Ben Jonson, Dramatist

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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 Roman satirist Juvenal. Jonson delights in presenting the typical butt of his satire—a character demonstrating excesses, vices, eccentricities, or follies that must be reformed, purged, and flailed. He sets about his task with energy and unflagging determination and brings his characters, if not always to dread correction, at least to an appropriate end.

Even the amplitude and energy that inform English Renaissance literature, as manifested in the catalogs of trees and flowers that enrich and ornament the poetry of Edmund Spenser and John Milton, create unusual effects in the dramas. In Jonson, amplitude becomes a vehicle not for enrichment but for the satiric purpose of exposing vanity and excesses. His collocations of nouns represent the unpleasant aspects of urban life, reflecting human appetites that he is at pains to condemn.

In her traditional scholarly analysis of all the dramas, Barton advances no comprehensive thesis. Instead, she selects several related themes for emphasis. In her view, Jonson’s development as a dramatist is more closely related to his life than has been previously realized. She often uses his contemporaries, particularly William Shakespeare, as points of comparison, and she classifies Jonson not so much as a neoclassicist but as an Elizabethan. Emphasis upon the Elizabethan influence enables her to achieve a major reevaluation of Jonson’s later plays.

Traditional foci of critics have differed somewhat from these. It has been commonplace to examine the plays in the light of Jonson’s own critical theory and demonstrate how he developed the comedy of humors. In Barton’s view, this approach does less than justice to his achievement. Critics also have stressed Jonson’s role in literary controversy, namely the theater quarrel or Poetomachia in which he became embroiled; another productive approach has been an examination of his neoclassicism to reveal his profound debt to classical sources.

Nevertheless, Jonson’s plays have represented a challenge to critics, and until recent times the volume of criticism has been limited. The dramas are lengthy, with complex plots and a multitude of characters, occasionally exceeding thirty-five dramatis personae in a single play. The characters lack the full and well-rounded development that one encounters in Shakespeare; instead, as their names so frequently suggest, they represent human types—rarely attractive types. The classical lucidity and severity of tone serve to increase the difficulty inherent in critical analysis. Thus, one can still produce a general scholarly introduction to the plays, as Barton has, without being judged superfluous.

One should note, however, that several valuable books providing general critical introductions to Jonson’s dramatic art have been published, among them: John J. Enck, Jonson and the Comic Truth (1957); C. G. Thayer, Ben Jonson: Studies in the Plays (1963); Robert E. Knoll, Ben Jonson’s Plays, an Introduction (1964); and Alan C. Dessen, Jonson’s Moral Comedy (1971). Also, several specialized studies on such topics as Jonson’s last plays and his rhetoric are available. The groundwork exists, it appears, for a subsequent stage in critical, book-length studies of single dramas.

In her first chapter, Barton devotes much attention to the evidence from Philip Henslowe’s Diary that Jonson revised Thomas Kyd’s earlier drama, The Spanish Tragedy, for the stage. She suggests that Jonson identified with the drama’s hero, in that both had suffered loss of a son. The Spanish Tragedy is so different from anything in Jonson’s canon that many critics have dismissed Henslowe’s notation as probably erroneous and have assumed that someone else made the revisions. Barton’s insistence on Jonson’s hand in the work lends support to two central ideas developed in her study: First, that Jonson is closer to other Elizabethans than has...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, December 20, 1984, p. 61.

Times Literary Supplement. December 7, 1984, p. 1418c.