Ben Jonson World Literature Analysis

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One well-worn critical notion is that, although readers admire Ben Jonson, they love William Shakespeare. Jonson’s dramatic output in fact rivaled Shakespeare’s. He wrote nineteen plays, collaborated in several others, and crafted twenty-four courtly masques and entertainments. Yet despite Jonson’s great reputation among his contemporaries, his star has long been eclipsed by the phenomenal achievement of his great fellow dramatist and friend. Granted, Shakespeare’s genius is unmatched by any of his contemporaries except in isolated instances, but no other lesser genius has been treated to such unfavorable comparisons with Shakespeare as Jonson has. He was to a degree responsible for this turn of events. An outspoken critic, Jonson passed on some negative assessments of his older friend’s work that ultimately made him the target of unjust criticism by many admirers of Shakespeare.

In the prologue to the second version of Every Man in His Humour, Jonson presented a critical manifesto that has been wrongly interpreted as a personal attack on Shakespeare conceived in petty jealousy. Although Jonson does allude to Shakespeare’s use of the chorus in his Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600) plays, his real concern is with the violation of logic characteristic of the popular chronicle play, which, complained Jonson, would often cover the entire span of a character’s life in an obvious violation of classical rules. Jonson was simply rejecting the history play in general, preferring comedy, which could mirror the times and “sport with human follies, not with crimes.”

Clearly, Jonson’s neoclassical bias led him to rebuke the practices of the stage that went against his sense of propriety and reason. Jonson’s comedy, because it is didactic, naturally gravitates toward satire. Its purpose, to make people laugh at their own foolishness, is corrective; hence, in Jonson’s greatest plays, including Volpone and The Alchemist, the main characters are either tricksters who cheat fools or fools themselves. Jonson’s comic mode is thus very different from that of Shakespeare, who is only satirical incidentally.

Jonson also believed that the overdrawn, exaggerated, and flowery speech of many characters was too wearisome, and he preached writing in language that people actually used, including slang heard in the street. That demand would also put him at artistic odds with Shakespeare, who framed different styles of expression for an extraordinary range of characters. Jonson, while embracing the concept of the dramatic unities of time, place, and action, did not always follow it. In contrast, Shakespeare, who either did not entertain the idea or simply rejected it on some occasions, as in The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), practiced it to perfection.

In his best dramatic work, Jonson is a brilliant craftsman. His comedies are intrigue plays with complex designs, and for sheer stage razzle-dazzle, they have few rivals. Jonson parades before the audience a succession of fools, brilliantly drawn and comically driven by some obsessive vice or “humor” that makes them fair game for crafty swindlers who prey on their weaknesses. That design becomes central in several of Jonson’s comedies, but the playwright’s genius was such that it never becomes merely formulaic.

Jonson’s susceptibility to criticism lies not in an inability to depict characters but in his disinterest in depicting sympathetic ones. Since his purpose was satirical, he seldom moves his focus away from tricksters and fools toward the more genial types found in the festive comedies of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s comedies are triumphant and affirm life. Jonson’s comedies take a sour look at it. Within that limitation, and on his own terms, Jonson is a master playwright. His best works offer comic delight in their design. Once set in motion by the tricksters and driven by their own foolishness, the victims move with increasing rapidity through successive scenes until the action gets beyond the tricksters’ control. Resourceful though they may be, the overreaching tricksters end up being victimized by their own greed.

While Jonson is better known as a dramatist than lyrical poet, in the fashion of his own age, he undoubtedly viewed his poetry as his highest literary achievement. He is the primary figure in one of two major movements in poetry in the first half of the seventeenth century. The other movement, the so-called Metaphysical school, followed in the footsteps of John Donne. The “tribe” or “sons” of Ben emulated what Jonson preached and for the most part practiced.

Whereas the modern reader might have trouble reading Jonson’s comedies, which suffer somewhat from their topical word use, that same reader should find much of Jonson’s lyrical poetry remarkably clear. Unlike Donne and other Metaphysical poets, Jonson and his followers strove for clarity, symmetry, and simplicity in verse, which is classical in form and spirit. Except in a few pieces affecting the Metaphysical mode, Jonson’s poetry is free of the strained imagery and intricate thought of Donne and his followers.

Marked by decorum and restraint, Jonson’s lyrics are public and objective, cool and rational, urbane and polished. Many of his pieces are terse, notably his songs, epigrams, and epitaphs. They are also didactic, sometimes satirical, even, at times, self-mocking. Marked by understatement and irony and purged of all emotional excess, some of his lyrics achieve an objective detachment that makes them seem cold. It is their pared down, uncomplicated statement that gives many of Jonson’s lyrics their modern tone.

Seconded by his critical opinions circulated among members of his group, Jonson’s poetry introduced a public poetry that would for a time gain ascendancy over the more private, subjective, and obscure verse of the Metaphysical poets. An important seminal figure in the classical movement, Jonson’s artistic tastes make him a parent of the neo-Augustan Age.

Volpone

First produced: 1605 (first published, 1607)

Type of work: Play

A Venetian “magnifico” who pretends to be dying in order to cheat greedy fortune hunters is undone by his own vanity.

No work is more firmly bound to Jonson’s name than his great satirical verse comedy Volpone. It achieves the mastery of purpose claimed by the playwright and reflects his devotion to classical theories, but it remains a distressing comedy that defies easy interpretation.

The play’s predication is, however, quite simple. Volpone and his servant Mosca pretend that Volpone is dying and encourage Venetian fortune hunters to vie for Volpone’s favor in hopes of being named his heir. All visit Volpone, prompted by Mosca to bring gifts to convince Volpone of their kind concern for his health. Volpone is, of course, perfectly well, but he and Mosca put on such a good act that the legacy hunters are completely fooled. The greedy victims include Corbaccio, an old, deaf miser; Voltore, a conniving lawyer; Corvino, a rich merchant who jealously guards his young, attractive wife, Celia; and Lady Would-be, the wife of a ridiculous English knight.

Complications arise when Mosca convinces Corbaccio to claim that he is drawing up a new will disinheriting his son, Bonario, and naming Volpone his heir. After Corbaccio agrees, Mosca taunts Bonario and challenges him to go to Volpone’s house to overhear Corbaccio confirm the fact. Meanwhile, Volpone, who has been scheming to seduce Corvino’s wife, has Mosca talk the foolish merchant into leaving Celia alone with Volpone, who then attempts to force himself on her. Bonario catches him in the act, rescues Celia, and denounces Volpone and Mosca.

Fearful that the game is ended, Volpone throws himself down in despair, but Mosca devises a new scheme to escape trouble. He convinces Corbaccio that his son is out to kill him, tells the suspicious Voltore that Bonario has made Celia swear that Volpone had raped her, and gets Corvino to denounce Celia as a lewd woman. Celia and Bonario, totally innocent, are brought to court, and through the testimony of the legacy hunters and Voltore’s cunning, are found guilty in an obvious travesty of justice.

The pair of tricksters then go too far. Determined to vex the fools further, they spread the news that Volpone has died. Each would-be heir then comes to Volpone’s house to claim the magnifico’s legacy, only to be told that Mosca is the heir. Mosca knows that Volpone himself is now vulnerable and quickly makes plans to cheat him.

Seeking revenge on Mosca, the would-be heirs return to the court to claim that Bonario and Celia have been falsely charged and that Mosca has practiced criminal deceptions. Mosca is called to court, and when he refuses to confirm that Volpone is actually alive, he impels Volpone, disguised as an officer of the court, to reveal himself rather than be tricked. At last discovering the truth, the judges sentence both the tricksters and the fools to appropriate but very harsh, uncomic punishments. Mosca is to be whipped and sent to the galleys. Volpone, his wealth confiscated and given to a hospital for incurables, is to be imprisoned until he does in fact become sick and lame.

Jonson’s work is based on a popular beast fable of the fox that feigned death, but its complexity can be fully explained only by reference to the Roman institution of legacy hunting and such diverse works as Aesop’s Fables, the Bible, and Desiderius Erasmus’s Mori encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly, 1549). The comedy can also be seen as a morality play within its beast-fable guise. Volpone, like the fox pretending to be dead, traps unwary birds of prey, who are, of course, greedy men hoping to benefit from his death. Jonson’s theme and real concern is the unnaturalness of sin. His strong moral intent is driven home by a constant reference to the beast fable in the speeches of Volpone and Mosca.

The dramatist’s artistic purpose, as the play’s prologue confirms, is to entertain and enlighten the audience while observing the unities of time, place, and action. Strictly speaking, however, Jonson violates his own artistic rules. The action all takes place in Venice within the course of a single day, but classical symmetry is destroyed by the inclusion of a subplot involving Sir Politic Would-be and his fellow Englishman, Peregrine.

The setting of the play, Venice, was probably chosen by Jonson for its reputation as a city full of carnival-like attractions, much like Jonson’s own London. Volpone’s household includes abnormal human pets, and at one point he disguises himself as a mountebank or quack to catch a glimpse of Celia. It is a Venice teeming with Renaissance life, zestful and curious, a magnet for English travelers such as Peregrine and the Would-bes.

The atmosphere is right for the deceit and trickery practiced by Volpone and Mosca on the callous, hypocritical legacy hunters. Volpone is, of course, no less perverse than his victims. In fact, his opening salutation to his gold, which he venerates as a saint, grotesquely distorts normal human values. As long as his victims are greedy fools, however, Volpone’s ingenuity makes him more rogue than villain. Only when Bonario and Celia become enmeshed in his intrigue does he grow ripe for the comic unmasking that marks the play’s grim finale.

Volpone works through an admirable use of sustained dramatic irony, which is a powerful theatrical device. The audience, recognizing the deceptions practiced by Volpone and Mosca, delights in their clever manipulation of their victims. The irony leads to some hilarious moments, as, for example, when Mosca prompts Corvino to vilify Volpone to his face after convincing him that the fox is nearly in a coma, or the scene in which Mosca must yell at the deaf and feeble Corbaccio to get him to understand anything at all.

Threaded through the play, the farcical subplot of Sir Politic and Peregrine offers a humorous counterpoint to the fierce, unrelenting satire on compulsive greed in the main plot. In Sir Pol, Jonson pokes fun at harmless fanatics who find conspiracy afoot everywhere. Among other fantastic disclosures, Sir Pol tells Peregrine that he knows how to sell Venice to the Turks. After Peregrine becomes convinced that Sir Politic is actually a pimp for his wife, Lady Pol, he decides to get revenge on him. In the disguise of a merchant, he leads Sir Pol to believe that Peregrine is really a Venetian secret agent who now plans to arrest him. He then helps Sir Pol hide inside a ridiculous contraption made of a tortoise shell before revealing his true self and mocking the silly knight.

Sir Pol’s asinine delusions and his fanciful “projects” are in the tradition of burlesque and mimicry, appropriate to the parrot, his beast-fable counterpart. Lady Pol, in the fortune hunt, is more directly related to the main plot, but she, too, is a mimic, aping the dress and manners of Venice and trying the Italian seduction game as if it were a mere extension of Venetian fashions. The topicality of the Sir Politic plot makes it easy to overlook its important function in the play. It contrasts English folly with Italian vice and adds texture and density to the whole. It also clarifies the relationship between vice and folly, showing how each is a species of the unnatural, which is, after all, Jonson’s central, unifying theme.

The Alchemist

First produced: 1610 (first published, 1612)

Type of work: Play

A trio of London sharpers trick their greedy victims through clever manipulation and alchemical gibberish and mock rites.

Like Volpone, The Alchemist, also in verse, has a complex intrigue plot with a radial design. In both plays, there is a central place where deceit is practiced on a procession of fools. In The Alchemist, the setting is Lovewit’s London house, where, in Lovewit’s absence, his butler Jeremy has invited a cheater, Subtle, and his whore, Doll, to set up shop as tricksters on a profit-sharing basis.

At the beginning of the play, Subtle and Jeremy haggle over their respective cuts, and Doll manages to restore peace at the moment that the first of the fools, Dapper, enters. He is a clerk whom Jeremy, as Captain Face, has encouraged to consult with “Doctor” Subtle. Dapper wants a familiar spirit to help him win at gambling. After telling him that he is related to the Queen of Fairy, the tricksters whisk him out in order to welcome the next victim, Drugger, a tobacconist who wants to use magic for arranging his shop properly. After he leaves, the tricksters spot Sir Epicure Mammon approaching. Jeremy quickly changes into his disguise as Lungs, Subtle’s alchemical assistant, to welcome the knight and his friend, Surly.

What Sir Epicure wants, and Jeremy and Subtle have promised to deliver, is the “philosopher’s stone,” the end result of the alchemical process. The stone is supposed to have great power, offering its owner eternal youth and the ability to transform base metals into gold. Sir Epicure is a believer, but Surly is not, and no amount of alchemical mumbo jumbo changes his mind. Meanwhile, Sir Epicure is led to believe that Doll is a lord’s sister driven mad by scholarship.

After getting rid of Sir Epicure and Surly, the tricksters bring in the Puritan Ananias, who wants the philosopher’s stone to aid his cause. Ananias refuses to pay any more money without first seeing some results, and Jeremy indignantly throws him out. Drugger then returns and tells Subtle and Jeremy about Dame Pliant, a rich widow, and her brother, Kastril, prompting Subtle and Jeremy’s great interest.

After Ananias returns with Tribulation Wholesome, and they are sent off to settle an ethical point, the other clients start parading in too quickly. For a moment, Subtle and Jeremy get rid of all but Dapper, whom they prepare for a visit from the Queen of Fairy. They blindfold him, tie him to a chair, take his money, and begin pinching him as fairies. Interrupted by Sir Epicure knocking at the door, the rascals gag Dapper with gingerbread and lock him in a privy closet.

Jeremy as Lungs introduces Sir Epicure to Doll, then changes into his Captain Face uniform to welcome Kastril and Dame Pliant. Almost immediately Surly arrives, disguised as a Spanish don who speaks no English, which induces Subtle and Jeremy to insult him and openly confess their intentions to fleece him. Surly wants to see Doll, but since she is busy with Sir Epicure, they introduce him to Dame Pliant.

At this point, matters get totally out of control. Sir Epicure blunders by alluding to the philosopher’s stone, which makes Doll spout passages from an obscure scholarly work. Jeremy, as Lungs, tries to quiet her, and Subtle, always feigning piety, pretends to be deeply affronted by Sir Epicure’s lust. Meanwhile, Surly removes his Spanish disguise, denounces the tricksters, and proposes marriage to Dame Pliant. Jeremy, who as Face had been giving Kastril fighting lessons, tries to get him to challenge Surly, but Kastril will not fight. Ananias and Drugger arrive to add to the rout, and, as if to underscore the insanity, the alchemical project explodes.

The play draws to its complex unwinding with the return of Lovewit, who hears complaints from his neighbors. Jeremy at first tries to cover for the tricksters, but several of their victims return to confirm the neighbors’ account of their going and coming. With the help of his chastised butler, Lovewit takes full advantage of the situation. Jeremy drives off Doll and Subtle, claiming their booty for his master. Lovewit then marries Dame Pliant, and when officers come to search his house, he promises that he will return the goods of any victims who certify how they lost them. Since the fools are unwilling to disclose their stupidity, Lovewit keeps everything.

As in Volpone, in The Alchemist Jonson investigates the relationship between tricksters and their victims. Yet the two plays are very different in tone. The Alchemist lacks the decadent atmosphere of the earlier play. The perversion of the opening scene in Volpone gives way in The Alchemist to the bawdy antics of Subtle and Face, and the comic thrust never succumbs so completely to the moral degeneration that marks the darker moments of the former work. Unlike Volpone, The Alchemist seems to lack an organic, unified, and complete plot. Plot implies development in character or idea, but in The Alchemist characters undergo no changes, and the tricksters pay no penalty except the loss of their ill-gotten gains. The play develops as a series of redundant episodes in which the same theme is implicit from start to finish. Unlike Volpone and Mosca, however, the intriguers in The Alchemist deceive only fools deserving of their fate, and they therefore pay no harsh penalty.

The foolish victims are not interdependent. They duplicate and mirror each other, but they do not interact. They come together only by accident, not to work in concert, as Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino do in the trial scenes in Volpone. The only concerted efforts, always unstable, are made by the tricksters—Subtle, Face, and Doll. Characters of tremendous zest, they give the play its great appeal. All three share with Volpone and Mosca one important trait; greedy themselves, they also are comic overreachers who do not know when to quit. Although deft and resourceful, they cannot prevent their scheme from running beyond their control.

The central referent of the play is alchemy and its “grand work.” It is a perfect emblem for the play’s action, a metaphor for the bulging confidence scheme. By design, the play is tumultuous, with quick costume swapping and breathless sleight-of-hand activity that picks up, goes amiss, and finally undoes the trio of swindlers.

Jonson’s dramatic technique, duplication, is carefully patterned in the play. Each of the fools approaches Jeremy and Subtle in the same way. Variety is found only in the nature of their problems. In each case, Jeremy and Subtle promise results, then subject the victim to deliberate neglect before the final cheating. The repeated pattern is a simple but clever dramatic device. To reduce the central import of The Alchemist to a blunt attack on human greed is to oversimplify its theme. As in Volpone, Jonson is attacking a human depravity that offends against God’s creation, and his target is not merely a single vice but any impiety or false idol that perverts nature.

“On My First Son”

First published: 1616 (collected in Epigrams, 1616)

Type of work: Poem

The poet addresses his deceased son in a brief elegy that includes an appropriate epitaph.

In “On My First Son,” Jonson addresses his first-born son, also named Benjamin, who died of the plague in 1603. The poem is an epigram, modeled on those of the Roman poet Martial. It starts as a valediction or farewell using a poetic apostrophe, but it quickly becomes apparent that the son’s departure is eternal and that the poet is lamenting his death.

Jonson’s ideas in the poem reflect the influence of his models. Classical epitaphs often reiterated the idea of life as a sort of borrowing from fate. The poet claims that his son has only been “lent” to him, and with the boy’s death, fate has merely exacted payment of the debt “on the just day.” Also classical in origin is the implicit notion that excessive good luck could kindle the jealousy of the gods, and that knowing this, a wise man should not be too fond of what he loves.

Despite these classical underpinnings, Jonson’s poem does not violate Christian orthodoxy. In attempting to console himself, the grieving father notes that death is an enviable state, free of the ravages of the world and the flesh and an escape from old age. Jonson says that his sin lay in placing too much “hope” in his son, implying that his grief arises from selfish and presumptuous expectations. The poet ends by vowing never to like too much that which he loves.

A compact poem, “On My First Son” consists of only twelve lines in the form of six rhymed couplets. It compresses its thought with great economy of statement and tightly controlled syntax. The poem even threads in a brief epitaph—“here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”—which in its simplicity and ironic understatement suggests a profound depth of feeling. Jonson’s reserve at this point quickly dissolves into a sincere and poignant reflection that is the thematic center for the whole piece.

“To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us”

First published: 1623 (collected in The Works of Benjamin Jonson, 1640-1641)

Type of work: Poem

The poet offers generous praise of William Shakespeare in lines commemorating his genius and his art.

Jonson’s eighty-line tribute to Shakespeare, “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,” was written to accompany that dramatist’s plays in the famous 1623 edition prepared by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. The poem is generous in its praise and argues that, despite whatever private reservations he might have had, Jonson wanted to go on public record as one of Shakespeare’s greatest admirers.

The eulogy starts by addressing Shakespeare directly, in an apostrophe, but midway through the poem it shifts to address the English nation. The country, personified as Britain, should “triumph” in Shakespeare, a genius “not of an age, but for all time!” In this middle section, Shakespeare is spoken of in the third person, but Jonson subtly shifts once more to address his deceased friend before the poem’s conclusion.

In the first half, Jonson surveys possible motives for his lavish praise and rejects “silliest ignorance,” “blind affection,” and “crafty malice,” with the implication that his motives are pure, based on sound critical judgment. He does make the rather infamous statement that Shakespeare had “small Latin, and less Greek.” Out of context, that observation may seem condemnatory, but Jonson’s implication is that Shakespeare’s genius is of such an order that he exceeds the greatest writers of “insolent Greece” and “haughty Rome” without being beholden to them for his art—a remarkable admission from an avowed classicist.

A central theme of the poem, one repeatedly used in Shakespeare’s own sonnets, is that art offers its creator immortality. Shakespeare, claims Jonson, will live as long as “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” The idea of art’s transcendent capability leads to the finale of the poem, an apotheosis or poetic immortalizing, which, in the elegiac tradition, transfixes the subject in the heavens as a constellation, the “star of poets.” That is high public praise from a writer whose natural bias lay against poetic excess. Jonson’s great skill gives it and other lavish statements of praise a sincere ring, and the result is one of the finest poetic eulogies in the English language.

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