice as the Setting for Volpone
1.In Act I, scene 1 (pp. 1131-2), Volpone lists the many means of making money(honestly and dishonestly) that he does not use. What is his«trade»? How does he make his money?
2.Trace the gold imagery in the first three acts. What functions does gold servein the world of Volpone?
3.Jonson draws on animal fables for his characters’ names and personalities. Howdoes this technique affect your expectations as a reader? Does the text fulfillthose expectations?
4.Other than Mosca, the only members of Volpone’s household are his threeservants (rumored to be his illigitimate children). In each of them, thenatural body of a man has been in some way warped, mutilated, or curtailed:Nano is a dwarf, Androgyno a hermaphrodite (a person with characteristics ofboth sexes), and Castrone a eunuch (a castrated male). What is the effect ofVolpone’s bing surrounded by such creatures?
5.Note the performance given by Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone in Act 1, scene 2. Itis a dramatic rendering of a popular Italian prose form, the paradox, inwhich the writer makes a witty display by considering (usually scornfully) somesupposedly paradoxical assertion. Donne wrote some such prose paradoxes (e.g.,«That a wise man is known by much laughing,» which defends that ideain face of the usual proverb that you know a man is a fool if he’s alwayslaughing). Volpone’s minions present a Praise of Folly. What is the point ofthis play within a play?
6.In Act 2, scene 1, Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-Be converse. How is thisscene related to Act 1? And what is Peregrine’s function in the play? How arewe (as readers or audience members) to understand his role in relation to theother characters we have seen thus far?
7.In Act 2, scene 2, Volpone adopts the «disguise» he decided to use atthe end of Act 1. Taking on the role of the mountebank Scoto of Mantua, he setsup a stage near the house of Corvino. His speeches in the person of Scoto areprinted in italics. His act is to hawk «Scoto’s Oil» («oglio delScoto»), a cure for all ills; how does his performance as Scoto compare tohis performance as a dying man in Act 1?
8.Celia appears at her window and throws down a handkerchief full of coins to thesupposed mountebank below. Why do you suppose she does this? And what do thevarious characters in the play assume to be her motivation? Does her motivationmatter in the overall scheme of Jonson’s play?
9.In scenes 6-7 of Act 2, Corvino’s greed takes precedence over his jealousy, sothat he becomes willing to become a bawd or pander (i.e., a pimp) selling hisown wife to Volpone. Compare his speeches to Celia at the end of scene 5 (lines48-73) and in scene 7 (lines 6-18). What ironies emerge from the language heuses in each case?
1.At the beginning of Act 3, Mosca speaks a grand soliloquy on his profession:that of the parasite. What is a parasite? Who qualifies as a«sub-parasite»? If «Almost / All the wise world is little else,in nature, / But parasites and sub-parasites,» does anyone qualify asanother kind of being?
2.Lady Politic Would-Be is, like Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, afortune-hunter. But is she in the same category with the other three? What, ifanything, sets her apart? As you think about this question, take a look at thisweb page (again by Jason from the University of Georgia) on Courtesans inVenice.
3.What means does Volpone use in his attempt to seduce Celia in 3.7.139-154? In154-164 of the same scene? In the «Song» that follows? And in185-239? All of these attempts at seduction fail because of Celia’sunassailable virtue. At what, if anything, do they succeed? Do they have aneffect on you as a reader?
4.How do Volpone’s addresses to Celia in 3.7 compare with his address to gold in1.1?
5.Is there any shift in the degree to which the audience (or reader) identifieswith Volpone and/or Mosca at various points in the play?
6.What does Peregrine’s trick on Sir Pol add to the play’s plot and theme?
7.With whom, if anyone, do the audience’s (or reader’s) sympathies lie in theplay’s final scenes?
8.Courtroom scenes are versions of the play-within-a-play technique, for lawyersand witnesses are performers very conscious of the audience that will judgethem. How good are the performances in the courtroom scene of Act 5, scene 12? Howdoes the courtroom «play» compare to the earlier plays-within-a-play(such as Volpone’s deathbed act or his performance as Scoto)? How does thecourtroom play-within-a-play relate to the play Volpone itself? That is,how do the performances in the courtroom (directed toward the judges) commenton that of the play Volpone (directed toward the theater audience)?
5.How do the various punishments meted out to Volpone, Mosca, and the otherscompare? Why are they so inequitable?
6.In Act 3, attempting to defend against the foul plans of her husband, Mosca,and Volpone, Celia declares her dedication to the preservation of honor (herown and her husband’s). Corvino’s response dismisses her scruples. Is Celia’sview of honor vindicated by the end of the play?
7.The Norton introduction to the play speculates «that what Venice isin the play, England is about to become, in the city of London, the year of ourLord 1606»; and that Jonson, given his «vigorous social morality,would not have rejected» such an interpretation. Do you agree thatJonson’s play is a warning for Englishmen about their own society?
In his earlierplays, Jonson had made characters speak bitterly, expressing direct anddangerous attacks on the social manners of the higher classes. In Volponethat never happens. The Prologue boasts that it was written in five weeks(Jonson was usually a slow writer), all by Jonson himself. Then the play iscompared with the more vulgar kind of play where there is horseplay andclowning:
And sopresents quick comedy refined,
As bestcritics have designed;
The laws oftime, place, persons he observeth,
From noneedful rule he swerveth.
All gall andcopperas from his ink he draineth,
Only a littlesalt remaineth…
The setting isVenice. Act One begins, as Volpone (the ‘fox’) and his close servantMosca (the ‘fly’) celebrate Volpone’s morning ‘worship’ of his gold:
VOLPONE. Goodmorning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open theshrine, that I may see my saint.
(Moscaopens the curtain that hides much treasure)
Hail theworld’s soul, and mine! more glad than is the teeming earth to see thelonged-for sun peep through the horns of the celestial ram, am I, to view thysplendour darkening his;
That lyinghere, amongst my other hoardes, show’st like a flame by night, or like the dayStruck out by chaos, when all darkness fled unto the centre. O thou son of Sol,but brighter than thy father, let me kiss, with adoration, thee, and everyrelic of sacred treasure in this blessed room. Well did wise poets by thyglorious name title that age which they would have the best;
Thou being thebest of things, and far transcending all style of joy, in children, parents,friends, or any other waking dream on earth. Thy looks when they to Venus didascribe, they should have given her twenty thousand Cupids, such are thybeauties and our loves! Dear saint, Riches, the dumb god, that givest all mentongues, that canst do nought, and yet mak’st men do all things;
The price ofsoul; even hell, with thee to boot, is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue,fame, honour and all things else. Who can get thee, he shall be noble, valiant,honest, wise — After this blasphemous adoration, Mosca flatters Volpone,stressing that his fortune was was not made by oppressing the poor. Then in asoliloquy, Volpone exposes his method:
I have nowife, no parent, child, ally, to give my substance to, but whom I make must bemy heir; and this makes men observe me.
This draws newclients daily to my house, women and men of every sex and age, that bring mepresents, send me plate, coin, jewels, with hope that when I die (which theyexpect each greedy minute) it shall then return Tenfold upon them.
Shakespeare,in Richard III and other plays, had already exploited the fact that, intheatre, ‘all the world loves a villain.’ Volpone is a shameless villain, quiteopen about his deceptions, inviting the audience (through Mosca) to admire hisskills at manipulating human greed. The play then has an ‘interlude’ in whichVolpone’s ‘creatures’ — a dwarf, an eunuch and a fool — entertain him ingrotesque imitation of court entertainments.
The actionbegins with the arrival, one by one, of Volpone’s ‘clients,’ whom he despises.To receive them he pretends to be terribly sick. The first is Signor Voltore(the ‘vulture’) who is a lawyer. Mosca assures him that he is Volpone’s onlyheir. Then comes Corbaccio (the ‘raven’), who is old and deaf and impatient. Heoffers some medecine that Mosca recognizes as a poison, then produces a bag ofgold. Mosca says he will use it to excite Volpone to make a will in Corbaccio’sfavour, then suggests that Corbaccio should make a will naming Volpone his soleheir, in place of his son, as proof of his love. When the next client comes,Corvino the merchant (the ‘crow’), Volpone seems to be at death’s door, thoughhe still has the strength to grasp a pearl and diamond Corvino has brought.Mosca invites his to shout insults at him, saying that he is quite unconscious,then suggests that they should suffocate Volpone with a pillow; this frightensCorvino, though he does not condemn Mosca for the idea. Finally, aftermentioning the English visitor Lady Would-be, Mosca tells Volpone of the beautyof Corvino’s young wife, who is jealously guarded. This makes Volpone long tosee her.
Act Two begins with the play’ssub-plot, that is often omitted in modern productions; the English travellerSir Politic Would-be holds a conversation with another English traveller,Peregrine, showing himself to be vain and foolish. Volpone arrives disguised asa mountebank and begins a long speech boasting of the qualities of his specialmedicine. Corvino’s wife, Celia, throws down some money from a window andVolpone tosses back his potion. Corvino suddenly appears and chases him away.
Volpone islove-struck and asks Mosca to get Celia for him. Meanwhile we see Corvinoviolently abusing his wife, mad with jealousy. Mosca arrives, saying thatVolpone is a little better after using the mountebank’s potion! The doctors, hesays, have decided that he should have a young woman in bed with him, so thatsome of her energy may pass into him. Mosca says that one of the doctorsoffered his daughter, a virgin, sure that Volpone would not be able to harmher, and he urges Corvino to find someone first, since Volpone might change hiswill. Corvino decides to offer Celia!
Act Three begins with Mosca’spraise of himself; the true parasite, he says, Is a most precious thing,droppped from above, Not bred ‘mongst clods and clodpoles here on earth. I musethe mystery was not made a science, It is so liberally professed! Almost Allthe wise world is little else, in nature, But parasites or sub-parasites. Hemeets Corbaccio’s son, Bonario, who belongs to a different universe; he ishonest and frank, and despises Mosca. Mosca pretends to weep, and Bonario is atonce touched with pity. Mosca then tells him that his father is making a willleaving everything to Volpone, disinheriting him! He offers to bring him to theplace where it will be done.
There followsan interview between Volpone and Lady Politic Would-be, who settles down andoffers to make him some medecines. Volpone finds her a torment; Mosca arrivesand urges her to leave quickly because he has just seen Sir Politic rowing offwith a famous prostitute! As she leaves, he brings Bonario into the house,telling him to hide in a cupboard from where he will hear his father disinherithim. Then things become complicated, Corvino arrives with Celia, earlier thanMosca had expected them. He sends Bonario out into the corridor, while Corvinotells Celia why she is here. As a noble and faithful wife, she is horrified andbegs him not to ask her to do such a thing. He insists, with horrible threatsif she does not obey. At last Mosca drags him out, leaving Celia alone withVolpone who leaps from the bed, and begins to woo her, even singing an eroticcarpe diem song:
Come, myCelia, let us prove, while we can, the sports of love;
Time will notbe ours forever, he at length our good will sever;
Spend not thenhis gifts in vain. Suns that set may rise again;
But if once welose this light, ‘Tis with us perpetual night. Why should we defer our joys?Fame and rumour are but toys. Cannot we delude the eyes of a few poor householdspies? Or his easier ears beguile, Thus removed by our wile? This no sin love’sfruits to steal;
But the sweettheft to reveal, to be taken, to be seen, those have crimes accounted been.
Volpone isalmost mad with desire, and begins to describe various kinds of eroticactivities they could perform. She prays for pity, and when he seizes her,screams. Bonario rushes in to save her, and carries her off, wounding Mosca onthe way. Volpone and Mosca are horrified, but Corbaccio’s arrival gives Moscaan idea. He tells Corbaccio that Bonario has learned of his plan with the willand is threatening to kill him; Voltore has also come, unseen, and overhearsMosca being flattering to Corbaccio. He challenges him, and Mosca at onceexplains that he had planned that Bonario should kill his father, whoseproperty would come to Volpone and so to Voltore. Voltore believes him; Moscathen says that Bonario has run off with Celia, intending to say that Volponehad tried to rape her so as to discredit him. Voltore decides to bring thismatter to the judges, in order to stop Bonario.
Act Four begins with thecontinuation of the Sir Politic sub- plot; Lady Would-be thinks that Peregrineis the famous prostitute disguised and begins to scold him. Mosca comes andtells her that she is wrong, that the woman in question has been brought to thejudges. The court scene begins. As the judges enter they are on the side of theyoung people, and order Volpone to be brought, although Mosca and the othersassert he is too weak to move.
Voltorespeaks, claiming that Celia and Bonario had long been lovers, that they had beencaught, but forgiven by Corvino; that Corbaccio had decided to disown his sonfor his vice, and that Bonario had come to Volpone’s house intending to killhis father. Unable to do so, he says, he attacked Volpone and Mosca, andresolved with Celia to accuse Volpone of rape. Corbaccio publicly rejectsBonario as his son, Corvino swears that his wife has cheated him with Bonario.Mosca supports their story with his wound. In addition, he claims to have seenCelia in the company of Sir Politic, and Lady Politic bursts in, claiming thatshe has seen them too!
The entry ofVolpone, carried in apparently dying, seemingly quite unconscious andparalysed, is decisive for the judges. The two young people are arrested andMosca sends away the hopeful clients, each of them convinced that Volpone’sfortune is their’s.
Act Five finds Volpone recoveringfrom the strain. He orders his creatures to announce his death in the streets;then he makes a will in which Mosca is declared his heir and goes to hidebehind a curtain, intending to watch the effect on each one. Voltore arrivesfirst, as Mosca is busy making a list of goods; Corbaccio follows, thenCorvino, and Lady Politic. Each is surprised to see the others. Volponecomments on their conduct in asides from behind the curtain. Mosca continues towrite, then hands them the will, that they read together, although Corbaccioonly finds Mosca’s name a while later than the others. Mosca sends Lady Politicaway first, then Corvino, Corbaccio, and finally Voltore, after giving to eacha moralizing summary of their previous actions.
Volpone isdelighted, wishes he could see their disappointment out on the streets. Moscasuggests that he disguise himself as a common sergeant. There is an interludewhere Peregrine in disguise tells Sir Politic that he has been denounced as aforeign agent. Sir Politic decides to disguise himself in a huge turtle’sshell; Peregrine brings in some merchants to admire the beast, and they tormentSir Politic. He decides to leave at once. Volpone dresses as a soldier, Moscahas put on a nobleman’s dress; they plan to go walking in the streets, butMosca tells us he plans to make Volpone share his fortune with him, and staysbehind in control of the house. Volpone congratulates each of the clients on theirgood fortune, and enjoys their fury.
They are allgoing to the court, where Bonario and Celia are to be sentenced. Voltoresuddenly begins to repent, and is about to tell the truth, it seems. He haswritten certain aspects of the truth in his notes. The others claim that he hasbeen bewitched; news of Volpone’s death supports their story. As Voltore isabout to speak, the disguised Volpone whispers to him that Mosca wants him toknow that in fact Volpone is not yet dead and that he is still the heir. Voltorepretends to collapse and Volpone declares that an evil spirit has just lefthim. He rises, and declares that Volpone is alive. Mosca comes in, and insistsVolpone is dead. Meanwhile, Volpone has realized Mosca’s plan against him; hetries to negociate in whispers, but Mosca rejects him and asks the judges topunish him.
In despair,Volpone throws off his disguise, and everything becomes clear; Bonario andCelia are freed, Mosca is condemned to be a ‘perpetual prisoner in ourgalleys,’ prison ships where no one survived long. All Volpone’s fortune isconfiscated to help the sick, and he is to stay in prison until he is ‘sick andlame indeed.’ Voltore is banished, Corbaccio sent to a monastery to die,Corvino will be rowed round Venice wearing ass’s ears then put in the pillory,and Celia is returned to her family with three times her dowry.Ben Jonson’s Volpone: black comedy from the dawn of themodern era
Inresponse to the Sydney Theatre Company’s (STC) production of Ben Jonson’s Volponelast year, I determined to undertake a study of the life and work of thisextraordinary playwright and poet. Although his work is seldom performed thesedays, Jonson was one of the leading protagonists in the most vibrant period ofearly English theatre. For a time, he was considered the virtual Poet Laureateof England. His literary stature rivalled, and for the century after his death,even overshadowed that of Shakespeare.
Volpone is recognised as one ofJonson’s major works. Some 400 years after it was written, the play, aboutcompulsive acquisitiveness and abuse of privilege, still resonates with itsaudience. The characters—or caricatures—remain recognisable, as does Jonson’sexposure of the pomposity of the legal system and the hypocrisy of wealthy lawyerswho are prepared to argue anything for a price.
UnderstandingJonson’s life and work proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Althoughmuch has been written on the subject, most of it divorces the playwright andhis plays from their historical context in England and the wider social andpolitical ferment that was underway in Europe. Jonson, like his literarycreation Volpone, was very much larger than life. But he can be easily lost inan examination of the minutiae of his work.
Ihope that in my preliminary investigations, I have managed to avoid thispitfall.
Ben Jonson’s Literary Activity
Jonson’slife story reads like a tragic novel. Born in London the posthumous son of aclergyman and trained by his stepfather as a bricklayer, Jonson became amercenary, then an actor and leading playwright. At the height of his career,he was unchallenged in his chosen profession and a companion to some of theleading figures of his day. But he died virtually alone and impoverished eightyears after suffering a debilitating stroke. He was buried beneath WestminsterAbbey under the inscription “O Rare Ben Johnson”.
Jonson’slife spanned the years 1573 to 1637, a period of extraordinary change inEnglish society: from the latter years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth Ithrough to the eve of the English Civil War in 1642. Passionate and volatile,he was a man with a clear eye for the world around him. His plays are noted fortheir satirical view of the modern—capitalist—class relations that werebeginning to develop.
Bourgeoismonetary relations were breaking down the old feudal ties that had existed inEngland and which had been grounded in a largely subsistence agriculturaleconomy. London was experiencing an explosive expansion—a process driven by theimpact of trade and the early market economy. A century before Volpone waswritten, the city’s population numbered just 60,000. By the time of the play’sfirst performance in 1606, it had more than trebled to over 200,000. London wassoon to become Europe’s largest city.
Thegrowth continued despite bouts of the plague and other epidemics. In the years1603 and 1625, for example, between one fifth and one quarter of the residentsdied from disease. One of Jonson’s later major works, The Alchemist, isset in London during an outbreak of the plague and concerns a wealthy homeowner who has fled the capital, leaving the servants in charge of his citymansion.
Theexpansion of trade along the Thames, and the broadening power of the royalcourt led to a London property boom. England’s foreign trade, which extendedfrom Russia to the Mediterranean and the New World, grew tenfold between 1610and 1640.
Economicgrowth was also accompanied by deepening social inequality. The real wage ofcarpenters, for instance, halved from Elizabeth’s reign to that of Charles I.Side by side with opulent wealth were squalid tenements. Yet the poor fromelsewhere in the country and from continental Europe were drawn to London bythe prospect of wages that were more than 50 percent higher than the rest ofsouthern England.
Thecity became a place of business and of fashion for the rural-based aristocracy,and Jonson parodies in some of his plays the tendency of young aristocrats tosell acres of their land to pay for city fineries. London was the heart of theroyal court and the state bureaucracy. At any time over a thousand gentlemenconnected with parliament or the law courts could be found residing at thecity’s inns.
Theseinns became a hub of intellectual ferment where writers and actors like Jonsonmet with merchants, gentlemen and other leading figures of the day. Jonsondedicated his first major work, Every Man In His Humour, to these inns,calling them “the noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty in the kingdom”.
London’seconomic expansion and the aggregation of so many and varied social elementsstimulated the cultural development expressed in Elizabethan and Jacobeantheatre. At the same time, the social tensions brewing within the growingmetropolis created a receptive audience for the satire for which Jonson was tobecome famous.
The English theatre
Establishedtheatre was still a relatively new phenomenon in sixteenth century England. Thefirst permanent legal theatre was established up in London in 1552. Beforethat, performances were carried out on temporary platforms set up in tavernsand inns. Entertainment at the new venues ranged from bear baiting toperformances for the royal court.
Jonsonwas almost a generation younger than the major Elizabethan writers ChristopherMarlowe and William Shakespeare who led the theatrical exploration of newaspects of the human experience. He records his appreciation of Shakespeare ina poem where he notes that “he was not of an age but for all time.”
Thefirst mention of Jonson in the theatre comes in 1597 in a note for a four-pound loan given to him for his work as an actor by the entrepreneurWilliam Henslowe. That same year Jonson was imprisoned for his part in writinga play called The Isle of Dogs, a satirical work mocking the Scots.
Releasedsoon after, Jonson quickly became better known for his writing than his acting,producing works for the leading theatres of the day. Every Man in His Humour,finished in late 1598, established him as a major writer of comedy and satire.Its first performance was at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
ButJonson was again imprisoned, this time for killing an associate actor in aduel. He was acquitted only after successfully pleading “benefit of clergy”—alaw allowing for the pardoning of defendants due to their literacy.
Jonsonwas one of the most educated writers of the day. He had a profound knowledge ofLatin and Greek theatre and poetry and, like many artists of the period, hedeveloped his work within the framework established by the classics. In all thearts and sciences, the heritage of Greece and Rome was being rediscovered andre-assimilated.
TheEnglish Renaissance writers reworked classical, traditional and contemporarystories. Shakespeare, for example, reworked an already rephrased Englishtranslation of an Italian story for his Romeo and Juliet (1595), whichthe Spanish playwright Lope de Vega retold as a tragicomedy in 1608.Christopher Marlowe’s epic poem Hero and Leander, which is based on anancient Greek myth, says more about the customs of contemporary England than ofthe ancient Greeks. The art was in the telling, not in the creation, of thestories.
Jonsonis often accused of being constricted in his writing by classical references.But he was in no way overawed by the classics. In fact, part of his creativegenius was his ability to rework themes and ideas to fit the contemporarysetting. Many of the sources were so seamlessly integrated into his storiesthat only after centuries of scholarship were the connections establishedbetween his work and that of earlier writers.
Hedrew directly on ancient mythology in his masques for the royal court. Masqueswere highly stylised theatrical events performed for and by the members of thearistocracy. With Jonson and his sometime collaborator, architect Inigo Jones,the masque developed from a relatively simplistic entertainment into anelaborate (although rather self indulgent and hugely expensive) art form.
Theplaywright was also influenced by European theatre, particularly the ItalianCommedia dell’arte. Commedia dell’arte troupes had toured London in the late1590s and a number of the characters in Volpone have their directcounterparts in this Italian theatrical form. Jonson’s Volpone, for example,fits well within the range of the Commedia’s Pantalone, whose character rangedfrom a miserly and ineffectual old man to an energetic cuckolder with “almostanimal ferocity and agility”. In the play, Jonson integrates this influencewith classical references, as well as English and European folk mythology andtheatrical styles.
Jonsonalso drew on the English tradition of medieval morality plays, where actorspersonified human characteristics such as Virtue, Vice, Lechery or Curiosity toillustrate moral lessons. The plots were generally limited, since the moralpoints were universal rather than specific.
Jonsonwelded all these influences into a theatre that was purposeful and aimed atplaying a critical role in society. His comedies brought a new realism as wellas a sharp eye for outlining human character types. As one writer commented, hegave “a new sense of the interdependence of character and society”.
WhileVolpone was set in Venice, London audiences were well able to recogniseits themes. For his realism, Jonson was attacked at the time as “a meereEmpyrick, one that gets what he hath by observation”. But four centuries on,his ability to capture social contradictions and present them in a captivatingform continues to resonate.
Throughthe play, considered by some his masterpiece, Jonson portrays with ablack humour a society in which the pursuit of wealth and individualself-interest have become primary. Venice was regarded as the epitome of a sophisticatedcommercial city and virtually all the characters are revealed as corrupt orcompromised.
Volponemeans “fox” in Italian. Jonson based his story around medieval and Aesopiantales in which a fox pretends to be dead in order to catch the carrion birdsthat come to feed on its carcass. In the play, Volpone is a single and agingVenetian “magnifico” who has devised a trick to fleece his neighbours whilesimultaneously nourishing his sense of superiority over his hapless victims.For three years he has pretended to be dying, so as to encourage legacy huntersto bring gifts in the hope of being named as his beneficiary.
Withthe aid of his servant Mosca, Volpone strings along his suitors—Voltore,Corbaccio and Corvino—extracting their wealth by feeding their avarice.(Voltore Corbaccio and Corvino are the Italian names for vulture, crow andraven.) Voltore, a lawyer, offers Volpone a platter made of precious metal.Corbaccio, a doddering gentleman, is talked into disinheriting his son Bonarioin favour of Volpone, while Corvino, a miserly merchant and hugely jealoushusband, is driven by greed to offer his young wife Celia to bed and comfortthe supposedly dying Volpone.
HereVolpone, a rogue whose victims trap themselves by their own weaknesses (and aretherefore deserving of their respective fates) becomes overwhelmed by his ownpassions. Definitely not at death’s door and completely obsessed, he tries toforce himself onto Celia and is only stopped by the lucky appearance ofBonario. The two innocents bring charges in court against the old man. Butcountercharges of adultery and fornication against Celia and Bonario are laidby the three legacy hunters who are desperate to defend what each considers hisown future wealth.
Volponerevels in these ever-widening displays of degradation. He decides to stage hisown death so he can witness their frenzy when they see him bequeathing hiswealth to Mosca. However, after Mosca begins preparing the elaborate funeral,he ceases to acknowledge his former master. As the heir to Volpone’s greatwealth, Mosca is transformed in the eyes of the courtroom judges—who are asself-serving as the rest—from a lowly servant into an eligible young man towhom they might marry their daughters.
Desperatenot to be outfoxed by his servant, Volpone reveals himself, thus exposing hisown and everyone else’s guilt. He is stripped of his wealth, which is given tocharity, and sentenced to prison, while Mosca is condemned to the galleys forpassing himself off as a person of breeding. Voltore, the advocate, is debarredfrom the court and Corbaccio’s wealth is transferred to his son Bonario.Corvino is paraded through Venice as an ass, while his wife Celia is sent hometo her family with triple her dowry.
Jonsonskillfully manipulates the audience so that it identifies with Volpone and hisbrazen schemes. The old magnifico’s zest is infective and the audience is sweptalong with his machinations only to find itself, along with the anti-hero,hovering at the edge of criminality. In this way, the author tries to confrontus with the dangers of unrestrained self-interest and with what Jonsonconsiders to be a necessary sense of social responsibility.
Genre:Comic drama, but also a satire.
Form:blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) mixed with comic song. Since the«plot» is a low criminal conspiracy (but what was the rebellionagainst Henry IV or Lear?), the «subplot» is a parody of criminalconspiracy set in Venice but involving an English traveler, an English noblemanand his wife, all of whom are on tour.
Charactersand Summary: This plot closely parallels Horace’s satire on legacy hunters (BookII.7) but dramatizes it with characters whose flattened, comic/satiric personasrepresent various types of human personality as they are distorted by greed,lust, and sheer perversity. Jonson alerts us to the symbolic order of theaction’s meaning by means of the names he assigns the primary characters: Volpone(fox–deceiver), Mosca (fly–parasite), Voltore(vulture–scavenger/lawyer), Corbaccio (crow–wealthy but still greedyman), and Corvino (raven, another scavenger–the wealthy merchant whocan’t get enough). These characters all seek to be named Volpone’s heir inorder to gain his treasure, but they offer him gifts to achieve that honor, andhe (though nowhere near death) strings them along, more in love with hisdelight in deceiving them than even his beloved gold. A love plot is attachedto this legacy-hunt, involving Corvino’s wife (Celia) and Corbaccio’sson (Bonario), but one of the play’s puzzles is that they are suchrelatively lifeless, though moral, characters. Below these levels, three moresets of characters populate the stage. Nano (a dwarf), Castrone(an eunuch), and Androgyno (a hermaphrodite) join Mosca as Volpone’scourtiers, Sir Poltic Would-be and his wife are deceived by Peregrine(the young English man on the Continental tour), and the elders of Venicealternately try to profit from and to bring justice to the confusion (Commendatori[sheriffs], Mercatori [merchants], Avocatori [lawyers, brothersof Corvino], and Notario [the court’s registrar]).
Sothe plot, in brief, is that the conspirators try to deceive Volpone, but he’sreally deceiving them, until his agent (Mosca) deceives him (and them) and theybring him to the court, which they all try to deceive, until they are unmasked(while Peregrine is being deceived by and deceiving Sir and Lady PoliticWould-be). Got it?
1. Youhave seen, in Marlowe and Shakespeare, the strategies of pitting a subplot’scomic agenda against that of a tragic main plot.
o Howwould you discuss sub-plot and main plot in this play?
o Whatdoes that tell you about Volpone’s basic strategy regarding the play’s goalsand his manipulation of the audience’s sympathies? For instance, compare thecharacters of Volpone and Henry IV or Lear, and try to argue for which is themore attractive title character.)
2. Jonsonargues, elsewhere, that drama should be evaluated with respect to some specialforms of truth. For instance, he considers «truth to type» as a goodtest of characters, asking whether that sort of person would have done what thecharacter did.
o Whatkinds of normative judgments does this require, and how does that affect theplay’s socio-political agendas?
3. Jonsonparodies many classical lyric forms (see below re: Catullus) but his mostoutrageous is his first, a satire on the aubade or dawn song usually sung by alover to the beloved (and answered by her) upon their seeing the first rays oflight which end their illicit night of passion.
o Volpone’s,which begins Act I.i, praises the beauty of some other phenomenon–what is it,and how does he describe it? His character here is almost a literaltranscription of some medieval morality play «vice» figures.
o Wherewould you go in Shakespeare to find a similar meditation wherein a characterreveals his soul, inner nature, strategy, etc.?
4. Atypical measure of dramatic structure is the relationship between chaos andorder. As the comedy unwinds, chaos increases, and as it approaches its end,the chaos ought either to increase to a catastrophe (duck blows up hunter, dog,hunter’s house, doghouse) or to a restoration of order (duck returned to wild,hunter to home, dog to doghouse). Generally speaking, many comedies approach anapex of their disorder around the third act.
o What’shappening when Mosca walks on stage in III.i?
o Especially,how does his soliloquy illustrate the dangers of Count Canossa’s prescriptionfor a courtier’s development in Hoby’s translation of The Courtier?
o Howmight this relate to Jonson’s politics in the Jacobean period, especially tothe rise of new courtiers to power in James I’s reign?
o Thisplay ends with the «Volpone» character coming to the edge of thestage to deliver a curious apology for the play’s bad behavior and to ask theaudience for forgiving applause. What does this suggest about Jonson’s view of theplay’s «moral center» vs. the astonishing success of immorality formost of the play’s acts?
5. Theplay’s content and style draw upon an aesthetic trend called neoclassicism, aset of rules and habits of composition based on imitation of Greek and Romanclassical models for literature. You can see this in the prologue’s boast aboutfollowing the so-called «Aristotelian unities» of place, time andaction. Volpone’s paen to Celia (III.7) is sung in a voice borrowed from Catullus(#5), the song to «Lesbia» which dares her to defy convention and oldmen’s jealousy to seek the plenitude of pleasure her lover promises. Comparethe two. To read a Roman poem Jonson may have had inmind re: «legacy hunting,» check out Project Perseus’s online versionof Horace’s satire on the topic (Book II, number 5). (Horace imagines asatiric/comic addition to the scene in Homer’s Odyssey Book 12 whenOdysseus, in the Underworld, asks the spirit of the prophet Teiresias to tellhim how to return home to Ithaka where young bachelors are devouring hishousehold while waiting for his wife to choose one of them.)
o Whatdoes Catullus offer and how does it differ from Volpone’s deal for Celia?
Those of youwho have taken English 215 (Critical Methods) and those who have discoveredsomething of literary criticism’s theoretical bases on their own may be readyto start thinking about final papers even now. Imagine how good a paper youcould write if you started working on it with six weeks left to go in thesemester! Imagine how thoroughly you could think through the argument andpolish your own prose. The final paper assignment stipulates only that thetopic should be based mainly on one text we’ve read since the midterm exam andthat it also should deal with at least one text from the first half of thesemester. (Exceptions might be two sections from a very large work we readafter the midterm, like Paradise Lost or Oroonoko.) You cancenter your analysis on one text, using the other for comparison and contrast,or you can do a balanced analysis of both. You also could refer to more thanone subordinate text to help unpack your argument about the main, post-midtermtext. Though you may have «hunches» or even full-blown insights aboutthe play that typical audiences would not detect, those hunches and insightsall depend on some basic assumptions about how to read plays which you probablyhave unconsciously absorbed from your previous teachers. Rather than chargingat the play’s evidence without being aware of your theoretical approach’sassumptions, you may benefit from approaching the task of writing with a theoryof interpretation in mind. Jonson’s social outlook
BenJonson’s realism relates to his view of the role of artist/poet in society. Asa child, he had been fortunate to attend Westminster School, where he cameunder the influence of the noted historian and antiquarian William Camden.There he embraced the humanist outlook of the Renaissance, which emphasisedrespect for the dignity and rights of man and the idea that knowledge advancedthe human condition.
Thiswas a time of political and social convulsion throughout Europe. The humanistideas of the Renaissance were followed by the Reformation. Within the frameworkof the day, Jonson was no radical. Like others, he viewed the absolutemonarchy, balanced between the old aristocracy and the emerging capitalistclass, as a guarantor of culture against the challenge from parliament and thePuritan church. Along with figures like Sir Francis Bacon, he distrustedparliament as a vehicle for the self-interest of landowners, merchants andtheir agents.
Inhis posthumously published writings—Timber: or, Discoveries Made Upon Menand Matter: As they have flow’d out of his daily Readings; or had their refluxeto his peculiar Notion of the Times—Jonson wrote: “Suffrages inParliament are numbred, not weigh’d: nor can it bee otherwise in those publike Councels,where nothing is so unequall, as the equality: for there, how odde soever mensbraines, or wisdomes are, their power is alwayes even, and the same.”
Ina Europe that was still struggling to reappropriate the intellectual conquestsof the classical civilisations, and where the vast majority had little or noeducation, Jonson’s emphasis on the differing “weight” of people’s opinions wasat least understandable. In his view, the monarchy provided an environment inwhich learning and culture could develop. In turn, that enlightened climatewould nurture an enlightened and benevolent monarch.
Jonsonwrote in Timber: “Learning needs rest: Soveraignty gives it. Soveraigntyneeds counsell: Learning affords it. There is such a Consociation of offices,betweene the Prince, and whom his favour breeds, that they may helpe tosustaine his power, as hee their knowledge.” He added further on: “A Princewithout Letters, is a Pilot without eyes… And how can he be counsell’d thatcannot see to read the best Counsellors (which are books).”
Jonsonconceived his role as providing insight into the problems of the day. Thus, heapproached society critically. His works are infused with a refusal to sidestepsocial contradictions. For Jonson, “Truth is mans proper good; and theonely immortall thing, was given to our mortality to use”. His creativefunction was to express the complexities of life and truth in a form that couldbe appreciated by the common man.
Jonson’splays challenged the audience to examine the impact of a society governed bydeceit and subterfuge. His strength lay in his ability to confront thosewatching with life as he saw it. In his ability to recreate theatrically thecontemporary world and identify both general and specific aspects of the humanexperience, he was opening new ground that would be further explored in theensuing centuries.
Having thegood fortune of living in NYC where not one, but two Elizabethan plays arebeing produced within walking distance of our apartment, Stan and I went to seeBen Johnson’s The Alchemist on Saturday afternoon.
The ClassicStage Company takes exactly the opposite approach to the staging the classicsas does The Pearl, so it was fun to see these two plays on the same weekend.Philosophically, it appears that the CSC wants to bring out the similaritiesbetween early 17th century England and early 21st century USA. With TheAlchemist they have found the perfect play. The characters in this veryfunny production are all looking for the quick buck, easy magic to solve theunsolvable, and generally anything that will feed into their insatiablefantasies. And of course, there are the con artists to take advantage of thegullible. Does this sound familiar? Well, apparently it was familiar in the17th century as well.
This productionis definitely not for traditionalists. It is in the Joanne Akalitis school ofdirection, although we have Barry Edelstein directing. He has pulled out themotorcycle outfit, the stereo systems and a great flashing Christmas lightcostume worn by Johann Carlo in her «Queen of Fairy» con. There arechemical reactions of all types and colors in attempts to turn metal to gold,and explosions with lots of smoke. Since we’re dealing with a satirical comedyhere and not a Shakespearean tragedy, somehow it seems all in good fun.
TheAlchemistis about a trio of con artists who decide to make easy cash by turning basemetal into gold. Face, a servant whose master has left town to avoid theplague, has turned the house into their «criminal headquarters.” The criminalsquickly come up with clients for 5 different cons, each suited to thecustomer’s needs. And, as expected, they are all willing to give over hugeamounts of money for anticipated future rewards.
Although I’mnot a big fan of using modern equipment in 17th century drama, somehow TheAlchemist lends itself to update. I guess the basic greed in humans has notchanged all that much over the last 400 years. Certainly, with all the psychicfads, get rich quick schemes and other promises of quick fixes for difficultsituations, I’m quite sure a clever alchemist could con many of us very easilyeven today. 
Naturally, thelanguage is rich in this play and doesn’t lend itself quite as easily tounderstanding as a Seinfeld episode on a similar subject, however, that’s whatthe theater is all about. We work a little harder to get a much higher level ofreward.
The actorsgive it their all. Jeremy Shamos is continuously changing his costumes as wellas character. Dan Castillaneta is terrific as the Alchemist and Johann Carlo isvery funny as the tough, scheming ‘working woman’ of the con. All their patheticclients come one at a time for their individual scalping. I particularlyenjoyed the performances of Michael Showalter as a low clerk, Umit Celebi asTribulation Wholesome as a pastor and Lee Sellars as Sir Epicure Mammon, aKnight.
Let’s face it.Maybe this would be better in a more traditional style and maybe we should beannoyed with the liberties taken with text and production. However, beggarscan’t be choosers. When was the last production of The Alchemist in NYCand when will the next one appear? I say thank you to the CSC for presentingthis work. I suggest you not wait for perfection, but try to relax and havefun.
Ben Jonson’s other comedies
Englishdramatist, born probably in Westminster, in the beginning of the year 1573 (orpossibly, if he reckoned by the unadopted modern calendar, 1572). By the poet’saccount his grandfather had been a gentleman who came from Carlisle, andoriginally, the grandson thought, from Annandale. His arms, „threespindles or rhombi“, are the family device of the Johnstones of Annandale,a fact which confirms his assertion of Border descent. Ben Jonson furtherrelated that he was born a month after the death of his father, who, aftersuffering in estate and person under Queen Mary, had in the end „turnedminister.“ Two years after the birth of her son the widow married again;she may be supposed to have loved him in a passionate way peculiar to herself,since on one occasion we find her revealing an almost ferocious determinationto save his honor at the cost of both his life and her own. Jonson’s stepfatherwas a master bricklayer, living in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross, whoprovided his stepson with the foundations of a good education. After attendinga private school in St. Martin’s Lane, the boy was sent to Westminster Schoolat the expense, it is said, of William Camden. Jonson’s gratitude for aneducation to which in truth he owed an almost inestimable debt concentrateditself upon the „most reverend head“ of his benefactor, then secondand afterwards head master of the famous school, and the firm friend of hispupil in later life.
Afterreaching the highest form at Westminster, Jonson is stated, but onunsatisfactory evidence, to have proceeded to Cambridge — according to Fuller,to St. John’s College. He says, however, himself that he studied at neitheruniversity, but was put to a trade immediately on leaving school. He soon hadenough of the trade, which was no doubt his father’s bricklaying, for Henslowein writing to Edward Alleyne of his affair with Gabriel Spenser calls him»bergemen [sic] Jonson, bricklayer.” Either before or after hismarriage — more probably before, as Sir Francis Vere’s three English regimentswere not removed from the Low Countries until 1592 — he spent some time inthat country soldiering, much to his own subsequent satisfaction when the daysof self-conscious retrospect arrived, but to no further purpose beyond that ofseeing something of the world.
BenJonson married not later than 1592. The registers of St. Martin’s Church statethat his eldest daughter Maria died in November 1593 when she was, Jonson tellsus (epigram 22), only six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of theplague ten years later (epigram 45). A younger Benjamin died in 1635. His wifeJonson characterized to Drummond as «a shrew, but honest»; and for aperiod (undated) of five years he preferred to live without her, enjoying thehospitality of Lord Aubigny (afterwards duke of Lennox). Long burnings of oilamong his books, and long spells of recreation at the tavern, such as Jonson loved,are not the most favored accompaniments of family life. But Jonson was nostranger to the tenderest of affections: two at least of the several childrenwhom his wife bore to him he commemorated in touching little tributes of verse;nor in speaking of his lost eldest daughter did he forget «her mother’stears.» By the middle of 1597 we come across further documentary evidenceof him at home in London in the shape of an entry in Philip Henslowe’s diary(July 28) of 3s. 6d. «received of Bengemenes Johnsones share.» He wastherefore by this time — when Shakespeare, his senior by nearly nine years,was already in prosperous circumstances and good esteem — at least a regularmember of the acting profession, with a fixed engagement in the lord admiral’scompany, then performing under Henslowe’s management at the Rose. Perhaps hehad previously acted at the Curtain (a former house of the lord admiral’s men),and «taken mad Jeronimo’s part» on a play-wagon in the highway. Thislatter appearance, if it ever took place, would, as was pointed out by Gifford,probably have been in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, since in TheFirst Part of Jeronimo Jonson would have had, most inappropriately, todwell on the «smallness» of his «bulk.» He was at asubsequent date (1601) employed by Henslowe to write up The Spanish Tragedy,and this fact may have given rise to Wood’s story of his performance as a stroller.Jonson’s additions, which were not the first changes made in the play, areusually supposed to be those printed with The Spanish Tragedy in theedition of 1602; Charles Lamb’s doubts on the subject, which were shared by Coleridge,seem an instance of that subjective kind of criticism which it is unsafe tofollow when the external evidence to the contrary is so strong.
Accordingto Aubrey, whose statement must be taken for what it is worth, «Jonson wasnever a good actor, but an excellent instructor.» His physique wascertainly not well adapted to the histrionic conditions of his — perhaps ofany — day; but, in any case, it was not long before he found his place in theorganism of his company. In 1597, as we know from Henslowe, Jonson undertook towrite a play for the lord admiral’s men; and in the following year he wasmentioned by Merès in his Palladis Tamia as one of «the bestfor tragedy», without any reference to a connection on his part with theother branch of the drama. Whether this was a criticism based on materialevidence or an unconscious slip, Ben Jonson in the same year 1598 produced oneof the most famous of English comedies, Every Man in his Humour, whichwas first acted — probably in the earlier part of September — by the lordchamberlain’s company at the Curtain. Shakespeare was one of the actors inJonson’s comedy, and it is in the character of Old Knowell in this very playthat, according to a bold but ingenious guess, he is represented in thehalf-length portrait of him in the folio of 1623, beneath which were printedJonson’s lines concerning the picture. Every Man in his Humour waspublished in 1601; the critical prologue first appears in the folio of 1616,and there are other divergences. After the Restoration the play was revived in1751 by David Garrick (who acted Kitely) with alterations, and long continuedto be known on the stage. It was followed in the same year by The Case isAltered, acted by the children of the queen’s revels, which contains asatirical attack upon the pageant poet, Anthony Munday. This comedy, which wasnot included in the folio editions, is one of intrigue rather than ofcharacter; it contains obvious reminiscences of Shylock and his daughter. Theearlier of these two comedies was indisputably successful.
Beforethe year 1598 was out, however, Jonson found himself in prison and in danger ofthe gallows. In a duel, fought on the 22nd of September in Hogsden Fields, hehad killed an actor of Henslowe’s company named Gabriel Spenser. The quarrelwith Henslowe consequent on this event may account for the production of EveryMan in his Humour by the rival company. In prison Jonson was visited by aRoman Catholic priest, and the result (certainly strange, if Jonson’s parentageis considered) was his conversion to the Church of Rome, to which he adheredfor twelve years. Jonson was afterwards a diligent student of divinity; but,though his mind was religious, it is not probable that its natural bias muchinclined it to dwell upon creeds and their controversies. He pleaded guilty tothe charge brought against him, as the rolls of Middlesex sessions show; but,after a short imprisonment, he was released by benefit of clergy, forfeitinghis «goods and chattels», and being branded on his left thumb. Theaffair does not seem to have affected his reputation; in 1599 he is found backagain at work for Henslowe, receiving together with Thomas Dekker, Chettle and«another gentleman», earnest-money for a tragedy (undiscovered)called Robert II, King of Scots. In the same year he brought out throughthe lord chamberlain’s company (possibly already at the Globe, then newly builtor building) the elaborate comedy of Every Man out of his Humour (quarto1600; folio 1616) — a play subsequently presented before Queen Elizabeth. Thesunshine of court favor, rarely diffused during her reign in rays otherwisethan figuratively golden, was not to bring any material comfort to the mostlearned of her dramatists, before there was laid upon her the inevitable handof which his courtly epilogue had besought death to forget the use. Indeed, ofhis Cynthia’s Revels, performed by the chapel children in 1600 andprinted with the first title of The Fountain of Self-Love in 1601,though it was no doubt primarily designed as a compliment to the queen, themost marked result had been to offend two playwrights of note — Dekker, withwhom he had formerly worked in company, and who had a healthy if rough grip ofhis own; and Marston, who was perhaps less dangerous by his strength than byhis versatility. According to Jonson, his quarrel with Marston had begun by thelatter attacking his morals, and in the course of it they came to blows, andmight have come to worse. In Cynthia’s Revels, Dekker is generally heldto be satirized as Hedon, and Marston as Anaides (Fleay, however, thinksAnaides is Dekker, and Hedon Daniel), while the character of Crites mostassuredly has some features of Jonson himself. Learning the intention of thetwo writers whom he had satirized, or at all events of Dekker, to wreakliterary vengeance upon him, he anticipated them in The Poetaster(1601), again played by the children of the queen’s chapel at the Blackfriarsand printed in 1602; Marston and Dekker are here ridiculed respectively as thearistocratic Crispinus and the vulgar Demetrius. The play was completed fifteenweeks after its plot was first conceived. It is not certain to what theproceedings against author and play before the lord chief justice, referred toin the dedication of the edition of 1616, had reference, or when they wereinstituted. Fleay’s supposition that the «purge», said in the Returnefrom Parnassus (Part II, act IV, scene III) to have been administered byShakespeare to Jonson in return for Horace’s «pill to the poets» inthis piece, consisted of Troilus and Cressida is supremely ingenious,but cannot be examined here. As for Dekker, he retaliated on The Poetasterby the Satiromastix, or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). Somemore last words were indeed attempted on Jonson’s part, but in the ApologeticDialogue added to The Poetaster in the edition of 1616, thoughexcluded from that of 1602, he says he intends to turn his attention totragedy. This intention he apparently carried out immediately, for in 1602 hereceived £10 from Henslowe for a play, entitled Richard Crookbacke,now lost — unfortunately so, for purposes of comparison in particular, even ifit was only, as Fleay conjectures, «an alteration of Marlowe’s play.»According to a statement by Overbury, early in 1603, «Ben Johnson, thepoet, now lives upon one Townesend», supposed to have been the poet andmasque-writer Aurelian Townshend, at one time steward to the 1st earl ofSalisbury, «and scornes the world.» To his other early patron, LordAubigny, Jonson dedicated the first of his two extant tragedies, Sejanus,produced by the king’s servants at the Globe late in 1603, Shakespeare oncemore taking a part in the performance. Either on its performance or on itsappearing in print in 1605, Jonson was called before the privy council by theEarl of Northampton. But it is open to question whether this was the occasionon which, according to Jonson’s statement to Drummond, Northampton«accused him both of popery and treason.» Though, for one reason oranother, unsuccessful at first, the endurance of its reputation is attested byits performance, in a German version by an Englishman, John Michael Girish, atthe court of the grandson of James I at Heidelberg.
Whenthe reign of James I opened in England and an adulatory loyalty seemed intenton showing that it had not exhausted itself at the feet of Gloriana, Jonson’swell-stored brain and ready pen had their share in devising and executingingenious variations on the theme «Welcome — since we cannot do withoutthee!» With extraordinary promptitude his genius, which, far from being«ponderous» in its operations, was singularly swift and flexible inadapting itself to the demands made upon it, met the new taste for masques andentertainments — new of course in degree rather than in kind — introducedwith the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort. The pageantwhich on the 7th of May 1603 bade the king welcome to a capital dissolved injoy was partly of Jonson’s, partly of Dekker’s, devising; and he was able todeepen and diversify the impression by the composition of masques presented toJames I when entertained at houses of the nobility. The Satyr (1603) wasproduced on one of these occasions, Queen Anne’s sojourn at Althorpe, the seatof Sir Robert Spencer, afterwards Lord Althorpe, who seems to have previouslybestowed some patronage upon him. The Penates followed on Mayday 1604 atthe house of Sir William Cornwallis at Highgate, and the queen herself with herladies played his Masque of Blackness at Whitehall in 1605. He was soonoccasionally employed by the court itself — already in 1606 in conjunction with Inigo Jones, as responsible for the «painting and carpentry» — and thus speedily showed himself master in a species of composition for which,more than any other English poet before Milton, he secured an enduring place inthe national poetic literature. Personally, no doubt, he derived considerablematerial benefit from the new fashion — more especially if his statement toDrummond was anything like correct, that out of his plays (which may bepresumed to mean his original plays) he had never gained a couple of hundredpounds.
Goodhumor seems to have come back with good fortune. Joint employment In The King’sEntertainment (1604) had reconciled him with Dekker; and with Marston also,who in 1604 dedicated to him his Malcontent, he was again on pleasantterms. When, therefore, in 1604 Marston and Chapman (who, Jonson told Drummond,was loved of him, and whom he had probably honored as «Virgil» in ThePoetaster, and who has, though on doubtful grounds, been supposed to havecollaborated in the original Sejanus) produced the excellent comedy of EastwardHo, it appears to have contained some contributions by Jonson. At allevents, when the authors were arrested on account of one or more passages inthe play which were deemed insulting to the Scots, he «voluntarilyimprisoned himself» with them. They were soon released, and a banquet athis expense, attended by Camden and Selden, terminated the incident. If Jonsonis to be believed, there had been a report that the prisoners were to havetheir ears and noses cut, and, with reference apparently to this peril,«at the midst of the feast his old mother drank to him, and showed him apaper which she had intended (if the sentence had taken execution) to havemixed in the prison among his drink, which was full of lusty strong poison; andthat she was no churl, she told him, she minded first to have drunk of itherself.» Strange to say, in 1605 Jonson and Chapman, though the former,as he averred, had so «attempered» his style as to have «givenno cause to any good man of grief», were again in prison on account of«a play»; but they appear to have been once more speedily set free,in consequence of a very manly and dignified letter addressed by Jonson to theEarl of Salisbury. The play in question, in which both Chapman and Jonson tookpart, was likely Sir Gyles Goosecappe, and this last imprisonment of thetwo poets was shortly after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. In themysterious history of the Gunpowder Plot Jonson certainly had some obscurepart. On the 7th of November, very soon after the discovery of the conspiracy,the council appears to have sent for him and to have asked him, as a loyalRoman Catholic, to use his good offices in inducing the priests to do somethingrequired by the council — one hardly likes to conjecture it to have been sometampering with the secrets of confession. In any case, the negotiations fellthrough, because the priests declined to come forth out of their hiding-placesto be negotiated with — greatly to the wrath of Ben Jonson, who declares in aletter to Lord Salisbury that «they are all so enweaved in it that it willmake 500 gentlemen less of the religion within this week, if they carry theirunderstanding about them.» Jonson himself, however, did not declare hisseparation from the Church of Rome for five years longer, however much it mighthave been to his advantage to do so.
Hispowers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reignof James I; and by the year 1616 he had produced nearly all the plays which areworthy of his genius. They include the tragedy of Catiline (acted andprinted 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone,or the Fox (acted 1605 and printed in 1607 with a dedication «from myhouse in the Blackfriars»), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609;entered in the Stationers’ Register 1610), the Alchemist (1610; printedin 1610), Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass (actedrespectively in 1614 and 1616). During the same period he produced severalmasques, usually in connection with Inigo Jones, with whom, however, he seemsto have quarrelled already in this reign, though it is very doubtful whetherthe architect is really intended to be ridiculed in Bartholomew Fairunder the character of Lanthorn Leatherhead. Littlewit, according to Fleay, isDaniel. Among the most attractive of his masques may be mentioned the Masqueof Blackness (1606), the Masque of Beauty (1608), and the Masqueof Queens (1609), described by Swinburne as «the most splendid of allmasques» and as «one of the typically splendid monuments or trophiesof English literature.» In 1616 a modest pension of 100 marks a year was conferred upon him; and possibly this sign of royal favor may haveencouraged him to the publication of the first volume of the folio collectededition of his works (1616), though there are indications that he hadcontemplated its production, an exceptional task for a playwright of his timesto take in hand, as early as 1612.
Hehad other patrons more bountiful than the Crown, and for a brief space of time(in 1613) had travelled to France as governor (without apparently much moralauthority) to the eldest son of Sir Walter Raleigh, then a state prisoner inthe Tower, for whose society Jonson may have gained a liking at the MermaidTavern in Cheapside, but for whose personal character he, like so many of hiscontemporaries, seems to have had but small esteem. By the year 1616 Jonsonseems to have made up his mind to cease writing for the stage, where neitherhis success nor his profits had equalled his merits and expectations. Hecontinued to produce masques and entertainments when called upon; but he wasattracted by many other literary pursuits, and had already accomplished enoughto furnish plentiful materials for retrospective discourse over pipe or cup. Hewas already entitled to lord it at the Mermaid, where his quick antagonist inearlier wit-combats (if Fuller’s famous description be authentic) no longerappeared even on a visit from his comfortable retreat at Stratford. That on theother hand Ben carried his wicked town habits into Warwickshire, and there, togetherwith Drayton, made Shakespeare drink so hard with them as to bring upon himselfthe fatal fever which ended his days, is a scandal with which we may fairlyrefuse to load Jonson’s memory. That he had a share in the preparing for thepress of the first folio of Shakespeare, or in the composition of its preface,is of course a mere conjecture.
Itwas in the year 1618 that, like Samuel Johnson a century and a half afterwards,Ben resolved to have a real holiday for once, and about midsummer started forhis ancestral country, Scotland. He had (very heroically for a man of hishabits) determined to make the journey on foot; and he was speedily followed byJohn Taylor, the water-poet, who still further handicapped himself by thecondition that he would accomplish the pilgrimage without a penny in hispocket. Jonson, who put money in his good friend’s purse when he came up withhim at Leith, spent more than a year and a half in the hospitable Lowlands,being solemnly elected a burgess of Edinburgh, and on another occasionentertained at a public banquet there. But the best-remembered hospitalitywhich he enjoyed was that of the learned Scottish poet, William Drummond ofHawthornden, to which we owe the so-called Conversations. In thesefamous jottings, the work of no extenuating hand, Jonson lives for us to thisday, delivering his censures, terse as they are, in an expansive mood whetherof praise or of blame; nor is he at all generously described in the postscriptadded by his fatigued and at times irritated host as «a great lover andpraiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others.» A poetical accountof this journey, with all the adventures, was burned with Jonson’s library.
Afterhis return to England Jonson appears to have resumed his former course of life.Among his noble patrons and patronesses were the countess of Rutland (Sidney’sdaughter) and her cousin Lady Wroth; and in 1619 his visits to the countryseats of the nobility were varied by a sojourn at Oxford with Richard Corbet,the poet, at Christ Church, on which occasion he took up the master’s degreegranted to him by the university; whether he actually proceeded to the same degreegranted to him at Cambridge seems unknown. He confessed about this time that hewas or seemed growing «restive» (lazy), though it was not long beforehe returned to the occasional composition of masques. The extremely spirited GipsiesMetamorphosed (1621) was thrice presented before the king, who was sopleased with it as to grant to the poet the reversion of the office of masterof the revels, besides proposing to confer upon him the honor of knighthood.This honor Jonson (hardly in deference to the memory of Sir Petronel Flash)declined; but there was no reason why he should not gratefully accept theincrease of his pension in the same year (1621) to £200 — a temporaryincrease only, inasmuch as it still stood at 100 marks when afterwardsaugmented by Charles I.
Theclose of King James I’s reign found the foremost of its poets in anything but aprosperous condition. It would be unjust to hold the Sun, the Dog, the TripleTun, or the Old Devil with its Apollo club-room, where Ben’s supremacy must bythis time have become established, responsible for this result; taverns werethe clubs of that day, and a man of letters is not considered lost in our ownbecause he haunts a smoking-room in Pall Mall. Disease had weakened the poet’sstrength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcansufficiently shows, must have been no mere transitory trouble to a poor poetand scholar. Moreover he cannot but have felt, from the time of the accessionof Charles I early in 1625 onwards, that the royal patronage would no longer bedue in part to anything like intellectual sympathy. He thus thought it best torecur to the surer way of writing for the stage, and in 1625 produced, with nofaint heart, but with a very clear anticipation of the comments which would bemade upon the reappearance of the «huge, overgrown play-maker», TheStaple of News, a comedy excellent in some respects, but little calculatedto become popular. It was not printed until 1631. Jonson, whose habit of bodywas not more conducive than were his ways of life to a healthy old age, had aparalytic stroke in 1626, and a second in 1628. In the latter year, on the death of Middleton, the appointment of city chronologer, with asalary of 100 nobles a year, was bestowed upon him. He appears to haveconsidered the duties of this office as purely ornamental; but in 1631 hissalary was suspended until he should have presented some fruits of his laborsin his place, or — as he more succinctly phrased it — «yesterday thebarbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandlerly pension forverjuice and mustard, £33, 6s. 8d.» After being in 1628 arrested bymistake on the utterly false charge of having written certain verses inapproval of the assassination of Buckingham, he was soon allowed to return toWestminster, where it would appear from a letter of his «son andcontiguous neighbor», James Howell, he was living in 1629, and about thistime narrowly escaped another conflagration. In the same year (1629) he once moreessayed the stage with the comedy of The New Inn, which was actually,and on its own merits not unjustly, damned on the first performance. It wasprinted in 1631, «as it was never acted but most negligently played»;and Jonson defended himself against his critics in his spirited Ode toHimself. The epilogue to The New Inn having dwelt not withoutdignity upon the neglect which the poet had experienced at the hands of«king and queen», King Charles immediately sent the unlucky author agift of £100, and in response to a further appeal increased his standingsalary to the same sum, with the addition of an annual tierce of canary — thepoet-laureate’s customary royal gift, though this designation of an office, ofwhich Jonson discharged some of what became the ordinary functions, is notmentioned in the warrant dated the 26th of March 1630. In 1634, by the king’s desire, Jonson’s salary as chronologer to the city was again paid. Tohis later years belong the comedies, The Magnetic Lady (1632) and TheTale of a Tub (1633), both printed in 1640, and some masques, none of whichmet with great success. The patronage of liberal-minded men, such as the earl,afterwards duke, of Newcastle — by whom he must have been commissioned towrite his last two masques Love’s Welcome at Welbeck (1633) and Love’sWelcome at Bolsover (1634) — and Viscount Falkland, was not wanting, andhis was hardly an instance in which the fickleness of time and taste could haveallowed a literary veteran to end his career in neglect. He was theacknowledged chief of the English world of letters, both at the festivemeetings where he ruled the roast among the younger authors whose pride it wasto be «sealed of the tribe of Ben», and by the avowal of gravewriters, old or young, not one of whom would have ventured to dispute histitular pre-eminence. Nor was he to the last unconscious of the claims upon himwhich his position brought with it. When, nearly two years after he had losthis surviving son, death came upon the sick old man on the 6th of August 1637,he left behind him an unfinished work of great beauty, the pastoral drama of TheSad Shepherd (printed in 1641). For forty years, he said in the prologue,he had feasted the public; at first he could scarce hit its taste, but patiencehad at last enabled it to identify itself with the working of his pen.
Weare so accustomed to think of Ben Jonson presiding, attentive to his ownapplause, over a circle of younger followers and admirers that we are apt toforget the hard struggle which he had passed through before gaining the crownnow universally acknowledged to be his. Howell records, in the year beforeBen’s death, that a solemn supper at the poet’s own house, where the host hadalmost spoiled the relish of the feast by vilifying others and magnifyinghimself, «T. Ca.» (Thomas Carew) buzzed in the writer’s ear«that, though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet itseemed he had not read the Ethics, which, among other precepts ofmorality, forbid self-commendation.» Self-reliance is but too frequentlycoupled with self-consciousness, and for good and for evil self-confidence wasno doubt the most prominent feature in the character of Ben Jonson. Hence thecombativeness which involved him in so many quarrels in his earlier days, andwhich jarred so harshly upon the less militant and in some respects morepedantic nature of Drummond. But his quarrels do not appear to have entered deeplyinto his soul, or indeed usually to have lasted long. He was too exuberant inhis vituperations to be bitter, and too outspoken to be malicious. He loved ofall things to be called «honest», and there is every reason tosuppose that he deserved the epithet. The old superstition that Jonson wasfilled with malignant envy of the greatest of his fellow-dramatists, and lostno opportunity of giving expression to it, hardly needs notice. Those whoconsider that William Shakespeare was beyond criticism may find blasphemy inthe saying of Jonson that Shakespeare «wanted art.» Occasionaljesting allusions to particular plays of Shakespeare may be found in Jonson,among which should hardly be included the sneer at «mouldy» Periclesin his Ode to Himself. But these amount to nothing collectively, and tovery little individually; and against them have to be set, not only the manypleasant traditions concerning the long intimacy between the pair, but also thelines, prefixed to the first Shakespeare folio, as noble as they are judicious,dedicated by the survivor to «the star of poets», and the adaptation,clearly sympathetic notwithstanding all its buts, «de Shakespearenostrat.» in the Discoveries. But if Gifford had rendered no otherservice to Jonson’s fame he must be allowed to have once for all vindicated itfrom the cruellest aspersion which has ever been cast upon it. That in generalBen Jonson was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and was wont to manifest thelatter as vehemently as the former, it would be idle to deny. He was at leastimpartial in his censures, dealing them out freely to Puritan poets like Witherand (supposing him not to have exaggerated his free-spokenness) to princes ofhis church like Cardinal du Perron. And, if sensitive to attack, he seems tohave been impervious to flattery — to judge from the candor with which hecondemned the foibles even of so enthusiastic an admirer as Beaumont. Thepersonage that he disliked the most, and openly abused in the roundest terms,was unfortunately one with many heads and a tongue to hiss in each — no otherthan that «general public» which it was the fundamental mistake ofhis life to fancy he could «rail into approbation» before he hadeffectively secured its goodwill. And upon the whole it may be said that theadmiration of the few, rather than the favor of the many, has kept green thefame of the most independent among all the masters of an art which, in moresenses than one, must please to live.
Jonson’slearning and industry, which were alike exceptional, by no means exhaustedthemselves in furnishing and elaborating the materials of his dramatic works.His enemies sneered at him as a translator — a title which the precedinggeneration was inclined to esteem the most honorable in literature. But hisclassical scholarship shows itself in other directions besides his translationsfrom the Latin poets (the Ars poetica in particular), in addition towhich he appears to have written a version of Barclay’s Argenis; it waslikewise the basis of his English Grammar, of which nothing but therough draft remains (the manuscript itself having perished in the fire in hislibrary), and in connection with the subject of which he appears to havepursued other linguistic studies (Howell in 1629 was trying to procure him aWelsh grammar). And its effects are very visible in some of the most pleasingof his non-dramatic poems, which often display that combination of polish andsimplicity hardly to be reached — or even to be appreciated — without somemeasure of classical training.
Exclusivelyof the few lyrics in Jonson’s dramas (which, with the exception of the statelychoruses in Catiline, charm, and perhaps may surprise, by theirlightness of touch), his nondramatic works are comprised in the followingcollections. The book of Epigrams (published in the first folio of 1616)contained, in the poet’s own words, the «ripest of his studies.» Hisnotion of an epigram was the ancient, not the restricted modern one — stillless that of the critic (R.C., the author of The Times’ Whistle) inwhose language, according to Jonson, «witty» was «obscene.»On the whole, these epigrams excel more in encomiastic than in satiric touches,while the pathos of one or two epitaphs in the collection is of the truestkind. In the lyrics and epistles contained in the Forest (also in thefirst folio), Jonson shows greater variety in the poetic styles adopted by him;but the subject of love, which John Dryden considered conspicuous by itsabsence in the author’s dramas, is similarly eschewed here. The Underwoods(not published collectively until the second and surreptitious folio) are amiscellaneous series, comprising, together with a few religious and a fewamatory poems, a large number of epigrams, epitaphs, elegies and odes,including both the tributes to Shakespeare and several to royal and otherpatrons and friends, besides the Execration upon Vulcan, and thecharacteristic ode addressed by the poet to himself. To these pieces in verseshould be added the Discoveries — Timber, or Discoveries made upon Men andMatters, avowedly a commonplace book of aphorisms noted by the poet in hisdaily readings — thoughts adopted and adapted in more tranquil and perhapsmore sober moods than those which gave rise to the outpourings of the Conversationsat Hawthornden. As to the critical value of these Conversations itis far from being only negative; he knew how to admire as well as how todisdain. For these thoughts, though abounding with biographical as well asgeneral interest, Jonson was almost entirely indebted to ancient writers, or(as has been shown by Professor Spingarn and by Percy Simpson) indebted to thehumanists of the Renaissance.
Theextant dramatic works of Ben Jonson fall into three or, if his fragmentarypastoral drama be considered to stand by itself, into four distinct divisions.The tragedies are only two in number — Sejanus his Fall and Catilinehis Conspiracy. Of these the earlier, as is worth noting, was produced atShakespeare’s theater, in all probability before the first of Shakespeare’sRoman dramas, and still contains a considerable admixture of rhyme in thedialogue. Though perhaps less carefully elaborated in diction than itssuccessor, Sejanus is at least equally impressive as a highly wroughtdramatic treatment of a complex historic theme. The character of Tiberius addsan element of curious psychological interest on which speculation has neverquite exhausted itself and which, in Jonson’s day at least, was wanting to thefigures of Catiline and his associates. But in both plays the action ispowerfully conducted, and the care bestowed by the dramatist upon the greatvariety of characters introduced cannot, as in some of his comedies, be said todistract the interest of the reader. Both these tragedies are noble works,though the relative popularity of the subject (for conspiracies are in the longrun more interesting than camarillas) has perhaps secured the preference to Catiline.Yet this play and its predecessor were alike too manifestly intended by theirauthor to court the goodwill of what he calls the «extraordinary»reader. It is difficult to imagine that (with the aid of judicious shortenings)either could altogether miss its effect on the stage; but, while Shakespearecauses us to forget, Jonson seems to wish us to remember, his authorities. Thehalf is often greater than the whole; and Jonson, like all dramatists and, itmight be added, all novelists in similar cases, has had to pay the penaltyincurred by too obvious a desire to underline the learning of the author.
Perversity– or would-be originality — alone could declare Jonson’s tragedy preferableto his comedy. Even if the revolution which he created in the comic branch ofthe drama had been mistaken in its principles or unsatisfactory in its results,it would be clear that the strength of his dramatic genius lay in the power ofdepicting a great variety of characters, and that in comedy alone he succeededin finding a wide field for the exercise of this power. There may have been novery original or very profound discovery in the idea which he illustrated in EveryMan in his Humour, and, as it were, technically elaborated in Every Manout of his Humour — that in many men one quality is observable which sopossesses them as to draw the whole of their individualities one way, and thatthis phenomenon «may be truly said to be a humour.» The idea of themaster quality or tendency was, as has been well observed, a very considerableone for dramatist or novelist. Nor did Jonson (happily) attempt to work outthis idea with any excessive scientific consistency as a comic dramatist. But,by refusing to apply the term «humour» to a mere peculiarity or affectationof manners, and restricting its use to actual or implied differences ordistinctions of character, he broadened the whole basis of English comedy afterhis fashion, as Molière at a later date, keeping in closer touch withthe common experience of human life, with a lighter hand broadened the basis ofFrench and of modern Western comedy at large. It does not of course follow thatJonson’s disciples, the Bromes and the Cartwrights, always adequatelyreproduced the master’s conception of «humorous» comedy. Jonson’swide and various reading helped him to diversify the application of his theory,while perhaps at times it led him into too remote illustrations of it. Still,Captain Bobadil and Captain Tucca, Macilente and Fungoso, Volpone and Mosca,and a goodly number of other characters impress themselves permanently upon thememory of those whose attention they have as a matter of course commanded. Itis a very futile criticism to condemn Jonson’s characters as a mere series oftypes of general ideas; on the other hand, it is a very sound criticism toobject, with Barry Cornwall, to the «multitude of characters who throw nolight upon the story, and lend no interest to it, occupying space that hadbetter have been bestowed upon the principal agents of the plot.»
Inthe construction of plots, as in most other respects, Jonson’s at onceconscientious and vigorous mind led him in the direction of originality; hedepended to a far less degree than the greater part of his contemporaries(Shakespeare with the rest) upon borrowed plots. But either his inventivecharacter was occasionally at fault in this respect, or his devotion to hischaracters often diverted his attention from a brisk conduct of his plot. BarryCornwall has directed attention to the essential likeness in the plot of two ofJonson’s best comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist; and anothercritic, W. Bodham Donne, has dwelt on the difficulty which, in The Poetasterand elsewhere, Ben Jonson seems to experience in sustaining the promise of hisactions. The Poetaster is, however, a play sui generis, in whichthe real business can hardly be said to begin until the last act.
Dryden,when criticizing Ben Jonson’s comedies, thought fit, while allowing the oldmaster humor and incontestable «pleasantness», to deny him wit andthose ornaments thereof which Quintilian reckons up under the terms urbana,salsa, faceta and so forth. Such wit as Dryden has in view is themere outward fashion or style of the day, the euphuism or «sheerwit»or chic which is the creed of Fastidious Brisks and of their astutepurveyors at any given moment. In this Ben Jonson was no doubt defective; butit would be an error to suppose him, as a comic dramatist, to have maintainedtowards the world around him the attitude of a philosopher, careless of meretransient externalisms. It is said that the scene of his Every Man in hisHumour was originally laid near Florence; and his Volpone, which isperhaps the darkest social picture ever drawn by him, plays at Venice. Neitherlocality was ill-chosen, but the real atmosphere of his comedies is that of thenative surroundings amidst which they were produced; and Ben Jonson’s timeslive for us in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, hisalchemists and exorcists, his «skeldring»captains and whining Puritans, and the whole ragamuffin rout of his BartholomewFair, the comedy par excellence of Elizabethan low life. After hehad described the pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, of his age, itsfeeble superstitions and its flaunting naughtinesses, its vaporing affectationsand its lying effronteries, with an odour as of «divine tabacco»pervading the whole, little might seem to be left to describe for his«sons» and successors. Enough, however, remained; only that hisfollowers speedily again threw manners and «humours» into anundistinguishable medley.
Thegift which both in his art and in his life Jonson lacked was that of exercisingthe influence or creating the effects which he wished to exercise or createwithout the appearance of consciousness. Concealment never crept over hisefforts, and he scorned insinuation. Instead of this, influenced no doubt bythe example of the free relations between author and public permitted by Atticcomedy, he resorted again and again, from Every Man out of his Humour toThe Magnetic Lady, to inductions and commentatory intermezzos andappendices, which, though occasionally effective by the excellence of theirexecution, are to be regretted as introducing into his dramas an exotic andoften vexatious element. A man of letters to the very core, he never quiteunderstood that there is and ought to be a wide difference of methods betweenthe world of letters and the world in the theater.
Therichness and versatility of Jonson’s genius will never be fully appreciated bythose who fail to acquaint themselves with what is preserved to us of his«masques» and cognate entertainments. He was conscious enough of hissuccess in this direction — «next himself», he said, «onlyFletcher and Chapman could write a masque.» He introduced, or at leastestablished, the ingenious innovation of the anti-masque, which Schlegel hasdescribed, as a species of «parody added by the poet to his device, andusually prefixed to the serious entry», and which accordingly supplies agrotesque antidote to the often extravagantly imaginative main conception.Jonson’s learning, creative power and humorous ingenuity — combined, it shouldnot be forgotten, with a genuine lyrical gift — all found abundant opportunitiesfor displaying themselves in these productions. Though a growth of foreignorigin, the masque was by him thoroughly domesticated in the high places ofEnglish literature. He lived long enough to see the species produce its poeticmasterpiece in Comus.
TheSad Shepherd, of which Jonson left behind him three acts and a prologue, is distinguishedamong English pastoral dramas by its freshness of tone; it breathes somethingof the spirit of the greenwood, and is not unnatural even in its supernaturalelement. While this piece, with its charming love scenes between Robin Hood andMaid Marion, remains a fragment, another pastoral by Jonson, the May Lord,has been lost, and a third, of which Loch Lomond was intended to be the scene,probably remained unwritten.
ThoughBen Jonson never altogether recognized the truth of the maxim that the dramaticart has properly speaking no didactic purpose, his long and laborious life wasnot wasted upon a barren endeavor. In tragedy he added two works of uncommonmerit to our dramatic literature. In comedy his aim was higher, his effort moresustained, and his success more solid than were those of any of his fellows. Inthe subsidiary and hybrid species of the masque, he helped to open a new andattractive though undoubtedly devious path in the field of dramatic literature.His intellectual endowments surpassed those of most of the great Englishdramatists in richness and breadth; and in energy of application he probablyleft them all behind. Inferior to more than one of his fellow dramatists in thepower of imaginative sympathy, he was first among the Elizabethans in the powerof observation; and there is point in Barrett Wendell’s paradox, that as adramatist he was not really a poet but a painter. Yet it is less by thesegifts, or even by his unexcelled capacity for hard work, than by the true ringof manliness that he will always remain distinguished among his peers.
Jonsonwas buried on the north side of the nave in Westminster Abbey, and theinscription, «O Rare Ben Jonson», was cut in the slab over his grave.In the beginning of the 18th century a portrait bust was put up to his memoryin the Poets’ Corner by Harley, earl of Oxford. Of Honthorst’s portrait ofJonson at Knole Park there is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery; anotherwas engraved by W. Marshall for the 1640 edition of his Poems.
BenJonson and his role in English literature
Knownprimarily as a writer of comedies such as Every Man in His Humor (1598)and Every Man out of His Humor (1599) in the reign of Elizabeth, BenJonson’s (1572-1637) most interesting plays were performed during the reign(called the Jacobean period) of her successor, King James I. Volpone(1606) and The Alchemist (1610) stand today as Jonson’s most oftenproduced plays. Both are broad comedies: Volpone plays on the foxinessof a dying man who is anxious to see which of his heirs is worthy, and TheAlchemist is a satire on the wiliness of con men who pretend to know how totransmute base metal into gold. All of these plays were highly regarded inJacobean times. In addition to his comedies, Jonson’s tragedies Sejanus(1603) and Catiline (1611) earned him the description of «best intragedy» from a contemporary who maintained a diary devoted to hisexperiences in the theater. 
Jonsonled an exciting life. Born after his father died, he was placed in theWestminster School at the expense of its master, William Camden, author of thefamous survey Britannia. There Jonson learned Latin and Greek, but hehimself said that instead of attending a university, he practiced his trade.Because Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer, it has been assumed that Jonsonlearned that trade. He eventually grew tired of bricklaying and managed to geta job as an actor. In 1598, while a member of Philip Henslowe’s theater, hekilled a fellow actor in a brawl. He claimed self-defense and was granted«benefit of clergy,» which was accorded those who could read andtranslate a Latin passage, but as punishment he carried a brand on his thumbfrom Tyburn, the place of execution and punishment, for the rest of his life.
ForJonson the stage was a way of making a living. He aspired to be a pure poet andwas accorded great honor in his lifetime by other poets. But he could not, evenwith the patronage of important noblemen, eke out a sufficient living writingonly poetry. Jonson was imprisoned in Elizabeth’s reign for writing anoffensive play, the Isle of Dogs (1597), and in the early years of KingJames’s reign, which began on March 24, 1603, play writing continued to bedangerous. Toward the end of 1606, Jonson teamed with George Chapman and WilliamMarston to write Eastward Ho!, a comedy that ridiculed the Scots (JamesI was a Scot). Jonson and Chapman were imprisoned, but Jonson eventuallycontacted enough important people to secure his release, probably in October,claiming that the few offensive lines had been written by Marston, who had fledLondon to avoid prison. Then in November the great Gunpowder Plot—rememberedtoday with bonfires on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day—cast a dangerous shadow overhim. Led by the Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot was a planto kill the king, his advisers, and all members of the hierarchy of the Churchand Parliament. Guy Fawkes’s use of the pseudonym John Johnson, together withJonson’s conversion to Catholicism, may have resulted in the playwright’sbecoming a suspect. Luckily, he was well-known in James’s court and was able todemonstrate his loyalty and innocence. 
Jonson wonconsiderable acclaim as a writer in the court of James I and Queen Anne. Hecomposed entertainments and masques designed to be associated with importantstate occasions. The masque was a dramatic form that enjoyed great popularityfor close to a century and a half. It was restricted to the entertainment andparticipation of royalty and courtiers. As its name implies, characters weresometimes masked to represent abstract ideas such as Blackness or Beauty ormythic characters such as Albion, an allegory for England itself.
In the groupof playwrights immediately surrounding Shakespeare,who with him were perhaps accustomed to gather in the Mermaid Tavern, were BenJonson, Webster, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Marston, and Dekker.Among these Jonson was easily the first, both in the quality of his genius andthe amount of his work. He was a man of enormous learning, poet laureate, asoldier in Flanders, an actor, and hack writer for Henslowe. He appeared firstas a playwright in the late years of the sixteenth century, at the moment whenShakespeare and the romantic comedies were at the height of their popularity.To some extent he was obliged to conform to the prevailing taste; but hisnatural inclination was toward the classic and regular style rather than towardthe romantic; and his «humour» was satirical rather than sentimental.
Jonson’splays fall roughly into three groups: the realistic comedies, the tragedies,and the masques. As a contribution to drama the realistic comedies are mostimportant. Even in his ‘prentice work, the two plays The Case is Alteredand The Tale of a Tub, it is evident that he was influenced more byclassic models than by contemporary fashion. The Case Is Altered isbased upon two plays of Plautus and the old familiar theme of the abduction ofinfants. The action is completed in one place and covers but a single day.Jonson’s importance, however, is not owing to this return to the classicalform, but to his keenness in portraying contemporaneous types. He took from thePlautine plays some of the most successful stock characters such as MilesGloriosus (whom he named Captain Bobadil), the spendthrift son, the jealoushusband, and so transformed them that they stand forth revived and recreated,as true comic figures belonging to Elizabethan London.
Theplay Every Man in His Humour (1598) inaugurated the school of realisticcomedy, unlike anything which had hitherto appeared on the English stage. Itdeals not with the passions, but with the follies, the «humours» ofmankind. The scene is laid in London, and different sorts of city charactersare pictured to the life. The play was the sensation of the hour, and wasenacted before the queen by the company to which Shakespeare belonged, and inwhich he at one time acted.
Jonsonwas brilliant, but apparently neither genial nor lovable — indeed he had thereputation of being pompous and arrogant. Though manly and honorable, he seemsto have been lacking in sympathy. As a dramatist, he was resourceful in thecreation of character and in the invention of comic situations. While for themost part he confined himself to laughing at the more obvious, surfaceabsurdities of society, yet his wit was so keen and his humor so robust as tomake a lasting impression upon English drama. He influenced nearly all thewriters of the seventeenth century, and his peculiar type of play has persistedon the English speaking stage to the present time.
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