Sejanus His Fall

by Ben Jonson

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Critical Evaluation

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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 of the Roman Empire into a thoroughly modern framework. His story is of a totalitarian machine ruled by a treacherous bureaucracy that is based on fear, betrayal, and deception. His characters lack psychological depth because they have no sense of self. They are victims of a historical process in which the machinery of the state turns the people against themselves. The times are out of joint, and there are no heroes or antiheroes to set them right. No grand avenger who upholds a sense of personal honor ever arises to redress the wrongs of Tiberius. Germanicus is mourned, but none of his kin has the will or the drive to seek retribution. Agrippina is so crushed that she can only tell her sons to suffer nobly. Even a hesitant avenger would be welcome in the cold world...

(This entire section contains 1190 words.)

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of spies. The state apparatus controls the populace thoroughly by means of fear of reprisal and the expediency of self-interest. There is not even a strong villain, for example a Richard III, to gloat.

Rome is ruled by Sejanus, a petty politician who lives in a world where evil is reduced to the trivial. Living in a world of soulless men who are forever seeking to follow the political tide, Sejanus uses uncertainty to control his followers. His supporters are honored one day and murdered the next. His network of spies makes the populace afraid. The emperor, the legitimate authority, hides behind his henchman, Sejanus. The honorable soldier, Silius, who fought for emperor and country, is discarded. Senators are fearful and silent. The good citizen, Lepidus, ignores the terror in order to save his own life. Even the gods are silent. Jonson vividly depicts the totalitarian state.

In this society even ostensibly free men are bought and sold. Sejanus puts political policy above blood ties. Macro sells out his own family. Honor, glory, family, kinship, loyalty, public responsibility—nothing has any meaning in the world of the treacherous bureaucracy. Power is centralized in a figurehead who passes out favors liberally and destroys his enemies. He, too, is a part of the system and just as replaceable as those he eliminates.

This usurpation of the body politic leads to the destruction of individuality. The individual becomes a subject of the power structure. In the play’s imagery, the loss of the sense of self is seen in the fragmentation of the body. Faces are depicted as shifting; tongues are described as cleft; people’s lips are divided from their hearts. The body of the individual and of the body politic suffers a condition in which body parts are out of control. The body also becomes a saleable commodity in a prostituted world order of deceptive transactions. Sejanus, once a male prostitute, figuratively prostitutes the whole body politic. In the end, the body imagery in the play is pronounced in the dismemberment of Sejanus, as the mob tears him to pieces in the reenactment of the ancient ritual of the expulsion of a scapegoat. In Jonson’s bleak tragedy, however, expelling the source of evil is not enough. The whole system of the state is caught in a mechanism of repetition, evoking the traditional motif of the wheel of fortune. One devious bureaucrat replaces another.

Two traditional conventions inform the play: In addition to the motif of the revolving wheel of fortune is the classical idea of hubris. Together they cause Sejanus’s fall. He falls when he is at the summit of success; his decline begins in act 3 when he suggests to Tiberius the marriage to Livia. These two somewhat contradictory ideas are suggested within the play: that Sejanus’s fall is fated because everyone will eventually fall; and that Sejanus’s pride, in his desire to become a god, caused his fall.

The great pessimism of Sejanus His Fall lies in the knowledge that Sejanus’s downfall will lead to neither a personal renewal nor a cleansing of the state. Rome without Sejanus will be no less corrupt than Rome with him. Jonson creates in this play a nightmare world in which the body politic is in pieces and the state mechanism of treachery leads to a vicious circle of violence and suppression. Considered a minor and obscure work of Jonson, Sejanus His Fall remains powerful drama, rooted in ancient ritual and contemporary in its view of repressive totalitarian states.