Ben Jonson’s two tragedies based on Roman history, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611), were critical failures when they were first presented, and they have remained the object of scholarly reservation, even of disapproval. Catiline in particular has been dissected for its rhetorical presentation, undramatic staging, and unsympathetic characters. In his essay on Ben Jonson, T. S. Eliot dismisses the play as “that deadly Pyrrhic victory of tragedy,” and his judgment has been generally accepted.
To be fully appreciated, however, Catiline must be judged according to its author’s intentions and his own self-imposed conventions, drawn largely from classical drama and Senecan closet drama, both genres that are very different from the more popular works of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, including Jonson himself. In addition, it may well be that the real subject of Catiline is not the actual historical conspiracy that nearly overthrew the Roman Republic in 63 b.c.e. The real subject, instead, may be a broader topic: the state of England during Jonson’s lifetime, politics in general, or even language as a means of human communication and control.
The immediate influences on the play are simple enough. Jonson intended to write a drama conforming to the strict considerations of classical drama; in particular, he is careful to exclude all violent action from the stage, so that battles and deaths, including Catiline’s, are reported but never seen. In this way, Jonson is working in the style and traditions of Senecan closet drama, where the language of the play takes precedence over action.
In addition, and as part of this adherence to the classical patterns, Jonson makes extensive use of a chorus, which comments upon the actions of other characters and which itself functions as a character. Unlike William Shakespeare’s solitary chorus in Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), Jonson’s chorus is thought to be modeled on the classical Greek chorus, which consists of a group of characters who speak and act in unison.
As Eliot and others have long noted, the traditions and conventions of classical and Senecan drama were important influences on English playwrights during the Renaissance. When, however, presented in the severe, almost undiluted form Jonson employs in Catiline, those conventions run counter to the normal direction and impulse of English stagecraft. Unless Catiline is recognized as belonging to a different genre, the play cannot be appreciated or even understood. It is a meditation on the consequences of political actions rather than a presentation of the actions themselves.
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