Ben Jonson World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4144

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 4144 words.)

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Jonson, Ben (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))