Ben Jonson, the author of Sejanus His Fall, was perhaps the foremost comic dramatist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods after William Shakespeare. Jonson was the primary purveyor of the “comedy of humours,” in which a character possessed with a mania or obsessive trait drives the social order into comic disorder. Later in his career, Jonson wrote dark, moral comedies tinged with irony. Volpone: Or, The Fox (1605) and The Alchemist (1610) are two of Jonson’s comic masterpieces.
Although Jonson is known primarily for his comedies, he ventured into tragedy. In his theory of tragedy, Jonson was a classicist. Classical tragedy focuses on the unities of time, place, and action. The classical tragedy should take place in a one-day period, be located in one place, and follow a few characters through a singular plot line. Classical tragedies have a chorus or group of characters who comment on the action, and they refrain from violent action onstage. Also, the classical hero is a noble person who falls after an error in judgment or as a result of some character flaw.
Sejanus His Fall was Jonson’s first attempt at tragedy. It was performed in 1603 by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre. According to some sources, Shakespeare may have played the part of Tiberius. Sejanus His Fall, however, is far from a classical tragedy. In his preface to the play Jonson apologizes for not upholding the unity of time, but Jonson does more than break with this one unity. Instead of focusing on one day, the action in Sejanus His Fall spreads over several months. The locales change frequently. The cast is an assortment of characters caught in multiple sequences. The play lacks a chorus, and violent actions are graphically depicted on stage. Jonson could not hold to classical principles, and entertain Elizabethans, in writing his tragedy. Ironically, the play was not well received and was misunderstood by its contemporary audience. Today, it is seldom revived.
Nevertheless, Sejanus His Fall is worthy of critical acclaim. It is modern in its investigations of the machination of power, and it is deeply rooted in the primitive traditions of tragedy, which focus on the ritualistic dismemberment of a scapegoat figure. The greatness of the play does not lie in character portrayal, for Tiberius is the only character with complexity. Sejanus has no richness to his personality; he is not an interesting villain. The good characters, such as Lepidus and Arruntius, function primarily as choral commentators, comparing the past with the present; they are either ineffectual or impotent. Rather, our interest is drawn to the contest between two supreme Machiavellians, Tiberius and Sejanus, and to Jonson’s suggestion that a corrupt and decadent society will inevitably produce a Tiberius and a Sejanus.
Jonson’s drama brings the history...
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