Ben Jonson drinking buddy with Shakespeare.
Friday, November 5, 2010

Ben Jonson

That’s Ben Jonson up above. Jonson is one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and drinking buddies. It is sometimes alleged that Shakespeare died after imbibing a little too much with Ben and the boys down at the Mermaid Tavern. I don’t know about that, but Jonson is considered one of the great dramatists of the English Renaissance. I’ll be dealing with the plays collected in the three volumes to the right.

The Poetaster. A poetaster is an inferior poet. Someone with no real talent. Ernie Kovacs used to do a character called Percy Dovetonsil, who could be called a poetaster. The play in question was Jonson’s response to his antagonist John Marston, who appears as Crispinus. The play is set in Rome at the time of Augustus, and features a number of classical poets. These are Ovid, Horace, Vergil, Tibullus, and some others. The play contrasts Ovid and Horace, and their fates are quite different. Ovid is well known as a poet who writes about love and is somewhat skeptical, perhaps a bit bawdy. Horace is wise and sententious. Ovid arranges a dinner during which the guests masquerade as the various gods and goddesses. This ends poorly, and Ovid is exiled. Horace, on the other hand, confronts Crispinus, his poetic rival, in a judicial proceeding before Augustus. In a rather amusing final scene Crispinus is forced to vomit forth his overblown vocabulary, and given a course of remedial reading. Some writers contend that the play is about the relations of the poet and the state. I have to confess that my sympathies are generally with Ovid over Horace, but that’s because I prefer Ovid’s romance, and, lets face it, lechery, over Horace’s rather annoying sententiousness.

Sejanus is Jonson’s classical tragedy, or more accurately a historical tragedy set in classical times. It tells the story of the rise and fall of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a confidant to the emperor Tiberius. Sejanus is ultimately brought low by seeking to gain access to the imperial family, through an illicit love affair, and to supplant the emperor. Jonson was called before the Privy Council as a result of the play, which seems to advocate the forcible removal of corrupt magistrates, possibly including kings.

The Devil is an Ass is a satire on the evils of London. Pug, an imp, wishes to try his hand at temptation in London, and is warned that London is so corrupt that he will find that he can invent nothing new.

The New Inn is Jonson’s romantic comedy. The host of the inn has the expansive, bouyant nature that we saw in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, but is ultimately revealed to be something other than a mere innkeeper. In act 3 the first session of a court of love focuses on the nature of love, and takes its inspiration from Plato’s Symposium. In act 4 the second session of the court considers the nature of valor, and derives from Seneca’s treatment of that topic.

Volpone is one of Jonson’s great comedies, the others are The Epicene, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew’s Fair. Volpone centers around the machinations of Volpone and his servant Mosca one fine day in the city of Venice. The play is a satire on greed, and the lengths to which people will go to get money or sex.

The Epicene is about marriage and the pursuit of money. Morose cannot stand noise, and has deprived his nephew Eugenie Dauphine of a considerable estate. He is tricked into marrying a woman he believes will be silent. The climax owes something to Il Marescalo.

The Alchemist is Jonson’s satire on people and their desire to obtain wealth and power by not quite legitimate means. One passage, though about alchemy and astrology, seems to anticipate the feng shui craze.

DRUG. This, an't please your worship;
I am a young beginner, and am building
Of a new shop, an't like your worship, just
At corner of a street:--Here is the plot on't--
And I would know by art, sir, of your worship,
Which way I should make my door, by necromancy,
And where my shelves; and which should be for boxes,
And which for pots. I would be glad to thrive, sir:
And I was wish'd to your worship by a gentleman,
One captain Face, that says you know men's planets,
And their good angels, and their bad (Act 1, scene 3).

Bartholomew’s Fair shows a justice of the peace in search of enormities at the fair. He finds a variety of rascals, including hypocritical Puritans.

My next foray into drama will most likely be John Ford, the Jacobean and Carolinean dramatist, not the director of Westerns.