Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) produced a total of seventeen dramas, including fifteen comedies and two tragedies, and wrote portions of numerous others. As Anne Barton points out in her introduction, Jonson’s plays are now read and performed less frequently than they deserve. Jonson wrote not so much to entertain the audience as to make a moral statement—to stake out a moral territory, to weigh his own time against Augustan Rome and find it wanting. His neoclassical view of the Roman ideal cut in two important directions—one leading him to praise those elements that he admired in his society as approaching or equaling their best expression in Roman civilization and another to revile those tendencies and flaws deflecting man from the ideal and resulting in degradation. In his poetry, one frequently encounters the former approach, notably in the poems addressed to aristocratic patrons such as Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Jonson could view aristocratic society as approaching the ideal, a dazzling and inviting world of manners, taste, arms, and arts accompanied by generosity, grace, and magnanimity.
In the plays, however, one encounters a far different tone. Set primarily in urban middle- and lower-class environments, they represent the most extensive expression of Jonson’s satiric nature. The Jonsonian dramatic tone owes more to classical satire than to any other literary form, with a dominant moral edge in the manner of...
(The entire section is 2226 words.)
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