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Ben Jonson's violent laughter
by Paul Dean
A review of Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson
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The most important fact about Ben Jonson (1572–1637) is that he was not Shakespeare. It may be objected that this comment is futile, since nobody can be blamed for not being Shakespeare. But a major reason for making the point is that Jonson was constantly making it himself. Not to be Shakespeare was an essential element in his self-definition, in life as in literature.
He was a Londoner whose métier, even in his two Roman tragedies, was satirical comedy, producing the “violent laughter” which Volpone finds restorative: Shakespeare was a provincial whose romantic recipe for comedy was mocked by a character in Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1600) as “a duke to be in love with a countess, and that countess to be in love with the duke’s son, and the son to love the lady’s waiting-maid: some such cross-wooing, with a clown to their servingman.” This sounds like a reminiscence of Twelfth Night, a play that Jonson would also echo (from memory since it was not printed until 1623) in Poetaster and Epicoene. As for Shakespeare’s histories, they were dismissed in the revised Every Man in His Humour (1598), which Jonson prepared for the 1616 edition of his Works, as plays whose actors “with three rusty swords . . . Fight over York and Lancaster’s long jars.” Add to this the scoffing at “Tales, Tempests, and such-like drolleries” in Bartholomew Fair, and the sneering at “some mouldy tale, like Pericles” in the “Ode to Himself,” not to mention the famously grumpy remarks about Shakespeare’s carelessness which Jonson made in conversation with William Drummond in 1618 (“Shakespeare wanted Art”) and you have a pretty comprehensive dismissal of his rival, although, as we shall see, that is not the whole picture. Still, Jonson was not—emphatically not—Shakespeare. Who then was he?
This is an exciting time for Jonsonians. A new, seven-volume edition of Jonson’s plays, replacing the celebrated edition of Herford and Simpson, which was definitive for the last century, is imminent from Cambridge University Press, to be followed shortly by Mark Bland’s old-spelling edition of Jonson’s poems, for Oxford. While awaiting these treats, we can enjoy Ian Donaldson’s biography, Ben Jonson: A Life.1
Donaldson, a general editor of the Cambridge edition, has been a noted Jonson scholar for forty years or more; his own edition of the poems (1975) is superb, and this book does not disappoint. A traditional life-and-times survey, and none the worse for that, it illuminates such tangled aspects of Jonson’s career as his brushes with the law, his changes of religion, his part in the War of the Theatres, and his ambivalent relationship with the Court. It uses a major new source, discovered by James Loxley in 2009: the diary of Jonson’s companion (still unidentified) on his walking tour to Scotland and back in 1618. Donaldson’s biography is well-paced, readable, and authoritative.
Sixteen of Jonson’s plays have survived complete; two were left in fragmentary form at his death; several early works are lost, with the exception of The Case Is Altered (1598), published without his authority in 1609, and excluded from the 1616 Works, which he carefully designed as an artistic self-portrait. Like The Comedy of Errors, it refashions two plays by Plautus, and ends with multiple marriages in the classic Elizabethan romantic-comedy manner. But this was not Jonson’s vein. He told Drummond that he had intended to adapt Plautus’s Amphitruo, which Shakespeare used in Errors and Twelfth Night, and which depends on identical twins being mistaken for each other, but had to abandon the project because he could never find two actors who were sufficiently alike to fool the audience. This completely unnecessary scruple speaks volumes about the difference between him and Shakespeare. Their criteria of dramatic truth were irreconcilable. Shakespeare was drawn to New Comedy, Jonson to Old. Jonson’s models were Juvenal, Horace, and Aristophanes rather than Ovid, Virgil, and Plautus. This did not rule out occasional indebtedness to Shakespeare on his part. There are borrowings from Romeo and Juliet in Poetaster, from Julius Caesar in Sejanus, and from Macbeth in Catiline, among others. Falstaff is named in Every Man out of His Humour.
But these are incidental allusions. More telling are the implied criticisms. Donaldson points to the difference between Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s treatments of the personage of the Fairy Queen. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she is a formidable character; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, she is impersonated by the comic Mrs. Quickly, but still taken seriously, whereas in The Alchemist, she is a tawdry parody embodied by Doll Common, a whore. Shakespeare is fascinated by illusion, Jonson by deception, as we see by comparing the dénouements of Twelfth Night and Epicoene: the realization that “Cesario” has all along been Viola or Sebastian clears the way for reconciliation and matrimony, whereas Morose’s discovery that his “wife” is actually a boy in disguise brings him only humiliation and public ridicule. Shakespeare explores the paradoxes of the convention of boys acting female roles; Jonson brilliantly exposes it as exactly that, a convention. (He repeated the idea in The New Inn, but wrecked it by absurdity, for the embarrassment of Lord Beaufort on discovering he has married a boy in disguise turns to relief when it is revealed that the boy was actually a girl all along!) When we look for Jon-
One of the most intriguing facts about Shakespeare is that he acted in at least two of Jonson’s plays, the original Every Man in His Humour and Sejanus. What roles he played are unknown, but Every Man in His Humour features a jealous husband named Thorello, whose wife is Bianca, and whose brother-in-law is Prospero; Donaldson shows there are close verbal links in the play to Othello and The Tempest, apart from these names. He conjectures that Shakespeare played Tiberius in Sejanus, but I like to think of him as the historian Cordus, criticized for having called Cassius “the last of all the Romans” exactly as Shakespeare did in Julius Caesar.
It is no service to Jonson to pretend that all his plays are masterpieces. The essential canon, it seems to me, is: Poetaster (1601), Sejanus (1603), Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Catiline (1611), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). All the other plays have their interest, but none seems as fully achieved as these, and not everyone would include Catiline. There has been a determined attempt, pioneered by Anne Barton in her landmark study Ben Jonson, Dramatist (1984) and endorsed by Donaldson, to rehabilitate Jonson’s late plays, The Staple of News (1626), The New Inn (1629), The Magnetic Lady (1632), and The Tale of a Tub (1633). Dryden’s verdict on these (“dotages”) has been widely condemned, but my experience is that these later plays are prolix and resolutely unamusing. The numerous masque texts also have to be set aside, for the general reading public at least, since they are verbal records of entertainments much of whose charm was visual and aural, and difficult to appreciate on their own. Jonson was furious with people who made this kind of comment at the time; Donaldson records his quarrels with the stage designer Inigo Jones, whom he lampooned in his plays, and who regarded Jonson’s texts as mere pretexts for the display of his own art.
Jonson was a worthy pupil of his master at Westminster School, William Camden, one of the finest classicists of his day. (Like Shakespeare, Jonson seems not to have proceeded to university, although Donaldson detects some evidence of a brief residence at Cambridge.) He kept a reverence for literary tradition and authority all his life, habitually adapting, echoing, and reworking classical models, and never abandoning his adherence to neoclassical principles of dramatic construction, even when, as in his tragedies, it threatened to make the plays unwieldy. Naturally he was also aware of earlier English literature. He wrote verse imitating the distinctive style of John Skelton; he affectionately parodied morality drama in Bartholomew Fair and The Devil Is an Ass (1616), which also pays a characteristically ironical tribute to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: a junior devil is allowed to visit Jonson’s London for a day, to make as much mischief as possible, but discovers that the citizens are already committing much more wickedness than he could invent. Nonetheless, despite this native strain, Jonson is what he aspired to be, our English Horace.
Poetaster, which Donaldson neatly describes as “a kind of Elizabethan forerunner of Pope’s Dunciad,” is a pivotal play in his development. It was written, like Every Man out of His Humour, Cynthia’s Revels (1600), and Epicoene, for a company of boy actors. Shakespeare, to judge from the acerbities about these popular troupes in Hamlet, regarded them as rivals to his own company, and never wrote for them. Poetaster projects Jonson’s idealized vision of himself as the court poet-counselor honored for his learning, wisdom, and moral probity, triumphing over the inferior scribblers who are his would-be detractors (thinly disguised portraits of Dekker and Marston). However, there is a topical subtext, for only months before Poetaster opened, the Earl of Essex had been executed for treason; Jonson’s play is subtitled The Arraignment, and that may have been its original main title. Tom Cain, in his edition of Poetaster (1995), pointed out the interest that play shares with Sejanus—which has also been seen as alluding to Essex—in espionage networks, false accusations, political chicanery, and corruption. The different conclusions are generically inflected. Horace can brush aside the calumnies against him because he has Augustus’ confidence, but Sejanus cannot survive the withdrawal of Tiberius’ support.
There is a biographical point here too: Jonson himself was constantly in trouble during Elizabeth’s reign for his sympathy to Essex, and only prospered as a playwright under King James. Anne Barton detected a vein of nostalgia for the Elizabethan period in his later work, but he had little to be nostalgic about; he was harried as a political subversive and heretic during the 1590s, during which he was a Roman Catholic. It must be admitted that he gave provocation. He committed the incredible folly of having the Queen represented onstage by a boy actor in Every Man out of His Humour. Such a thing was occasionally done in ceremonial pageants but was unprecedented in the public theater. Jonson admitted “many seemed not to relish it” and in his next play, Cynthia’s Revels, Elizabeth was safely mythologized as Cynthia. Despite this, Jonson not only brought King James on as an unnamed Gentleman in Eastward Ho! (1605), which he wrote with George Chapman and John Marston, but even imitated his Scottish accent. The play contained other anti-Scots jokes which landed the authors in prison. This was not a new experience for Jonson. He had been imprisoned for his part in another collaborative, lost play, The Isle of Dogs (1597), which Donaldson brilliantly deduces, from the few scraps of surviving evidence, may have supported Essex—who was marshaling forces against a suspected second Armada—over his powerful rivals the Cecils. Sejanus brought Jonson before the Privy Council on charges of “popery and treason,” Sejanus being taken as representing Essex. For all his insistence that his satiric targets were the sin and not the sinner (another trait he shares with Pope), Jonson had none of the artfulness of Shakespeare, whose company somehow escaped trouble when Essex’s supporters sponsored a private performance of Richard II in 1601. No wonder that, in his welcome pageant for King James, The King’s Entertainment (1603), Jonson voiced the hope that “Men shall put off their iron minds and hearts” so that “no print remain/ Of what was thought the former age’s stain.”
One of Jonson’s most startling remarks to Drummond is that he “wrote all his [poems] first in prose, for so his master Camden had learned him.” (Pope, again, did the same.) It is not clear whether this applied to his dramatic poetry as well, but it is a fact that much of the verse in his plays is resistant to the kind of analysis that Shakespeare’s naturally invites. Jonson’s poetry is crystalline, perspicuous, and logical; he has little of Shakespeare’s luxuriant complexity or richness of imagery. The linguistic challenge of his plays—which, Donaldson reminds us, James Joyce studied closely—lies in their saturation in contemporary idiom and allusion, rather than in their figurative density. We always know where we are with Jonson’s poetry. As he wrote in “An Epistle to Master John Selden”:
I know to whom I write. Here, I am sure,
Jonson told Drummond that he detested all other rhymes than couplets, “the bravest sort of verses”; their appeal to him surely lies partly in their tight control of sense and structure—although, as “A Fit of Rhyme Against Rhyme” shows, he could argue wittily on the opposite side.
Jonson’s poetic career was slow to get off the ground, in contrast to that of Donne whom he admired, though with reservations (“the first poet in the world in some things”). He published two collections of poems in his lifetime, Epigrams and The Forest, both in the 1616 Works; a third collection, The Underwood, appeared posthumously in 1640 and lacks the unity of the others. A handful of these pieces have become classics: “On My First Son,” “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” “To Penshurst,” “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” “A Hymn to God the Father,” and the two commendatory poems in the Shakespeare First Folio. Those, however, are a tiny fraction of his total output; Donaldson’s edition of the poems contains just over three hundred items.
The Epigrams depicts a gallery of warped humanity such as populates the plays, including Prowl the plagiarist, Sir Cod the Perfumed, Lord Ignorant, and Court-Parrot. Yet there are also beautifully turned poems to Donne, to Savile the translator of Tacitus, to Alleyn the actor, and to the Countess of Bedford. Jonson had a truly classical regard for friendship. He loved to celebrate those dear to him, and to practice the rituals of hospitality whether as host or guest. In “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” he writes:
And we will have no Poley or Parrot by,
Poley and Parrot were notorious informers, Poley having been a witness to the death of Marlowe; they may be the two spies who Jonson claimed were put into his prison cell to try to trick him into speaking treason. Jonson’s pleasure in the “liberty” afforded by intimacy and privacy is shadowed by memories of confinement and mistrust. This poem reworks three poems by his beloved Martial, also the source for the elegy to his son, who died at the age of seven. That does not make Jonson’s grief any less sincere. On the contrary: to be eulogized by allusion to the classics is to have a high dignity conferred upon one.
The distinction between liberty and license is basic to Jonson’s thinking. It is embodied in the difference between Ovid and Virgil in Poetaster, while the right to innocent recreation is vindicated in Bartholomew Fair and A Tale of a Tub, among other plays. Jonson had no patience with Puritan cant about the immorality of the theater. On the other hand, he had no time for mere frivolity: the audience was there to be instructed and, if necessary, told what to think. Adverse reaction to his plays was not forgiven; the “Ode to Himself,” composed after the failure of The New Inn, lambasts the “pride and impudence” of “such as have no taste.” As obesity and strokes restricted his physical movements in old age, his mind traveled to regions he had hitherto left unexplored, and he began work on his last, unfinished play, The Sad Shepherd, which is, of all things, a Robin Hood piece, but with a difference: and the difference seems partly due to the memories of his old rival, who had been dead for twenty years. Drawing on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Tempest, he presents a greenwood world menaced by shape-shifting and illusion; the central romantic love between Robin and Marian, rendered with a tenderness unprecedented in Jonson’s work, is precariously maintained against the plots of the witch Maudlin (whose name points to a melancholy which is not confined to her among the characters) and her servant Puck. The evocation of the festive world of merry-making and good fellowship, a reminiscence of the hospitality of Penshurst and other great houses of Elizabeth’s time, is pitched in a decidedly muted key. Had Jonson lived to complete the play, employing the peace-making Hermit who is in the cast list but not in the text we have, it would have been his fullest and most interesting response to Shakespearian romance, which he had shunned up to then.
Donaldson ends his book by paying tribute to those who have rehabilitated Jonson in the last century: to Herford and Simpson, whose edition took fifty years to complete; to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay of 1919; to poets Jonson influenced, such as Yeats and Thom Gunn; and to theater companies and actors who have shown that his best plays can still hold the stage. Horace, in Poetaster, speak as follows of Virgil:
And, for his poesy, ’tis so rammed with life
If Jonson thought of himself as he penned these lines, he thought rightly.
1 Ben Jonson: A Life, by Ian Donaldson; Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $39.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 April 2012, on page 66
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