Volpone; or, the fox by ben jonson



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to the conning of their difficult parts. To the caricature of

Daniel and Munday in "Cynthia's Revels" must be added Anaides

(impudence), here assuredly Marston, and Asotus (the prodigal),

interpreted as Lodge or, more perilously, Raleigh. Crites, like

Asper-Macilente in "Every Man Out of His Humour," is Jonson's

self-complaisant portrait of himself, the just, wholly admirable,

and judicious scholar, holding his head high above the pack of the

yelping curs of envy and detraction, but careless of their puny

attacks on his perfections with only too mindful a neglect.


The third and last of the "comical satires" is "Poetaster," acted,

once more, by the Children of the Chapel in 1601, and Jonson's only

avowed contribution to the fray. According to the author's own

account, this play was written in fifteen weeks on a report that

his enemies had entrusted to Dekker the preparation of

"Satiromastix, the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet," a dramatic

attack upon himself. In this attempt to forestall his enemies

Jonson succeeded, and "Poetaster" was an immediate and deserved

success. While hardly more closely knit in structure than its

earlier companion pieces, "Poetaster" is planned to lead up to the

ludicrous final scene in which, after a device borrowed from the

"Lexiphanes" of Lucian, the offending poetaster, Marston-Crispinus,

is made to throw up the difficult words with which he had

overburdened his stomach as well as overlarded his vocabulary. In

the end Crispinus with his fellow, Dekker-Demetrius, is bound over

to keep the peace and never thenceforward "malign, traduce, or

detract the person or writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Jonson]

or any other eminent man transcending you in merit." One of the

most diverting personages in Jonson's comedy is Captain Tucca.

"His peculiarity" has been well described by Ward as "a buoyant

blackguardism which recovers itself instantaneously from the most

complete exposure, and a picturesqueness of speech like that of a

walking dictionary of slang."
It was this character, Captain Tucca, that Dekker hit upon in his

reply, "Satiromastix," and he amplified him, turning his abusive

vocabulary back upon Jonson and adding "an immodesty to his

dialogue that did not enter into Jonson's conception." It has been

held, altogether plausibly, that when Dekker was engaged

professionally, so to speak, to write a dramatic reply to Jonson,

he was at work on a species of chronicle history, dealing with the

story of Walter Terill in the reign of William Rufus. This he

hurriedly adapted to include the satirical characters suggested by

"Poetaster," and fashioned to convey the satire of his reply. The

absurdity of placing Horace in the court of a Norman king is the

result. But Dekker's play is not without its palpable hits at the

arrogance, the literary pride, and self-righteousness of

Jonson-Horace, whose "ningle" or pal, the absurd Asinius Bubo, has

recently been shown to figure forth, in all likelihood, Jonson's

friend, the poet Drayton. Slight and hastily adapted as is

"Satiromastix," especially in a comparison with the better wrought

and more significant satire of "Poetaster," the town awarded the

palm to Dekker, not to Jonson; and Jonson gave over in consequence

his practice of "comical satire." Though Jonson was cited to

appear before the Lord Chief Justice to answer certain charges to

the effect that he had attacked lawyers and soldiers in

"Poetaster," nothing came of this complaint. It may be suspected

that much of this furious clatter and give-and-take was pure

playing to the gallery. The town was agog with the strife, and on

no less an authority than Shakespeare ("Hamlet," ii. 2), we learn

that the children's company (acting the plays of Jonson) did "so

berattle the common stages...that many, wearing rapiers, are afraid

of goose-quills, and dare scarce come thither."
Several other plays have been thought to bear a greater or less

part in the war of the theatres. Among them the most important is

a college play, entitled "The Return from Parnassus," dating

1601-02. In it a much-quoted passage makes Burbage, as a

character, declare: "Why here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them

all down; aye and Ben Jonson, too. O that Ben Jonson is a

pestilent fellow; he brought up Horace, giving the poets a pill,

but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him

bewray his credit." Was Shakespeare then concerned in this war of

the stages? And what could have been the nature of this "purge"?

Among several suggestions, "Troilus and Cressida" has been thought

by some to be the play in which Shakespeare thus "put down" his

friend, Jonson. A wiser interpretation finds the "purge" in

"Satiromastix," which, though not written by Shakespeare, was

staged by his company, and therefore with his approval and under

his direction as one of the leaders of that company.


The last years of the reign of Elizabeth thus saw Jonson recognised

as a dramatist second only to Shakespeare, and not second even to

him as a dramatic satirist. But Jonson now turned his talents to

new fields. Plays on subjects derived from classical story and

myth had held the stage from the beginning of the drama, so that

Shakespeare was making no new departure when he wrote his "Julius

Caesar" about 1600. Therefore when Jonson staged "Sejanus," three

years later and with Shakespeare's company once more, he was only

following in the elder dramatist's footsteps. But Jonson's idea of

a play on classical history, on the one hand, and Shakespeare's and

the elder popular dramatists, on the other, were very different.

Heywood some years before had put five straggling plays on the

stage in quick succession, all derived from stories in Ovid and

dramatised with little taste or discrimination. Shakespeare had a

finer conception of form, but even he was contented to take all his

ancient history from North's translation of Plutarch and dramatise

his subject without further inquiry. Jonson was a scholar and a

classical antiquarian. He reprobated this slipshod amateurishness,

and wrote his "Sejanus" like a scholar, reading Tacitus, Suetonius,

and other authorities, to be certain of his facts, his setting, and

his atmosphere, and somewhat pedantically noting his authorities in

the margin when he came to print. "Sejanus" is a tragedy of

genuine dramatic power in which is told with discriminating taste

the story of the haughty favourite of Tiberius with his tragical

overthrow. Our drama presents no truer nor more painstaking

representation of ancient Roman life than may be found in Jonson's

"Sejanus" and "Catiline his Conspiracy," which followed in 1611. A

passage in the address of the former play to the reader, in which

Jonson refers to a collaboration in an earlier version, has led to

the surmise that Shakespeare may have been that "worthier pen."

There is no evidence to determine the matter.
In 1605, we find Jonson in active collaboration with Chapman and

Marston in the admirable comedy of London life entitled "Eastward

Hoe." In the previous year, Marston had dedicated his

"Malcontent," in terms of fervid admiration, to Jonson; so that the

wounds of the war of the theatres must have been long since healed.

Between Jonson and Chapman there was the kinship of similar

scholarly ideals. The two continued friends throughout life.

"Eastward Hoe" achieved the extraordinary popularity represented in

a demand for three issues in one year. But this was not due

entirely to the merits of the play. In its earliest version a

passage which an irritable courtier conceived to be derogatory to

his nation, the Scots, sent both Chapman and Jonson to jail; but

the matter was soon patched up, for by this time Jonson had

influence at court.


With the accession of King James, Jonson began his long and

successful career as a writer of masques. He wrote more masques

than all his competitors together, and they are of an extraordinary

variety and poetic excellence. Jonson did not invent the masque;

for such premeditated devices to set and frame, so to speak, a

court ball had been known and practised in varying degrees of

elaboration long before his time. But Jonson gave dramatic value

to the masque, especially in his invention of the antimasque, a

comedy or farcical element of relief, entrusted to professional

players or dancers. He enhanced, as well, the beauty and dignity

of those portions of the masque in which noble lords and ladies

took their parts to create, by their gorgeous costumes and artistic

grouping and evolutions, a sumptuous show. On the mechanical and

scenic side Jonson had an inventive and ingenious partner in Inigo

Jones, the royal architect, who more than any one man raised the

standard of stage representation in the England of his day. Jonson

continued active in the service of the court in the writing of

masques and other entertainments far into the reign of King

Charles; but, towards the end, a quarrel with Jones embittered his

life, and the two testy old men appear to have become not only a

constant irritation to each other, but intolerable bores at court.

In "Hymenaei," "The Masque of Queens," "Love Freed from Ignorance,"

"Lovers made Men," "Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue," and many more

will be found Jonson's aptitude, his taste, his poetry and

inventiveness in these by-forms of the drama; while in "The Masque

of Christmas," and "The Gipsies Metamorphosed" especially, is

discoverable that power of broad comedy which, at court as well as

in the city, was not the least element of Jonson's contemporary

popularity.
But Jonson had by no means given up the popular stage when he

turned to the amusement of King James. In 1605 "Volpone" was

produced, "The Silent Woman" in 1609, "The Alchemist" in the

following year. These comedies, with "Bartholomew Fair," 1614,

represent Jonson at his height, and for constructive cleverness,

character successfully conceived in the manner of caricature, wit

and brilliancy of dialogue, they stand alone in English drama.

"Volpone, or the Fox," is, in a sense, a transition play from the

dramatic satires of the war of the theatres to the purer comedy

represented in the plays named above. Its subject is a struggle of

wit applied to chicanery; for among its dramatis personae, from

the villainous Fox himself, his rascally servant Mosca, Voltore

(the vulture), Corbaccio and Corvino (the big and the little

raven), to Sir Politic Would-be and the rest, there is scarcely a

virtuous character in the play. Question has been raised as to

whether a story so forbidding can be considered a comedy, for,

although the plot ends in the discomfiture and imprisonment of the

most vicious, it involves no mortal catastrophe. But Jonson was on

sound historical ground, for "Volpone" is conceived far more

logically on the lines of the ancients' theory of comedy than was

ever the romantic drama of Shakespeare, however repulsive we may

find a philosophy of life that facilely divides the world into the

rogues and their dupes, and, identifying brains with roguery and

innocence with folly, admires the former while inconsistently

punishing them.
"The Silent Woman" is a gigantic farce of the most ingenious

construction. The whole comedy hinges on a huge joke, played by a

heartless nephew on his misanthropic uncle, who is induced to take

to himself a wife, young, fair, and warranted silent, but who, in

the end, turns out neither silent nor a woman at all. In "The

Alchemist," again, we have the utmost cleverness in construction,

the whole fabric building climax on climax, witty, ingenious, and

so plausibly presented that we forget its departures from the

possibilities of life. In "The Alchemist" Jonson represented, none

the less to the life, certain sharpers of the metropolis, revelling

in their shrewdness and rascality and in the variety of the

stupidity and wickedness of their victims. We may object to the

fact that the only person in the play possessed of a scruple of

honesty is discomfited, and that the greatest scoundrel of all is

approved in the end and rewarded. The comedy is so admirably

written and contrived, the personages stand out with such lifelike

distinctness in their several kinds, and the whole is animated with

such verve and resourcefulness that "The Alchemist" is a new marvel

every time it is read. Lastly of this group comes the tremendous

comedy, "Bartholomew Fair," less clear cut, less definite, and less

structurally worthy of praise than its three predecessors, but full

of the keenest and cleverest of satire and inventive to a degree

beyond any English comedy save some other of Jonson's own. It is

in "Bartholomew Fair" that we are presented to the immortal

caricature of the Puritan, Zeal-in-the-Land Busy, and the

Littlewits that group about him, and it is in this extraordinary

comedy that the humour of Jonson, always open to this danger,

loosens into the Rabelaisian mode that so delighted King James in

"The Gipsies Metamorphosed." Another comedy of less merit is "The

Devil is an Ass," acted in 1616. It was the failure of this play

that caused Jonson to give over writing for the public stage for a

period of nearly ten years.


"Volpone" was laid as to scene in Venice. Whether because of the

success of "Eastward Hoe" or for other reasons, the other three

comedies declare in the words of the prologue to "The Alchemist":
"Our scene is London, 'cause we would make known

No country's mirth is better than our own."


Indeed Jonson went further when he came to revise his plays for

collected publication in his folio of 1616, he transferred the

scene of "Every Man in His Humour" from Florence to London also,

converting Signior Lorenzo di Pazzi to Old Kno'well, Prospero to

Master Welborn, and Hesperida to Dame Kitely "dwelling i' the Old

Jewry."
In his comedies of London life, despite his trend towards

caricature, Jonson has shown himself a genuine realist, drawing

from the life about him with an experience and insight rare in any

generation. A happy comparison has been suggested between Ben

Jonson and Charles Dickens. Both were men of the people, lowly

born and hardly bred. Each knew the London of his time as few men

knew it; and each represented it intimately and in elaborate

detail. Both men were at heart moralists, seeking the truth by the

exaggerated methods of humour and caricature; perverse, even

wrong-headed at times, but possessed of a true pathos and largeness

of heart, and when all has been said--though the Elizabethan ran

to satire, the Victorian to sentimentality--leaving the world

better for the art that they practised in it.


In 1616, the year of the death of Shakespeare, Jonson collected his

plays, his poetry, and his masques for publication in a collective

edition. This was an unusual thing at the time and had been

attempted by no dramatist before Jonson. This volume published, in

a carefully revised text, all the plays thus far mentioned,

excepting "The Case is Altered," which Jonson did not acknowledge,

"Bartholomew Fair," and "The Devil is an Ass," which was written

too late. It included likewise a book of some hundred and thirty

odd "Epigrams," in which form of brief and pungent writing Jonson

was an acknowledged master; "The Forest," a smaller collection of

lyric and occasional verse and some ten "Masques" and

"Entertainments." In this same year Jonson was made poet laureate

with a pension of one hundred marks a year. This, with his fees

and returns from several noblemen, and the small earnings of his

plays must have formed the bulk of his income. The poet appears to

have done certain literary hack-work for others, as, for example,

parts of the Punic Wars contributed to Raleigh's "History of the

World." We know from a story, little to the credit of either, that

Jonson accompanied Raleigh's son abroad in the capacity of a tutor.

In 1618 Jonson was granted the reversion of the office of Master of

the Revels, a post for which he was peculiarly fitted; but he did

not live to enjoy its perquisites. Jonson was honoured with

degrees by both universities, though when and under what

circumstances is not known. It has been said that he narrowly

escaped the honour of knighthood, which the satirists of the day

averred King James was wont to lavish with an indiscriminate hand.

Worse men were made knights in his day than worthy Ben Jonson.
From 1616 to the close of the reign of King James, Jonson produced

nothing for the stage. But he "prosecuted" what he calls "his

wonted studies" with such assiduity that he became in reality, as

by report, one of the most learned men of his time. Jonson's

theory of authorship involved a wide acquaintance with books and

"an ability," as he put it, "to convert the substance or riches of

another poet to his own use." Accordingly Jonson read not only the

Greek and Latin classics down to the lesser writers, but he

acquainted himself especially with the Latin writings of his

learned contemporaries, their prose as well as their poetry, their

antiquities and curious lore as well as their more solid learning.

Though a poor man, Jonson was an indefatigable collector of books.

He told Drummond that "the Earl of Pembroke sent him 20 pounds every

first day of the new year to buy new books." Unhappily, in 1623,

his library was destroyed by fire, an accident serio-comically

described in his witty poem, "An Execration upon Vulcan." Yet even

now a book turns up from time to time in which is inscribed, in

fair large Italian lettering, the name, Ben Jonson. With respect

to Jonson's use of his material, Dryden said memorably of him:

"[He] was not only a professed imitator of Horace, but a learned

plagiary of all the others; you track him everywhere in their

snow....But he has done his robberies so openly that one sees he

fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a

monarch, and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in

him." And yet it is but fair to say that Jonson prided himself,

and justly, on his originality. In "Catiline," he not only uses

Sallust's account of the conspiracy, but he models some of the

speeches of Cicero on the Roman orator's actual words. In

"Poetaster," he lifts a whole satire out of Horace and dramatises

it effectively for his purposes. The sophist Libanius suggests the

situation of "The Silent Woman"; a Latin comedy of Giordano Bruno,

"Il Candelaio," the relation of the dupes and the sharpers in "The

Alchemist," the "Mostellaria" of Plautus, its admirable opening

scene. But Jonson commonly bettered his sources, and putting the

stamp of his sovereignty on whatever bullion he borrowed made it

thenceforward to all time current and his own.


The lyric and especially the occasional poetry of Jonson has a

peculiar merit. His theory demanded design and the perfection of

literary finish. He was furthest from the rhapsodist and the

careless singer of an idle day; and he believed that Apollo could

only be worthily served in singing robes and laurel crowned. And

yet many of Jonson's lyrics will live as long as the language. Who

does not know "Queen and huntress, chaste and fair." "Drink to me

only with thine eyes," or "Still to be neat, still to be dressed"?

Beautiful in form, deft and graceful in expression, with not a word

too much or one that bears not its part in the total effect, there

is yet about the lyrics of Jonson a certain stiffness and

formality, a suspicion that they were not quite spontaneous and

unbidden, but that they were carved, so to speak, with

disproportionate labour by a potent man of letters whose habitual

thought is on greater things. It is for these reasons that Jonson

is even better in the epigram and in occasional verse where

rhetorical finish and pointed wit less interfere with the

spontaneity and emotion which we usually associate with lyrical

poetry. There are no such epitaphs as Ben Jonson's, witness the

charming ones on his own children, on Salathiel Pavy, the

child-actor, and many more; and this even though the rigid law of

mine and thine must now restore to William Browne of Tavistock the

famous lines beginning: "Underneath this sable hearse." Jonson is

unsurpassed, too, in the difficult poetry of compliment, seldom

falling into fulsome praise and disproportionate similitude, yet

showing again and again a generous appreciation of worth in others,

a discriminating taste and a generous personal regard. There was

no man in England of his rank so well known and universally beloved

as Ben Jonson. The list of his friends, of those to whom he had

written verses, and those who had written verses to him, includes

the name of every man of prominence in the England of King James.

And the tone of many of these productions discloses an affectionate

familiarity that speaks for the amiable personality and sound worth

of the laureate. In 1619, growing unwieldy through inactivity,

Jonson hit upon the heroic remedy of a journey afoot to Scotland.

On his way thither and back he was hospitably received at the

houses of many friends and by those to whom his friends had

recommended him. When he arrived in Edinburgh, the burgesses met

to grant him the freedom of the city, and Drummond, foremost of

Scottish poets, was proud to entertain him for weeks as his guest

at Hawthornden. Some of the noblest of Jonson's poems were

inspired by friendship. Such is the fine "Ode to the memory of Sir

Lucius Cary and Sir Henry Moryson," and that admirable piece of

critical insight and filial affection, prefixed to the first

Shakespeare folio, "To the memory of my beloved master, William

Shakespeare, and what he hath left us," to mention only these. Nor

can the earlier "Epode," beginning "Not to know vice at all," be

matched in stately gravity and gnomic wisdom in its own wise and

stately age.
But if Jonson had deserted the stage after the publication of his

folio and up to the end of the reign of King James, he was far from

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