A CRITICAL STUDY OF THE DRAMA OF BEN JONSON

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Benjamin Jonson, popularly known as Ben Jonson in literary circle, was a poet extraordinary, an excellent comic writer, great observer, narcissist, classicist as well as man of tremendous reach of thought. L.C. Knights (1955/1975) is of the view that in Jonson’s works, we find a mode of expression that is grave, weighty, and sententious, moves easily into spirited buoyancy. In him, we find a moralist voice and erudition in fine and racing language. This unit examines the dramaturgy of Ben Jonson and The Alchemist will be analysed as an example of his comic plays.

Ben Jonson’s Biography

Ben Jonson whom Herford (1957) acknowledged to possess “in-effusive intellect”, was born in London in 1573, a month after the death of his father who, until his death, was a clergy. The onus of his upbringing naturally fell on his mother. He attended a private school in St. Martin’s Lane. An Elizabethan scholar Camden lent a helping hand in Ben’s training in a very effective way. However, became his father left very little wealth for them, his mother remarried to a London master bricklayer.

The remarrying of Ben’s mother brought the congenial life he enjoyed under the assistance of Camden to an end and “Jonson entered the unromantic business of his step father” (Herford 1957). When the brick-laying job became quite unbearable, Jonson left London for Netherlands where he joined the army.

Nevertheless, he returned to London in 1592 and got married to a woman he regarded as “shrew and yet honest”. They begot a son which he unfortunately hosts to the plague of 1596. Returning to London, Jonson dedicated himself to studies. Whether he went to the University or not is shrouded in secrecy, but Herford notes that:

Of all the unknown candidates for fame who then walked the streets of London, this young humanist was certainly the most remarkable. Familiar with every phase of its life, acquainted with all its haunts and all its pleasures, he was already master of that incomparable wealth of observation which stiffens the texture of his writing in the earliest of his drama as conspicuously as in the last.

With or without university education, Ben Jonson is regarded as the most scholarly of English poets. He influenced a lot of young English poets and those are referred to as “Sons or Tribes of Ben”. They are later known as the Cavalier poets and they include Sir John Suckling and Robert Herrick, etc.

Like Marlowe, Ben Jonson lived a tempestuous life. In 1597, he was imprisoned for his involvement in a satire entitled “The Isle of Dogs which the authorities declared seditious. The following year, he killed a fellow actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in the fields of Shoreditch and was tried for murder. He escaped the gallows by pleading the benefit of clergy. He was thrown into the prison but when he was released he was given a felon’s mark on his thumb.

Jonson’s explosive life was equally carried to the realm of writing where it metamorphosed into what is now referred to as the “war of the theatres”, which essentially refers to the satirical rivalry among the playwrights. His hot-headed temperament and conviction of his superior talent led him into verbal quarrel with playwrights. Thomas Dekker and Marston jointly attacked his pride in their play, Satiromastix. In fact, the war of the theatres involved much “throwing about of brains”.

He made a trip from London to Scotland on foot between 1618 and 1619. And when he returned, he was honoured with a honourary master’s degree by the Oxford University. He taught rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

In 1628, he was appointed the city chronicle of London but he suffered severe stroke the same year. He died on 6th August, 1737 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. On his tombstone was inscribed “O’Rare Ben”.

Ben Jonson was undoubtedly intelligent, but he was quarrelsome and a self-loving fellow to the core. William Drummond of Hawthornden notes that:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself; a contemner and scorner of others; given rather to lose a friend than a jest… he is passionately kind and angry; careless either to gain or keep; vindictive, but if well answered, at himself… oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reasons.

The Dramaturgy of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson emerged from obscurity in 1597 and in July of the same year, we find him in the theatre as an actor and playwright in Philip Henslowe’s Fortune Theatre. For Jonson, drama is in close affinity with society. It is not an exercise in art for art doctrine. In describing the social context of Jonson’s plays, Knights (1975) states that:

The best of Jonson’s plays are living drama because the learning and the “classical elements” are assimilated by sensibility in direct contact with its own age. The judgements, the operatives standards, are those of a man who has read and thought, but the material, however transmuted, is supplied by direct observation.

The above suggests that Jonson’s plays are the signature of their time, the finger-prints of a given historical period. In other words, the common social life formed the basis of his dramaturgy. According Coleridge, “there is no one whim or affectation in common life noted in any memoir of the age which may not be found drawn and framed in some corner or other of Ben Jonson’s drama”. Each one of the characters of his plays is inseparable from the context of common English life that frames him.

Jonson’s themes, like those of his contemporaries, border on inordinate ambition for power, wealth and quest for sexual bliss, which are “deeply ingrained preoccupations of his age” (Knights 1975). According to Knights:

His art – it has become a common place is an art of exaggeration and caricature; but it draws directly and potentially on the actual, now isolating and magnifying some impulse that “in reality” would express itself in more complex and more devious way now crowding the stage with instances of greed or folly that had easily recognisable counterparts in England of James I, as indeed they have today.

Although Jonson wrote tragedies and court masques, which enabled him to be appointed a court poet, his reputation as a playwright of note rests on the comedies he wrote between 1605 and 1614. They include Volpone or The Fox (1605 – 1606), Epicoene or The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). In fact, Luis Vargas (1960) argues that “comedy for him was the correct medium for castigating the follies and vices of his time”. He maintains that Jonson never believed in romantic comedy but on satire which afforded him the chance to depict the city life of his time in realistic terms. The English society provided him with “spontaneous comic verve” which helped to enrich his plays with quick-moving intrigues and “what this means is that his comedy has the impact of something directly presented to the senses” (Knights 1975).

Jonson’s comedies rely on wits, humours, eccentricities and affectations of his countrymen. Herford says that “Every grade of society yields its tribute of humour to the robust writer who was himself a gentleman by birth, a citizen by training, a craftsman and soldier by necessity, and a scholar by manner and choice” (Xiii). Indeed, it is the amalgamation of these different levels of humours and flowing wits that make Johnsonian comedy powerful and to have continuous life on stage, as it were.

Analysis of The Alchemist

Herford observes that “in The Alchemist (1610) Jonson, for the first time and also for the last time, found a subject in which all his varied faculty could run riot without injury to the art-quality of his works”. I believe that it is in reference to the moving quality of this play that F.S. Eliot states that although Jonson “is saturated in literature, he never sacrifices the theatrical qualities”. The Alchemist, written in fine English language is a grand design for the testing of different kinds of affectations in concrete terms.

Sir Epicure, gloating over his vision of endless voluptuousness and endless ostentation, the envoys of the saints of Amsterdam, perplexed between unholy cupidity and pious resignation, the lawyer’s clerk and the tobacco man, Dol Common and Dame Pliant, – not one of them can be spared from this wonderful comedy of avarice and lust(Herford, 1957).

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