Ben Jonson’s dramatic canon is large, and most of the plays in it are worthy of long and careful study. He is best remembered for his comedies, which influenced comedy writing well into the eighteenth century and which remain entertaining. Jonson took Horace’s maxim to heart—that to teach, a writer must first entertain—and he followed literary rules only so far as they enabled him to instruct and entertain his audience. By observing the neoclassical unities of time and space in his plays, Jonson gave his works a coherence often lacking in the comedies of his contemporaries: Loose ends are resolved, subplot and main plot are interwoven so that each enhances the other, and the conclusion of each play resolves the basic issues brought up during the action. Jonson’s concern with entertaining makes most of his comedies delightful and attractive to modern audiences; his effort to instruct makes his plays substantial and meaningful.
From the beginning of his career as a playwright, Jonson was successful with comedy. His two attempts at tragedies are interesting as experiments but are unlikely to be successful with general audiences. His comedies are varied, ranging from the city to the countryside and including satires, comedies of manners, and farces. He was most successful when writing about city life, moralizing with good-natured humor.
Jonson’s stature as a playwright is greater than current popular knowledge of him would indicate. Had Shakespeare lived at another time, Jonson would be the dramatic giant of his era. His comedies deserve to be performed more often than they are; his masterpieces play well before modern audiences, and even his minor plays have wit and ideas to recommend them. Jonson is a dramatist of the first rank.
Every Man in His Humour
Of his early comedies, Every Man in His Humour is the most important. Jonson’s first significant popular success, it best represents those qualities that make some of his later plays great works of literature. Typical of a Jonsonian comedy, Every Man in His Humour has a complex interweaving of plots that creates an atmosphere of comic frenzy. Fools are duped, husbands fear cuckolding, wives suspect their husbands of having mistresses, fathers spy on sons, a servant plays tricks on everyone, and myriad disguises and social games confuse the characters. The audience is not left in confusion but is carefully let in on the nuances of the various plots.
The plot features Edward Knowell, who journeys to London to visit Wellbred, a wit whose devil-may-care behavior might get Edward into trouble. Old Knowell, Edward’s father, follows his son to London in order to spy on him, and his servant Brainworm connives and plays tricks—as much to amuse himself as to gain anything. Subplots involve Captain Bobadill, a braggart soldier; Cob and Tib, the landlords of Bobadill; Kitely, a merchant; and Downright, Wellbred’s plainspoken brother. The almost bewildering multiplicity of characters is typical of many of Jonson’s plays. He borrows the plot of unwarranted suspicions from classical dramatists. Captain Bobadill is the miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier (usually a coward), a stock character in classical comedies. Brainworm is the conniving servant, another stock figure from classical comedies. Other characters also serve specific purposes: Downright is a shatterer of illusions—he points out the falseness in others. Edward Knowell is the romantic lead—a hero who retains his innocence in the middle of the turmoil of the plot. Kitely, Dame Kitely, Cob, and Tib provide much of the low comedy and serve to reflect the ridiculousness of the behavior of the main characters.
Although it shares many of the characteristics that typify Jonson’s later comedies, Every...
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Man in His Humour shows the dramatist still in the process of forging his mature style. He is still trying to reconcile his classical models to the traditions of English drama and to the tastes of his audience. The plot is loose, almost chaotic, and not as tightly controlled as those of The Alchemist and Volpone.
“What a rare punishment/ Is avarice to itself,” declares Volpone. At the heart of the complex play Volpone is the straightforward moral judgment that the evil one commits brings with it a suitable punishment. In Volpone, Jonson satirizes human nature and the baser impulses of humanity.
The play’s characters pursue basely materialistic ideals, and in attaining their goals, they ensure their own downfall. Volpone begins the play with a monologue that is in itself a classic: “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!/ Open the shrine that I may see my saint.” His servant and partner in crime, Mosca, draws open a curtain and reveals piles of gold. Volpone has called the repository a “shrine” and the gold a “saint.” As the rest of the monologue reveals, Volpone regards wealth with a religious fervor; gold, he asserts, is the “son of Sol”; it “giv’st all men tongues”; it “mak’st men do all things.”
Volpone is not merely a clever faker, nor is his servant, Mosca. He is a devotee of an ideal, and as such he is at once more likable and more dangerous than an ordinary thief. He has the excuse that confidence men traditionally have had: that the greed of his victims is their undoing; if they were good people, he would be unable to cheat them. As long as he sticks to victimizing greedy people, he is spectacularly successful; the victims eagerly give him gold and jewels in the hope of gaining his fortune by having it left to them when he dies. When he seeks to “bed” innocent Celia, however, his empire of gold and deceit begins to crumble into its component parts of venality, lust, and spiritual morbidity.
Volpone is a captivating character. He is capable of wonderful flights of language and of clever intrigue, and he is a consummate actor; his strength is his knowledge of how much he can manipulate people into doing what he wants done; his weakness is his overweening pride—he revels too much in his ability to dupe his victims. By pretending to be an old, dying man, he helps convince his victims of his imminent death and of the possibility that one of them will inherit his wealth. They give him expensive gifts to ingratiate themselves with him. His accomplice, Mosca, is also a skilled actor, who can be obsequious one moment, gallant the next—all things to all people. Mosca convinces each victim that he is favored above all others in Volpone’s will. The scheme is very successful, and there is much hilarity in the gulling of the lawyer Voltore (the vulture), the elderly Corbaccio (the crow), and the merchant and husband of Celia, Corvino (the raven). The actors should resemble their roles: Voltore is craven and menacing; Corbaccio is thin and leggy; and Corvino is quick-eyed and aggressive. There is exuberance in Volpone’s shifts from boisterous and athletic man to bedridden old cripple, in Mosca’s cheerful conniving, and in the duping of three socially prominent and nasty men. The subplot of Lord and Lady Politic Would-be heightens the comedy as Volpone, in his guise as cripple, endures Lady Would-be’s endless talking and her willingness to surrender her virtue for his favor. Volpone’s gold-centered world would be thoroughly jolly if he were not right about gold’s ability to influence people. His victims include innocents, such as Bonario, who is disinherited by his father, Corbaccio, so that Corbaccio can leave his wealth to Volpone in the hope that Volpone will reciprocate. Corvino values wealth above all else; he is a fitting worshiper at the shrine of gold, and he would sacrifice anything to the high priest Volpone in exchange for the promise of acquiring more wealth: Corvino even gives his jealously guarded and naïve wife, Celia, to the supposedly impotent Volpone; she is expected to sleep with him.
Underlying the gold-centered world is ugliness; under Volpone’s dashing personality is bestiality; under Mosca’s wit is spiritual paucity. Jonson shows this graphically. Volpone must pretend to be physically degenerated, yet the pretense mirrors the spiritual reality. As the play progresses, his performance becomes more extreme; eventually, he pretends to be nearly a corpse. The more complex his scheming becomes, the more wretched he must show himself to be. He is trapped in his world of gold; when he wants to leave his home to see what Celia looks like, he must disguise himself as a lowly mountebank. The physically vibrant Volpone is restricted to his gold and Mosca. When he reveals himself as ardent lover to the trapped Celia, his feigned physical degeneration emerges in his spiritual self, and he is doomed.
Volpone is a great play because it is a nearly perfect meshing of comedy, symbolism, suspense, and moralizing. Each change in any of its aspects is matched by changes in all. Its satiric targets are universals, including greed, moral idiocy, and the replacement of spiritual ideals with materialistic ones. Greed brings down most of the principal characters, including Mosca. Pride brings down Volpone; he cannot resist one more chance to display his brilliance. He pretends to be dead and to have left his fortune to Mosca, simply for the sake of seeing how his victims respond when they learn that he has left them nothing. Mosca, loyal only to the money, wants to keep all for himself. Gold turns the world upside down when made the focus of human endeavor: A husband gives his wife to another man; a father displaces his son; the just are made to look false; and a servant becomes master. Gold should serve its owner, and when Volpone enshrines it, he upsets the proper order of society.
The carnality of Volpone is discovered by Bonario, who was accidentally present during Volpone’s near-rape of Celia because of one of Mosca’s plots involving Corbaccio. In the ensuing trial, Volpone is presented to the court as a nearly dead old man who is incapable of molesting anyone. Voltore puts on his public mask of respectability and argues to the court that Bonario and Celia are liars and worse, and that those accused by them are honest and innocent. An important theme in the play is that of performance versus reality. Corbaccio properly acts the part of the kindly old gentleman. Corvino plays the honest merchant. Both are respected members of society. Yet just as the exuberant exterior of Volpone covers a decayed spirit, so, too, do the public personalities of Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltore belie their evil. In a world in which gold is of paramount importance, such people can seem good; likewise, the truly honest and chaste Bonario and Celia can be made to seem conniving, greedy, and concupiscent.
Mosca almost gets the money. Corbaccio and Corvino almost escape with their reputations intact. Voltore almost wins a false case with his skillful arguments. Volpone cannot stand to lose his gold and cannot stand to see his victims succeed where he has failed. He reveals all to the court. The conclusion seems contrived—after all, the clever Volpone could start over and find new victims to gull—but it is thematically apt. No matter how often Volpone were to start over, his plotting would end the same way, because he worships a base and false god that cannot enrich his soul. The ending reveals the falseness in the principal characters and lays bare the emptiness of Volpone’s world.
The use of the villain as protagonist can be found in the tragedies of Jonson’s contemporaries. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, remains one of literature’s most interesting villainous heroes. The use of a villain as protagonist in a comedy was more rare and may have come from classical comedies, in which conniving servants were often the most entertaining characters. Jonson created for himself a distinctive literary voice by using villains such as Volpone to carry his moral ideas; in The Alchemist, he exploited the same tension with equal success.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge ranked the plot of The Alchemist among the three best in literature, along with those of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). Like Volpone, the play is about people pretending to be what they are not. The Alchemist, however, goes a step further: Its characters seek to be transformed, to be made over into new people. The three characters who gull the others operate out of a house, and as in Volpone, the victims are brought to the house for fleecing. In contrast to the action of Volpone, however, the action of The Alchemist remains tightly focused on the house; society at large comes to the Blackfriars’ house to be duped and cheated. Jeremy, the butler, goes by various names—usually Face, the conspirator. When his master leaves on a trip, he takes in Subtle, a down-on-his-luck swindler, and Doll Common, a prostitute. There is little pretense of a noble alliance, as in Volpone; these are criminals whose ignoble characters are never in doubt, although they, like their victims, aspire to become what they are not.
Part of the genius of the play is the fooling of the victimizers even as they prey on their victims. Doll Common plays the Queen of Faery for the stupid Dapper and a noblewoman for Sir Epicure Mammon. She throws herself into her roles with the hope that she will become—not simply pretend to be—a lady of noble character. Subtle forgets his recent destitution and begins to believe in his ability to transmute human character, even if his alchemical tricks cannot change matter. Face retains some sense of proportion as he shifts from one role to another, but even he hopes to become the important man in society that he cannot be while he remains a butler. These three quarrelsome rogues are laughable, but they also carry Jonson’s moral freight: One must know oneself before a change in character is possible. All except the house’s master, Lovewit, hope to be what they are not yet cannot change because they do not know themselves.
Dapper is a clerk who hopes to be a successful gambler; he hopes that Subtle, who poses as an alchemist, will be able to guarantee him good luck. Drugger is a silly shopkeeper who wants a guarantee of good business. Kastril is a country squire who wishes to become an urban wit. His sister, Dame Pliant, is an empty-headed, wealthy widow whose beautiful body hides an almost nonexistent personality. Tribulation, Wholesome, and Ananias are hypocritical Puritans who hope that Subtle will give them the philosophers’ stone—which is reputed to have great alchemical powers to transmute—so that they will be able to rule the world. Sir Epicure Mammon (regarded by many critics as one of Jonson’s greatest dramatic creations), egotistical and blind to his own weaknesses, wants the philosophers’ stone so that he can become a kind of Volpone, ruling a materialistic realm in which he would be wonderful in his generosity and terrible in his appetites. Mammon is already living a fantasy, and he needs little encouragement from Subtle, Face, and Doll Common. The victims are motivated by greed and lust; their desires dictate the nature of their cozening.
The fun is in the increasingly complex machinations of the resourceful schemers. The satire is in the social roles of the victims, who range from clerk and shopkeeper to religious leader and gentleman. By the play’s end, Surly, the friend of Mammon, has tried to reveal the schemers for what they are, but only Pliant believes him, and she believes whatever she is told. Mammon is in ardent pursuit of a prostitute in whom he sees noble ancestry; Wholesome and his aide Ananias are fearful of losing their chance to transform the world; Dapper is bound, gagged, and locked in a closet; and Subtle and Face are hopping from one deceit to another in order to keep their schemes balanced. Their small world is based on false understandings of self; no one understands who he really is. The hilarious confusion ends when Lovewit returns home and refuses to be fooled by Face’s explanations.
Some critics argue that Lovewit is every bit as deluded as the other characters. They argue that the world of The Alchemist remains disordered at the play’s finish. Yet Lovewit seems to see through Face’s lies and games; he seems to know perfectly well what he is doing when he takes Pliant and her fortune for himself. While his remark to Face, “I will be rul’d by thee in any thing,” can be taken to mean that master has yielded to servant, which would be a representation of disorder, it is more likely that Lovewit is expressing gratitude for the deliverance to him of Pliant, as his subsequent remarks suggest. He puts Face back in his place as servant; he puts Kastril in his proper place as his brother-in-law; and he handles the officers of the law and Tribulation and Mammon with confidence. He is in command of the problems created by Face, Subtle, and Doll Common almost from the moment he enters his home. Given the moral themes of the play, Lovewit’s commanding presence provides a satisfying conclusion by showing a character who knows himself bringing order to the chaos brought on by fools.
Between Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson wrote Epicne, and after The Alchemist he wrote Bartholomew Fair and The Devil Is an Ass. The last-named work is an amusing play but not one of Jonson’s best. The other two, however, rank among his most successful comedies. Unlike Volpone and The Alchemist, they involve broad social milieus. Volpone and The Alchemist present tight little worlds that parody reality; Volpone and Mosca rule theirs at the shrine of gold; Subtle, Face, and Doll Common are minor deities in the world encompassed by their house. In both plays, the outer world intrudes only to resolve their plots. In Epicne and Bartholomew Fair, the larger world of Jacobean society appears on the stage.
Epicne was written for a theatrical company made up entirely of boys, and the central conceit of the play turns on that aspect of its first performance, much as Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600) has the young man playing Rosalind, a woman, pretend to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Jonson’s trick is to have Epicne, played by a boy, turn out at play’s end to be a boy. As in his other great comedies, false pretenses form one of the play’s major themes. The duping of Morose, who loathes noise, draws in braggarts, pretentious women, and urbane wits. Coarse language, persistent lying, and brutality are revealed as the underlying traits of the supposedly refined and sophisticated members of polite society. In addition, Jonson calls into question the validity of sexual roles; Epicne is called everything from the ideal woman to an Amazon—the boy who plays her fits easily into the society of women and is readily accepted by women until revealed as a boy.
Bartholomew Fair also deals in disguises and confused identities but is more cheerful than Jonson’s other great comedies. The setting of a fair encourages varied action and characters, and Jonson evokes the robust nature of the fair by providing vigorous action and scenes that would be typical of the fairs of his day. The character Ursula is representative of the fair: She is the pig-woman, the operator of a stall that sells roast pig. Big, loud, and sweaty, she embodies the earthiness of the fair, which is noisy and hot with crowding people. The language of the characters is coarse, and they often use vulgarities. The effect is one of down-to-earth good humor and the happy-ending plot. This effect contrasts with Epicne, which also features grossly vulgar language; its characters are supposedly refined, but they reflect their gutter minds in gutter language. Instead of being down-to-earth, much of the humor seems dirty.