Critical Evaluation

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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.

In depicting those actions, Jonson drew upon ancient historical record, but he may also have been commenting on more recent events. In writing Catiline, Jonson was careful to remain close to his historical sources, most notably the Roman historian Sallust, whose The Conspiracy of Catiline (43-42 b.c.e.) is the fullest account of the conspiracy and its defeat. In addition, Jonson drew on a number of details from the historians Plutarch and Dio Cassius, including the hint that Julius Caesar was involved in the conspiracy. In particular, Jonson turned to the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the consul at the time of the conspiracy, who was largely responsible, through his brilliant orations, for its exposure and defeat. Indeed, long passages of Jonson’s play are simply paraphrases (or, more accurately, translations) of Cicero’s Orations Against Catiline (60 b.c.e.).

Perhaps the outstanding example of this close dependence on original sources comes at the climax of the play, in the long speech in act 4 when Cicero reveals and denounces Catiline’s conspiracy. The words here are taken almost verbatim from Cicero’s own record. As Eliot and other critics have noted,...

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however, what Jonson gains in historical accuracy is won at the expense of dramatic effectiveness. The audience sees and hears Catiline verbally rebuked in the Senate, but it is only told about his actual defeat and death on the battlefield.

Jonson’s purpose in adhering so closely to the historical record, and his insistence on a strict classical form, may have been based on a desire to transcend the specifics of history and politics to reveal the underlying fundamental laws and principles and thereby to connect republican Rome and Jacobean England. Jonson presents these parallels either as specific instances or more general themes.

Some similarities have been noted between Jonson’s presentation of the Catilinarian conspiracy and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic dissidents attempted to kill King James I and the English Parliament. The explosion was timed to take place on November 5, and in his denunciation of Catiline during the play, Cicero thunders: I told too in this Senate that they purpose Was on the fifth, the kalends of November, T’have slaughter’d this whole order.

These lines, and repeated variants of the word “blow” in the dual sense of a sudden, violent overthrow and an explosion, suggest a deliberate connection between the ancient and the modern conspiracies.

Jonson’s purpose in Catiline may well have been more general, however, serving to present an overview of the political processes in the abstract. During a period in which the political and social structures of England were being severely tested both by religious factionalism and dynastic change, there was an increased desire for stability and order. The villains in Catiline are those who seek to create disorder and to profit from it: Catiline himself, deeply ambitious, seeks to dominate Rome; Caesar, already aspiring to power, is implicated in the conspiracy but manages to escape censure; Fulvia, a courtesan and spy, mingles her own concerns with political intrigue. The common thread that links these figures is a desire for social and political revolution.

By contrast, Cicero, seen by many critics as the heroic protagonist of the play, is dedicated to upholding and defending the established principles of republican Rome. Although a “new man” himself (that is, not coming from a long-established patrician family), Cicero is more loyal to the traditions and principles of Roman life than is the patrician Catiline. Significantly, Cicero’s victory is accomplished not on the battlefield but in the Senate chamber, and his victory is won by the power of language rather than by the strength of weapons.

Cicero’s victory over Catiline through the mastery of language is central to both the content and the form of the play. As a Senecan closet drama, and as a play, Catiline is forced by convention to rely upon linguistic, rather than dramatic, resources. It may well be, however, that Jonson was impelled to use the classical and Senecan models precisely because the subject matter of his drama, and the key events which it chronicles, are concerned with power and consequences of language itself and with its influence on human beings and their actions.