Volpone; or, the fox by ben jonson

Download 2.18 Mb.
Size2.18 Mb.
  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   ...   14

The greatest of English dramatists except Shakespeare, the first

literary dictator and poet-laureate, a writer of verse, prose,

satire, and criticism who most potently of all the men of his time

affected the subsequent course of English letters: such was Ben

Jonson, and as such his strong personality assumes an interest to

us almost unparalleled, at least in his age.
Ben Jonson came of the stock that was centuries after to give to

the world Thomas Carlyle; for Jonson's grandfather was of

Annandale, over the Solway, whence he migrated to England.

Jonson's father lost his estate under Queen Mary, "having been cast

into prison and forfeited." He entered the church, but died a

month before his illustrious son was born, leaving his widow and

child in poverty. Jonson's birthplace was Westminster, and the

time of his birth early in 1573. He was thus nearly ten years

Shakespeare's junior, and less well off, if a trifle better born.

But Jonson did not profit even by this slight advantage. His

mother married beneath her, a wright or bricklayer, and Jonson was

for a time apprenticed to the trade. As a youth he attracted the

attention of the famous antiquary, William Camden, then usher at

Westminster School, and there the poet laid the solid foundations

of his classical learning. Jonson always held Camden in

veneration, acknowledging that to him he owed,

"All that I am in arts, all that I know;"
and dedicating his first dramatic success, "Every Man in His

Humour," to him. It is doubtful whether Jonson ever went to either

university, though Fuller says that he was "statutably admitted

into St. John's College, Cambridge." He tells us that he took no

degree, but was later "Master of Arts in both the universities, by

their favour, not his study." When a mere youth Jonson enlisted as

a soldier, trailing his pike in Flanders in the protracted wars of

William the Silent against the Spanish. Jonson was a large and

raw-boned lad; he became by his own account in time exceedingly

bulky. In chat with his friend William Drummond of Hawthornden,

Jonson told how "in his service in the Low Countries he had, in the

face of both the camps, killed an enemy, and taken opima spolia

from him;" and how "since his coming to England, being appealed to

the fields, he had killed his adversary which had hurt him in the

arm and whose sword was ten inches longer than his." Jonson's

reach may have made up for the lack of his sword; certainly his

prowess lost nothing in the telling. Obviously Jonson was brave,

combative, and not averse to talking of himself and his doings.

In 1592, Jonson returned from abroad penniless. Soon after he

married, almost as early and quite as imprudently as Shakespeare.

He told Drummond curtly that "his wife was a shrew, yet honest";

for some years he lived apart from her in the household of Lord

Albany. Yet two touching epitaphs among Jonson's "Epigrams," "On

my first daughter," and "On my first son," attest the warmth of the

poet's family affections. The daughter died in infancy, the son of

the plague; another son grew up to manhood little credit to his

father whom he survived. We know nothing beyond this of Jonson's

domestic life.

How soon Jonson drifted into what we now call grandly "the

theatrical profession" we do not know. In 1593, Marlowe made his

tragic exit from life, and Greene, Shakespeare's other rival on the

popular stage, had preceded Marlowe in an equally miserable death

the year before. Shakespeare already had the running to himself.

Jonson appears first in the employment of Philip Henslowe, the

exploiter of several troupes of players, manager, and father-in-law

of the famous actor, Edward Alleyn. From entries in "Henslowe's

Diary," a species of theatrical account book which has been handed

down to us, we know that Jonson was connected with the Admiral's

men; for he borrowed 4 pounds of Henslowe, July 28, 1597, paying

back 3s. 9d. on the same day on account of his "share" (in what is

not altogether clear); while later, on December 3, of the same

year, Henslowe advanced 20s. to him "upon a book which he showed

the plot unto the company which he promised to deliver unto the

company at Christmas next." In the next August Jonson was in

collaboration with Chettle and Porter in a play called "Hot Anger

Soon Cold." All this points to an association with Henslowe of

some duration, as no mere tyro would be thus paid in advance upon

mere promise. From allusions in Dekker's play, "Satiromastix," it

appears that Jonson, like Shakespeare, began life as an actor, and

that he "ambled in a leather pitch by a play-wagon" taking at one

time the part of Hieronimo in Kyd's famous play, "The Spanish

Tragedy." By the beginning of 1598, Jonson, though still in needy

circumstances, had begun to receive recognition. Francis Meres--

well known for his "Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with

the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets," printed in 1598, and for his

mention therein of a dozen plays of Shakespeare by title--accords

to Ben Jonson a place as one of "our best in tragedy," a matter of

some surprise, as no known tragedy of Jonson from so early a date

has come down to us. That Jonson was at work on tragedy, however,

is proved by the entries in Henslowe of at least three tragedies,

now lost, in which he had a hand. These are "Page of Plymouth,"

"King Robert II. of Scotland," and "Richard Crookback." But all of

these came later, on his return to Henslowe, and range from August

1599 to June 1602.

Returning to the autumn of 1598, an event now happened to sever for

a time Jonson's relations with Henslowe. In a letter to Alleyn,

dated September 26 of that year, Henslowe writes: "I have lost one

of my company that hurteth me greatly; that is Gabriel [Spencer],

for he is slain in Hogsden fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson,

bricklayer." The last word is perhaps Henslowe's thrust at Jonson

in his displeasure rather than a designation of his actual

continuance at his trade up to this time. It is fair to Jonson to

remark however, that his adversary appears to have been a notorious

fire-eater who had shortly before killed one Feeke in a similar

squabble. Duelling was a frequent occurrence of the time among

gentlemen and the nobility; it was an impudent breach of the peace

on the part of a player. This duel is the one which Jonson

described years after to Drummond, and for it Jonson was duly

arraigned at Old Bailey, tried, and convicted. He was sent to

prison and such goods and chattels as he had "were forfeited." It

is a thought to give one pause that, but for the ancient law

permitting convicted felons to plead, as it was called, the benefit

of clergy, Jonson might have been hanged for this deed. The

circumstance that the poet could read and write saved him; and he

received only a brand of the letter "T," for Tyburn, on his left

thumb. While in jail Jonson became a Roman Catholic; but he

returned to the faith of the Church of England a dozen years later.
On his release, in disgrace with Henslowe and his former

associates, Jonson offered his services as a playwright to

Henslowe's rivals, the Lord Chamberlain's company, in which

Shakespeare was a prominent shareholder. A tradition of long

standing, though not susceptible of proof in a court of law,

narrates that Jonson had submitted the manuscript of "Every Man in

His Humour" to the Chamberlain's men and had received from the

company a refusal; that Shakespeare called him back, read the play

himself, and at once accepted it. Whether this story is true or

not, certain it is that "Every Man in His Humour" was accepted by

Shakespeare's company and acted for the first time in 1598, with

Shakespeare taking a part. The evidence of this is contained in

the list of actors prefixed to the comedy in the folio of Jonson's

works, 1616. But it is a mistake to infer, because Shakespeare's

name stands first in the list of actors and the elder Kno'well

first in the dramatis personae, that Shakespeare took that

particular part. The order of a list of Elizabethan players was

generally that of their importance or priority as shareholders in

the company and seldom if ever corresponded to the list of


"Every Man in His Humour" was an immediate success, and with it

Jonson's reputation as one of the leading dramatists of his time

was established once and for all. This could have been by no means

Jonson's earliest comedy, and we have just learned that he was

already reputed one of "our best in tragedy." Indeed, one of

Jonson's extant comedies, "The Case is Altered," but one never

claimed by him or published as his, must certainly have preceded

"Every Man in His Humour" on the stage. The former play may be

described as a comedy modelled on the Latin plays of Plautus. (It

combines, in fact, situations derived from the "Captivi" and the

"Aulularia" of that dramatist). But the pretty story of the

beggar-maiden, Rachel, and her suitors, Jonson found, not among the

classics, but in the ideals of romantic love which Shakespeare had

already popularised on the stage. Jonson never again produced so

fresh and lovable a feminine personage as Rachel, although in other

respects "The Case is Altered" is not a conspicuous play, and, save

for the satirising of Antony Munday in the person of Antonio

Balladino and Gabriel Harvey as well, is perhaps the least

characteristic of the comedies of Jonson.
"Every Man in His Humour," probably first acted late in the summer

of 1598 and at the Curtain, is commonly regarded as an epoch-making

play; and this view is not unjustified. As to plot, it tells

little more than how an intercepted letter enabled a father to

follow his supposedly studious son to London, and there observe his

life with the gallants of the time. The real quality of this

comedy is in its personages and in the theory upon which they are

conceived. Ben Jonson had theories about poetry and the drama, and

he was neither chary in talking of them nor in experimenting with

them in his plays. This makes Jonson, like Dryden in his time, and

Wordsworth much later, an author to reckon with; particularly when

we remember that many of Jonson's notions came for a time

definitely to prevail and to modify the whole trend of English

poetry. First of all Jonson was a classicist, that is, he believed

in restraint and precedent in art in opposition to the prevalent

ungoverned and irresponsible Renaissance spirit. Jonson believed

that there was a professional way of doing things which might be

reached by a study of the best examples, and he found these

examples for the most part among the ancients. To confine our

attention to the drama, Jonson objected to the amateurishness and

haphazard nature of many contemporary plays, and set himself to do

something different; and the first and most striking thing that he

evolved was his conception and practice of the comedy of humours.
As Jonson has been much misrepresented in this matter, let us quote

his own words as to "humour." A humour, according to Jonson, was a

bias of disposition, a warp, so to speak, in character by which
"Some one peculiar quality

Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw

All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,

In their confluctions, all to run one way."

But continuing, Jonson is careful to add:
"But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,

The cable hat-band, or the three-piled ruff,

A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot

On his French garters, should affect a humour!

O, it is more than most ridiculous."
Jonson's comedy of humours, in a word, conceived of stage

personages on the basis of a ruling trait or passion (a notable

simplification of actual life be it observed in passing); and,

placing these typified traits in juxtaposition in their conflict

and contrast, struck the spark of comedy. Downright, as his name

indicates, is "a plain squire"; Bobadill's humour is that of the

braggart who is incidentally, and with delightfully comic effect, a

coward; Brainworm's humour is the finding out of things to the end

of fooling everybody: of course he is fooled in the end himself.

But it was not Jonson's theories alone that made the success of

"Every Man in His Humour." The play is admirably written and each

character is vividly conceived, and with a firm touch based on

observation of the men of the London of the day. Jonson was

neither in this, his first great comedy (nor in any other play that

he wrote), a supine classicist, urging that English drama return to

a slavish adherence to classical conditions. He says as to the

laws of the old comedy (meaning by "laws," such matters as the

unities of time and place and the use of chorus): "I see not then,

but we should enjoy the same licence, or free power to illustrate

and heighten our invention as they [the ancients] did; and not be

tied to those strict and regular forms which the niceness of a few,

who are nothing but form, would thrust upon us." "Every Man in His

Humour" is written in prose, a novel practice which Jonson had of

his predecessor in comedy, John Lyly. Even the word "humour" seems

to have been employed in the Jonsonian sense by Chapman before

Jonson's use of it. Indeed, the comedy of humours itself is only a

heightened variety of the comedy of manners which represents life,

viewed at a satirical angle, and is the oldest and most persistent

species of comedy in the language. None the less, Jonson's comedy

merited its immediate success and marked out a definite course in

which comedy long continued to run. To mention only Shakespeare's

Falstaff and his rout, Bardolph, Pistol, Dame Quickly, and the

rest, whether in "Henry IV." or in "The Merry Wives of Windsor,"

all are conceived in the spirit of humours. So are the captains,

Welsh, Scotch, and Irish of "Henry V.," and Malvolio especially

later; though Shakespeare never employed the method of humours for

an important personage. It was not Jonson's fault that many of his

successors did precisely the thing that he had reprobated, that is,

degrade "the humour: into an oddity of speech, an eccentricity of

manner, of dress, or cut of beard. There was an anonymous play

called "Every Woman in Her Humour." Chapman wrote "A Humourous

Day's Mirth," Day, "Humour Out of Breath," Fletcher later, "The

Humourous Lieutenant," and Jonson, besides "Every Man Out of His

Humour," returned to the title in closing the cycle of his comedies

in "The Magnetic Lady or Humours Reconciled."
With the performance of "Every Man Out of His Humour" in 1599, by

Shakespeare's company once more at the Globe, we turn a new page in

Jonson's career. Despite his many real virtues, if there is one

feature more than any other that distinguishes Jonson, it is his

arrogance; and to this may be added his self-righteousness,

especially under criticism or satire. "Every Man Out of His

Humour" is the first of three "comical satires" which Jonson

contributed to what Dekker called the poetomachia or war of the

theatres as recent critics have named it. This play as a fabric of

plot is a very slight affair; but as a satirical picture of the

manners of the time, proceeding by means of vivid caricature,

couched in witty and brilliant dialogue and sustained by that

righteous indignation which must lie at the heart of all true

satire--as a realisation, in short, of the classical ideal of

comedy--there had been nothing like Jonson's comedy since the

days of Aristophanes. "Every Man in His Humour," like the two

plays that follow it, contains two kinds of attack, the critical or

generally satiric, levelled at abuses and corruptions in the

abstract; and the personal, in which specific application is made

of all this in the lampooning of poets and others, Jonson's

contemporaries. The method of personal attack by actual caricature

of a person on the stage is almost as old as the drama.

Aristophanes so lampooned Euripides in "The Acharnians" and

Socrates in "The Clouds," to mention no other examples; and in

English drama this kind of thing is alluded to again and again.

What Jonson really did, was to raise the dramatic lampoon to an

art, and make out of a casual burlesque and bit of mimicry a

dramatic satire of literary pretensions and permanency. With the

arrogant attitude mentioned above and his uncommon eloquence in

scorn, vituperation, and invective, it is no wonder that Jonson

soon involved himself in literary and even personal quarrels with

his fellow-authors. The circumstances of the origin of this

'poetomachia' are far from clear, and those who have written on the

topic, except of late, have not helped to make them clearer. The

origin of the "war" has been referred to satirical references,

apparently to Jonson, contained in "The Scourge of Villainy," a

satire in regular form after the manner of the ancients by John

Marston, a fellow playwright, subsequent friend and collaborator of

Jonson's. On the other hand, epigrams of Jonson have been

discovered (49, 68, and 100) variously charging "playwright"

(reasonably identified with Marston) with scurrility, cowardice,

and plagiarism; though the dates of the epigrams cannot be

ascertained with certainty. Jonson's own statement of the matter

to Drummond runs: "He had many quarrels with Marston, beat him,

and took his pistol from him, wrote his "Poetaster" on him; the

beginning[s] of them were that Marston represented him on the

[footnote] *The best account of this whole subject is to be found

in the edition of "Poetaster" and "Satiromastrix" by J. H. Penniman

in "Belles Lettres Series" shortly to appear. See also his earlier

work, "The War of the Theatres," 1892, and the excellent

contributions to the subject by H. C. Hart in "Notes and Queries,"

and in his edition of Jonson, 1906.

Here at least we are on certain ground; and the principals of the

quarrel are known. "Histriomastix," a play revised by Marston in

1598, has been regarded as the one in which Jonson was thus

"represented on the stage"; although the personage in question,

Chrisogonus, a poet, satirist, and translator, poor but proud, and

contemptuous of the common herd, seems rather a complimentary

portrait of Jonson than a caricature. As to the personages

actually ridiculed in "Every Man Out of His Humour," Carlo Buffone

was formerly thought certainly to be Marston, as he was described

as "a public, scurrilous, and profane jester," and elsewhere as the

grand scourge or second untruss [that is, satirist], of the time"

(Joseph Hall being by his own boast the first, and Marston's work

being entitled "The Scourge of Villainy"). Apparently we must now

prefer for Carlo a notorious character named Charles Chester, of

whom gossipy and inaccurate Aubrey relates that he was "a bold

impertinent fellow...a perpetual talker and made a noise like a

drum in a room. So one time at a tavern Sir Walter Raleigh beats

him and seals up his mouth (that is his upper and nether beard)

with hard wax. From him Ben Jonson takes his Carlo Buffone

['i.e.', jester] in "Every Man in His Humour" ['sic']." Is it

conceivable that after all Jonson was ridiculing Marston, and that

the point of the satire consisted in an intentional confusion of

"the grand scourge or second untruss" with "the scurrilous and

profane" Chester?

We have digressed into detail in this particular case to exemplify

the difficulties of criticism in its attempts to identify the

allusions in these forgotten quarrels. We are on sounder ground of

fact in recording other manifestations of Jonson's enmity. In "The

Case is Altered" there is clear ridicule in the character Antonio

Balladino of Anthony Munday, pageant-poet of the city, translator

of romances and playwright as well. In "Every Man in His Humour"

there is certainly a caricature of Samuel Daniel, accepted poet of

the court, sonneteer, and companion of men of fashion. These men

held recognised positions to which Jonson felt his talents better

entitled him; they were hence to him his natural enemies. It seems

almost certain that he pursued both in the personages of his satire

through "Every Man Out of His Humour," and "Cynthia's Revels,"

Daniel under the characters Fastidious Brisk and Hedon, Munday as

Puntarvolo and Amorphus; but in these last we venture on quagmire

once more. Jonson's literary rivalry of Daniel is traceable again

and again, in the entertainments that welcomed King James on his

way to London, in the masques at court, and in the pastoral drama.

As to Jonson's personal ambitions with respect to these two men, it

is notable that he became, not pageant-poet, but chronologer to the

City of London; and that, on the accession of the new king, he came

soon to triumph over Daniel as the accepted entertainer of royalty.

"Cynthia's Revels," the second "comical satire," was acted in 1600,

and, as a play, is even more lengthy, elaborate, and impossible

than "Every Man Out of His Humour." Here personal satire seems to

have absorbed everything, and while much of the caricature is

admirable, especially in the detail of witty and trenchantly

satirical dialogue, the central idea of a fountain of self-love is

not very well carried out, and the persons revert at times to

abstractions, the action to allegory. It adds to our wonder that

this difficult drama should have been acted by the Children of

Queen Elizabeth's Chapel, among them Nathaniel Field with whom

Jonson read Horace and Martial, and whom he taught later how to

make plays. Another of these precocious little actors was

Salathiel Pavy, who died before he was thirteen, already famed for

taking the parts of old men. Him Jonson immortalised in one of the

sweetest of his epitaphs. An interesting sidelight is this on the

character of this redoubtable and rugged satirist, that he should

thus have befriended and tenderly remembered these little

theatrical waifs, some of whom (as we know) had been literally

kidnapped to be pressed into the service of the theatre and whipped

Download 2.18 Mb.

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   ...   14

The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2022
send message

    Main page