Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson; drawing by David Levine

The circumstance of having been preceded by Shakespeare was an inhibition, at least as much as an inspiration, to writers who came afterward, as some of them—like Goethe—have acknowledged. The situation must have been even more daunting for Ben Jonson, since he happened to be the most ambitious, articulate, strong-minded, and arguably the most talented, among Shakespeare’s immediate contemporaries. They cannot quite spontaneously have conceded Shakespeare’s hegemony, though Jonson finally did in a generous eulogy. To chart the rivalry of the two in other terms than Jonson’s is to come up against Shakespeare’s personal elusiveness. “Gentle” is the one adjective we can extract from firsthand witnesses; and that sets up another opposition with Jonson’s aggressiveness.

The latter’s name and work have been handed down to us as a clear-cut personification of the rules that Shakespeare flouted, the limits he transcends. It might almost be said, if we accept Peter Shaffer’s theatrical reductions, that literary history cast Jonson as the Salieri to Shakespeare’s Amadeus. One of the many merits of Anne Barton’s book is her stress on the qualities that Shakespeare and Jonson shared.

Jonson was respectfully neglected by criticism for 250 years. Nothing very significant was written about him between John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) and T.S. Eliot’s review of the competent but conventional volume by Gregory Smith in the English Men of Letters series (1919).1 Eliot predicted that Jonson would prove more sympathetic to twentieth-century intellectuals, who would admire him for “a brutality, a lack of sentiment, a polished surface, a handling of large bold designs in brilliant colors.” Meanwhile—and not inappropriately, given a playwright who was ridiculed for publishing his mere plays as Works in folio—it was taking all of fifty years for the most monumental of all the great Oxford editions to lumber into existence.2 Numerous modernized texts of the best-known dramas have been reedited over the past generation: especially useful is The Yale Ben Jonson.3 Jonson has also been a happy hunting ground for Anglo-American scholarship. For a critical suggestiveness that extends far beyond its monographic subject, one of the landmarks is Jonas Barish’s study, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy.4

It could hardly be claimed that Jonson’s plays have been performed continuously on the stage. Among his “four central masterpieces,” Epicoene, or the Silent Woman was much admired and imitated during the Restoration; but, after heroines ceased to be acted by boys, it was bound to miss its biggest trick. David Garrick, carving up The Alchemist in order to fatten his own part, carried it into the eighteenth-century repertory. Possibly the brilliant colors had become too local; yet Bartholomew Fair, which is even more steeped in cockney atmosphere, has been successfully revived by the Edinburgh Festival. And Volpone, or the Fox with its Italianate locale, has attracted such continental adapters as Stefan Zweig and Jules Romains. Its sinister comedy team has been re-created on film by Harry Bauer and Louis Jouvet, and—in a retranslation for the Theatre Guild—by Claude Rains and Alfred Lunt. Just twenty years ago a musical version, Foxy, prompted Bert Lahr to play a vulpine part in the Yukon during the gold rush. As long as self-interest and hypocrisy flourished, Jonson held with Ovid and Menander, the drama of such operations would never be outdated.

Even without the tributes from his loyal disciples, “the sons of Ben,” or the gossipy testimony from Jonson’s Scottish host, William Drummond of Hawthornden, we would recognize Jonson as a writer’s writer, indeed a dramatist’s dramatist—Mrs. Barton pertinently mentions Pirandello. Doubtless there was an off-putting aspect to Jonson’s rigorous professionalism. As a man of self-taught Renaissance learning, he sometimes confounded humanism with pedantry. As the practitioner of a bohemian craft, under mounting attack from puritanical moralists, he overreacted by exaggerating his didactic intentions. Anne Barton is justifiably skeptical of “his own formal dicta and theories,” which have so often got in the way of his previous interpreters, in particular the theory of humors. That theory was a behavioristic psychology based upon a mechanistic physiology; and, though he invoked it polemically, it has little relevance for his mature characterizations. Through his usage, as irony would have it, an outmoded medical term (originally meaning a bodily fluid) has come to stand for the expression of mirth in its most peculiarly English manifestation. “Humor,” in the broader sense, is that faculty of observation for which we associate Jonson with Dickens.

A vivid but unromantic personality, a hulking figure with—as he wryly confessed—a “mountain belly” and a “rocky face,” Jonson often displayed a male insensitivity in his attitudes toward women. Though his poems could be gallant as well as elegant, his memorable female characters tend to be harlots like Doll Common or harridans like Ursula the Pig-Woman. Feminist criticism might indeed condemn him for such one-sidedness, but Mrs. Barton reads him with understanding and finesse.5 An American scholar-teacher whose distinguished career has been conducted mainly at Cambridge and Oxford, she is the author of a book on Shakespeare’s consciousness of the theater and has written the introductions to his comedies in The Riverside Shakespeare.6 Proceeding now to narrow the gap between the two playwrights, she suspects that an “innate romanticism” lurked behind the elaborate façades of Jonsonian classicism. Since Shakespeare was in the cast of Jonson’s Sejanus, she would identify him as its unknown former collaborator. If Jonson was the author of the powerful additions to Thomas Kyd’s old warhorse, The Spanish Tragedy—as she argues with some plausibility—then he was capable of writing in a Shakespearean vein.


Certainly he was not devoid of tense emotions, and his analytic propensities may have been his way of dealing with them. Having lost his minister father before he was born, and mourned his infant son in a tender elegy, Jonson had intense feeling for paternal-filial relationships. Mrs. Barton has picked, from two American poets, phrases that aptly formulate his motives: “rage for order” (Wallace Stevens) and “passion for setting people right” (Marianne Moore). The ups and downs of Jonson’s dramatic activity, together with his versatility in practicing other genres, have all too frequently led to partial portraits and piecemeal evaluations. Mrs. Barton’s perspective is long enough to encompass his full chronological development, and wide enough to consider his dramaturgy in detail and as a whole. This entails eighteen plays, which include the collaborative Eastward Ho! and a pastoral fragment, The Sad Shepherd—adding up to slightly less than half of Shakespeare’s output, but counter-weighed by twenty-eight court masques. Here the masque is given merely incidental treatment, and we must be referred to Stephen Orgel, who has done so much to re-illuminate that ephemeral genre.7

Anne Barton does not forget that Jonson, the Jacobean master, came up from the ranks through an Elizabethan apprenticeship. She makes allowance for the motley journeywork he did not care to preserve. His first hit, with Every Man in His Humor, owed something to its reverberant title and something more to its resharpened classical types: miser, braggart captain, clever servant. Every Man out of His Humor was not a sequel, though the echo posed a recurring dilemma: whether to accept or reform human nature. Temporarily the reformer in Jonson took charge, riding the crest of a wave and confronting the end of the century, a transitional period of self-doubt and sociopolitical questioning. In those fading years of Queen Elizabeth’s glory, a new satirical movement—banned from the printshops—was infiltrating the playhouses. Two additional “comical satires” rounded out Jonson’s flailing campaigns against everyman, everywoman, and nearly everything, and involved him in dramatized attacks and counterattacks with rival dramatists, John Marston and Thomas Dekker. Their private quarrel was publicized in the so-called War of the Theaters, which failed dismally to clear the air; it subsided into a tangled stalemate of caricatured personalities.

Beating a deliberate retreat, Jonson next reverted to the tragic form, and looked for appropriate themes in the decline and aftermath of the noble Roman republic, just as Shakespeare was doing. But Jonson was not drawn to heroic models; his protagonists are notorious villains, both in Sejanus and in the later Catiline. Their intrigues fit in with his satiric tone, and may reveal an authorial temperament that was ill at ease with tragedy. Yet in Sejanus, if not in Catiline, the shocking crises of a police state are distanced with harsh ironic effects that suggest the “epic drama” of Brecht—a writer who might be compared to Jonson in other respects, such as the brutality and boldness noted by Eliot. Mrs. Barton focuses on the Sejanus/Tiberius complicity as a rehearsal for the chicaneries of Mosca and Volpone. This helps to explain why Volpone looms so large as the darkest of Jonson’s comedies. In its Venetian chiaroscuro he did not distinguish, as he did when revising and localizing Every Man in His Humor, between follies and crimes. Consequently he had to arrange, with prefatory apologies, a labored fifth-act reversal, in which Volpone, Mosca, and their sycophants all get punished, to readjust the ethical equilibrium of Volpone.

Jonson’s quest for poetic justice seems to have ended with this trial scene. The Arraignment had been the subtitle of his comical satire, Poetaster; and, for a stubborn satirist, that was the happy ending, in which the gulls and impostors, fools and knaves were arraigned and told off. Mrs. Barton need not pay too much attention to these judicial conclusions, inasmuch as they have been overemphasized by previous critics; moreover, Jonson increasingly sidestepped or relaxed them, or else reduced them to absurdity. Justice Clement in Every Man in His Humor shows himself an easygoing arbiter; Justice Overdo in Bartholomew Fair gets himself condemned to sit in the stocks. The asperity of Asper’s name parallels the moroseness of Morose’s. Yet Asper, the Jonsonian spokesman, lays down the law in Every Man out of His Humor; Morose, as Jonson’s target, is subjected to mock-legalistic humiliation in The Silent Woman. Perhaps it took the Puritans to demonstrate that reform was incompatible with comedy, that Carnival and Lent were natural enemies, and Lent had the seasonal advantage of shutting Carnival down. Eventually Jonson had to side with the playboys in putting down such killjoys as Ananias, Tribulation Wholesome, and Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land Busy.


An extensive body of commentary has accumulated around the four major comedies; but they are so carefully crafted, so densely textured, and so richly allusive that a perceptive critic can still adduce fresh insights. Language is true alchemy for Jonson, Mrs. Barton observes, and not only in The Alchemist, where the magic of words momentarily transmutes a procession of rather sordid lives. Those fantasies must go unrealized, alas; but, since they were first evoked on the bare stage of the Globe Playhouse, they exemplify the power of sheer verbiage to imagine a spectacle. Alchemical concepts fascinated Jonson, not only because they alembicated golden promises, but also because they were verbalized into formulas and recipes, jargons and lists. Whereas Homer had his catalogs and Whitman his inventories, Jonson liked to enumerate the ingredients of whatever he contemplated. These could be as sumptuous as Volpone’s palazzo or as seamy as Ursula’s booth. And Jonson’s ear is no less acute than his eye; in Bartholomew Fair he hears more than thirty distinct vernacular voices. Advice on love and marriage, studiously garnered from Ovid and Juvenal, becomes drawing-room conversation in The Silent Woman.

Ranging from bookish allusion to earthy realism, Jonson juxtaposes those extremes in the puppet show of Bartholomew Fair, where the myths of Hero and Leander and of Damon and Pythias are toughened by the vulgarities of Fish Street and Puddle Wharf. Mrs. Barton traces a gradual tendency to depend, for sources and authorities, less upon the Greco-Roman classics and more on popular English lore. Jonson shied away from the traditional lovers and the domestic patterns that the Elizabethans had derived from Latin New Comedy. Mrs. Barton points out a more stimulating exemplar in his reversion to “Vetus Comoedia.” The comic plots of Aristophanes are happiest when they revolve, grandly but precariously, around a projected idea: some wildcat scheme or institutional gimmick, such as the aerial city of The Birds, the sexual strike of Lysistrata, or the Socratic think tank of The Clouds. Comparably, Jonson builds up a pretentious confidence game or an intricate practical joke to engage the ingenuity of his tricksters and the gullibility of their dupes. After all, a plot is a conspiracy, and they are the money-grubbing heirs of his decadent Roman politicians.

When we arrive at his last half-dozen plays (assuming with Mrs. Barton, as opposed to the Oxford editors, that A Tale of a Tub is not early but late), we cannot avoid the question of anticlimax. Dryden, a judicious admirer, dismissed them as “dotages.” After Jonson’s failure with The Devil is an Ass, the old trouper renounced the stage, denounced his audiences, and repeatedly attempted comebacks with no success whatsoever. As the favored court poet of James I, he was intermittently active in furnishing libretti for masques. These gave play—though not exactly free play—to his lyrical gifts, his symbolic imagination, and his mythographic erudition. He was likewise allowed to exercise his wit and grotesquerie through comic interludes known as “antimasques” (where anti– signified antic). But it must have been a frustration to have no control over the handling of his material, accommodating himself to command performances and courtly performers. (Think of Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Hollywood.) It was even more constraining to work in harness with a composer, a choreographer, and above all a scene designer, Inigo Jones, whose magnificently pastoral spectacles were the prevailing element.

Pictura and poesis were foreordained to fall apart. Jonson’s ultimate rupture with Jones—after he omitted the artist’s name from the title page of their Chloridia—terminated his service with Charles I, who did not particularly sustain his father’s liking for the catankerous laureate. The restricted and static nature of Jonson’s contributions to the masque may have heightened the disconnectedness of his late comedies. Not that these seem lacking in plots or characters; probably they have too much of both. He had been habitually stronger at analysis than at synthesis; what they episodically lack is a vitalizing center. Mrs. Barton bravely undertakes, at length and in depth, to rescue them from the stigma of deterioration.8 I am impressed, but not convinced, by her apologetics on their behalf. Anything that Jonson strove to write—as an original mind, a magisterial artist, and an irrepressible experimentalist—is worthy of a patient and sensitive reading. She makes out her best case for The New Inn as a backward glance and a fresh start, and has some interesting things to say about the play’s Neoplatonism and the playwright’s weary persona. But she admits the tedium at one point, and at another finds it necessary to complete Jonson’s thought by referring the reader to a poem of Donne’s.

The reader, and not the spectator: for a play that hinges its effects upon literary references has already confined itself to the thin air of closet drama. Mrs. Barton is on firmer ground when she discerns a Jonsonian counterpart for Shakespeare’s final mood. Though this was decidedly not an expression of dotage, the Jonson of the 1620s was prone to retrospection and recapitulation—almost, at times, to mellowness. Hence some of the last plays offer an appreciable contrast to the strain of bitterness in his more doctrinaire writings: The Magnetic Lady is subtitled Humors Reconciled, and has links with Shakespearean romance.

Eight years younger than Shakespeare, Jonson outlived him by twenty-one years, and was paralyzed for the last nine. he died in 1637, five years before the outbreak of the civil war, when the theaters would be officially closed. He had lived through a sequence of historic permutations, which left their marks upon the successive phases of his work. He lingered on his Caroline sickbed as a nostalgic survivor, looking back across the vicissitudes of his Jacobean prime toward memories—now hallowed by a national cult—of what it meant to have been born and bred an Elizabethan.

There was a sociological dimension to those changes, which might relevantly have been taken into account. The potential audience for drama was being fragmented more and more by the ominous polarization of Cavalier versus Puritan. This throws light upon Jonson’s fiasco in the public playhouse, which was losing its widespread public, and his gravitation to the kingly revels of the masque, which were celebrating the evanescent Stuart cause. Ideology can throw further light on Jonson’s preoccupation with sharp practice, hustling venality, and get-rich-quick schemes, as it has been explored by L.C. Knights through his path-breaking survey, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson.9 Money, to be sure, has been the root of a depressingly large proportion of the world’s comedies, from the Plutus of Aristophanes to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But Jonson, who was a sometime Catholic, could hold an orthodox medieval suspicion of usury, the acquisitive ethic, and the rise of capitalism. Living through an epoch of unprecedented mercantile expansion, he could draw upon the conventions and devices of comic tradition to outline a critique of the evolving bourgeois mentality.

Pecunia herself Is personified as a kind of dea ex machina in the late comedy, The Staple of News, with attendants named Broker, Mortgage, and the like. Along with the pecuniary theme, she embodies the allegorical mode, which Jonson had inherited from the moralities—and which, of course, was reinforced by the masques. This was not as dryly abstracting as it might sound, for he made use of nomenclature to individualize as much as to typify. The lively and informed discussion of names that Mrs. Barton presents in a “chapter interloping” (so Jonson might have phrased it) makes us look forward to the publication of her recent Alexander Lectures, “Comedy and the Naming of Parts.” Jonson’s own name-consciousness must have begun with himself. Neither his forename nor his surname—how unlike Shakespeare’s!—would stand out in a crowd. Yet the uniqueness of his impact is registered when posterity calls him by his monosyllabic nickname. And his insistence on dropping the usual h has kept him from being confused with an equally opinionated namesake of the eighteenth century, possibly warmer and wiser, but not so rich in his experience or so accomplished in his artistry.

This Issue

December 20, 1984