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The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  5 Sep 2007

Ben Jonson the Dramatist

Of course, there were those Shakespeare could not satisfy:  those educated in art who saw through his faulty structures.  In particular, he could not satisfy those elite or traditional audience members who saw the classical unities as important.  Elizabeth might be fooled, but many would not.  In this sense, for all of his success, one might argue that Shakespeare never fully learned the lesson of Titus Andronicus:  he could not appeal to the educated audience the way he could the pit and the more thoughtless -- or less stuffy, depending on one’s opinion -- on the upper levels.  Moreover, that stuffy educated response would generally be quite reasonable:  that Shakespeare was a poetic master, full of spirited lines that delighted, but that his delight often obscured structural problems or narrative stretches, if not outright errors.

Ben Jonson was not only one such critic:  he was the definitive one.  Moreover, as a poet and playwright himself, Jonson’s own writing and literary career provide a nice counterpoint to Shakespeare’s own.  In comparing the two, we learn not only more about Shakespeare’s artistic choices but the Renaissance audience itself.

We must begin, as we began with Shakespeare’s breaking the unities, with Jonson’s reverence for the same.  Jonson’s natural poetic alignment was more elite than Shakespeare’s.  Jonson -- a man who could write “the vulgar are commonly ill-natured” (Timber 1201) -- was more influenced than Shakespeare by the classics.  He believed in the classical unities and disliked blending tragedy with comedy.  Jonson’s attitude towards Shakespeare tells us much of their varying attitudes towards not only the art of theatre but towards that theatre’s audience.  While the two were certainly friends, Jonson could not resist a significant number of digs at Shakespeare -- and these digs are precisely against the reasons Shakespeare was popular:  his plays were often fantastic, loose in structure, and he disdained the unities.

Most obviously, Jonson’s commendatory poem in Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio -- “To the Memory of My Beloved, th Author Mr William Shakespeare:  And What He Hath Left Us” (Miscellaneous Poems XV) -- is typical.  In it, Jonson called Shakespeare “a monument without a tomb” (22) and fond him on the level of Chaucer and Spenser.  But Jonson’s other diction suggests his own resentments and classical preferences.  Jonson praising Shakespeare alongside Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (33-34) more serves to remind us of the differences between the two.  Jonson calling Shakespeare’s comedy superior to “insolent Greece, or haughty Rome” (39) seems somewhat tongue-in-cheek given Jonson’s own classicism.  This is only emphasized when Jonson points out that Shakespeare had “small Latin, and less Greek” (31)  Perhaps most tellingly, Jonson writes that “a good poet’s made, as well as born” (64).  Clearly, then, Jonson thought Shakespeare a great poetic talent, but Jonson remained troubled by Shakespeare’s anti-classicism -- precisely what helped make (and continues to help make) Shakespeare so successful with a popular audience.

In his Timber, or Discoveries, Jonson chastised Shakespeare for over-writing, though we can detect a certain resentment at Shakespeare’s popularity:  “the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned he never blotted out [a] line.  My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand” (802-805).  (The reader of this essay may feel the same, if only due its length.)  But Jonson and Shakespeare were, indeed, friends.  In the same passage, Jonson admits, “I loved the man, and do honor his memory -- on this side idolatry -- as much as any... He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature:  had an excellent fancy; brave notions, and gentle expressions” (811-815).  Perhaps most tellingly of Jonson’s character and style in contrast with Shakespeare’s, Jonson recalls the reaction of those to whom he condemned Shakespeare:  “they thought [it] a malevolent speech” (806-807).

But Jonson’s condemnation of Shakespeare is not limited to his poetry:  Jonson indulges himself in his plays as well.  The prologue to the 1616 edition of Every Man In His Humor criticizes violation of the classical unities and clearly recalls Shakespeare, attacking plays that “with three rusty swords, / And help of some few foot-and-half-foot words, / Fight over York and Lancaster’s long jars, / And in the tiring-house bring wounds to scars.”  Like Sidney, Jonson mocks plays that break the unity of time and in which children grow to sixty years old.  And he attacks the sort of romantic elements that Shakespeare frequently used late in his career, warning the audience that “neither Chorus wafts you o’er the seas, / Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please.”

In the induction of the 1631 edition of Bartholomew Fair, Jonson uses the Scrivener to criticize the fantastic elements of the romances of the era, suggesting Shakespeare in particular:  “He [Jonson] is loath to make Nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, Tempests, and suchlike drolleries to mix his head with other men’s heels” (Induction.114-116).  Perhaps more tellingly, in terms of Jonson’s trouble duplicating Shakespeare’s success, the Scrivener tells us that the play is “made to delight all, and to offend none” (Induction.73-74) -- but even here Jonson’s elitism emerges as the Scrivener adds “provided they have either the wit or the honesty to think well of themselves” (Induction.74-75).

Just as we looked to the Restoration with regard to the English popular rejection of the unities, it is worth looking at the same in terms of Jonson and Shakespeare in particular.  The Restoration attitude towards Shakespeare and Jonson reveals much about their differences and how Shakespeare succeeded more with his mixed audience.  A commonplace of the late 1600s was that Jonson ought to be admired but Shakespeare loved.  In other words, Jonson was the more elite writer who kept the unities -- a proper model for later playwrights.  But Shakespeare, regarded as an unschooled genius like Homer, was to be loved for his verse.  It would not be, of course, until the Renaissance -- with its praise of spontaneity and inspiration over classical form -- that this paradigm would be broken (Samuel Jonson’s more elevated praise of Shakespeare’s characters and realism notwithstanding).  Dryden, in particular, saw Shakespeare as talented but self-indulgent.  Lamenting that Shakespeare did not write in the more “courtly” and “refined” Restoration, Dryden lamented that Shakespeare’s talent was wasted on “ignorant” audiences who “knew no better.”  (See Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy [1668] and Essay on the Daramatic Poetry of the Last Age [1672].)

But it is important to note that Jonson’s sometimes angry elitism was not the product of noble birth.  Indeed, if we take the status of both poets at birth, Jonson has all the signs of an ability to communicate with the plebeians that Shakespeare had.  The difference, in Jonson’s case, seems to have been his own personal disposition.  Yet it is notable that Jonson, not Shakespeare, got ribbed for his humble origins.  Jonson could not have enjoyed -- if he knew of them -- his and Shakespeare’s descriptions in the play The Return from Parnassus, Part 2, the third of three Parnassus plays performed by students of St. John’s College at Cambridge.  In act 1, scene 2, Jonson’s name spurs this response:  “The wittiest fellow of a Bricklayer in England.”  The character Ingenioso rubs salt into the wound, saying that Jonson is “so slow an Inventor, that he were better betake himselfe to his old trade of Bricklaying; a bould whorson, as confident now in making of a book, as he was in times past in laying of a brick.”  Shakespeare, by contrast, is relatively praised.

But Jonson’s work -- and Jonson himself -- suffered from more than Jonson’s classicism.  If Shakespeare profited from concealing his true politics and religion, Jonson had no such lack of convictions.  Jonson unfortunately believed that one must “stand for truth” (Timber 196).  Indeed, Jonson’s plays are often biting.  He was imprisoned in 1597 for “seditious and slanderous mater” in his The Isle of Dogs.  In 1601, Poetaster led him to be interrogated by a lord chief justice for libel.  He was soon brought before the Privy Council over Sejanus.  Throughout the whole period from 1599-1602, while Jonson was establishing himself as a writer, he and Jon Marston were busy denouncing and satirizing each other in a series of plays.  Jonson’s biting anti-Scottish satire in Eastward Ho led to threats against him in 1605.  Jonson was asked to conceal his biting satire in The Devil is an Ass.  And he was in1628 again summoned before the Privy Council.

Recalling the critical controversy over Shakespeare’s possible closet Catholicism, we note that Jonson converted to Catholicism while in prison and remained Catholic, at least publicly, until 1610.  In 1606, in the paranoid anti-Catholic wake of the Gunpowder Plot, Jonson as summoned for his recusant status to court.  The contrast with Shakespeare could not be more profound:  Jonson had opinions and railed against that which he detested; Shakespeare, to the extent that he had opinions, hid them and yielded commercial results.

Throughout his dramatic career, Jonson seems somewhat of the bitter writer of mixed success.  Indeed, Jonson repeatedly laments in his poetry the mob’s fickleness and lack of taste.  Jonson’s most popular plays are his less offensive ones.  The Globe audience reportedly hissed his controversial Sejanus off the stage.

Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humor (1598), in which Shakespeare acted, helped to establish the fad for “humors comedy,” in which humorously extreme characters are defined by their poor balance of bodily humors.  The play’s country simpleton, jealous husband, poetaster, and other characters drew laughs.  Compared to other of Jonson’s plays, Every Man In His Humor is unoffensive -- and this accounts in large part for its success.

Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humor (1599) is filled with humorous types governed by their humors:  a foolish man, his aspiring wife, and her ridiculously fashionable lover.  But it is also notable as the first of Jonson’s plays to participate in the so-called “War of the Theatres,” in which Jonson lobbied attacks at John Marston and Thomas Dekker, who did their part to fire back.  Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels and Poetaster were also part of this dispute.  Again, the contrast with the placid Shakespeare could not be more clear.

Jonson’s most famous plays -- 1606’s Volpone, 1609’s Epicene, 1610’s The Alchemist, and 1614’s Batholomew Fair -- were all comedies and less bombastic in their satire.  But it is important to note that Jonson in 1611 offered the infamous failure Cataline.  Boosted by his recent successes, Jonson sought to forsake the comedy that had brought him that success -- and that doesn’t seem to have fulfilled him.  With Cataline, Jonson turned to his love of the classics and dramatizes the conspiracy of Cataline.  The play in seen frightfully boring, including major portions translated from Cicero.  Jonson’s elitist desire to write classical drama -- to be a serious playwright -- had gone down in flames.

Having taken three years off following the spectacular failure of Cataline, 1614’s Bartholomew Fair seems less mean, its comedy more general and genial than previous Jonson comedies.  Its ensemble cast is also larger than that of Jonson’s other plays.  The play attacks the hypocrisy of the Puritans in a manner distinctly reminiscent of the Restoration.  Of particular note is Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Win-the-Fight Littlewit, as is the puritanical Justice Overdo, who tries to investigate the fair in disguise but is himself lulled.  One can understand why it was popular in the hatefully anti-Protestant Restoration.

Looking back on Jonson’s dramatic career, we may wish to conclude that Jonson wished to write classical tragedy and to make his comedies into sharply partisan satires.  One can look at this tendency uncharitably and see Jonson as the angry elitist, but one can also see a Jonson who believed in things in a way Shakespeare didn’t:  Shakespeare, it may be said, prospered because he did not have Jonson’s poetic scruples.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby