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Ben Johnson and the Art of Secrecy.

William W.E. Slights defines the term "secrecy" quite broadly. He notes that in Ben Jonson's middle plays, Sejanus through Bartholomew Fair (commonly regarded as his best), secrecy is a crucial element in all the plots. Furthermore, Jonson often writes about secrecy in government; hence it becomes important thematically. Finally, Slights argues that the interpretation of any text can involve ferreting out its "secrets" - perhaps stretching the term a bit, but the stretch enables him to treat Jonson's pervasive concern with good judgment's role in sound interpretation 0-4).

After an introduction and a chapter on the ideology of secrecy, he presents a chapter on each of six plays: Sejanus, Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, Catiline, and Bartholomew Fair. HIS overview of secrecy draws on both anthropologists and sociologists as well as primary sources from Jonson's period. He shows the moral complexity of secrecy: for instance, in Much Ado About Nothing secrecy is used for benevolent as well as dastardly purposes (27-28). But in Jonson's plays, Slights argues, secrecy is always used for questionable or unethical purposes. In Sejanus, for example, the emperor Tiberius is a terrifying figure because he is consummately enigmatic, i.e. secretive, and uses this quality to retain absolute power. Volpone, unlike Tiberius, needs an audience, and his attempt to persuade Celia to join his conspiracy against Corvino almost brings his downfall. Slights is very tough on Volpone (arguably too tough), calling him "awkward and foolish" (68) and claiming that the character "lacks not only good sense but also real passion" (69).

Secrecy is also seen as sullying all of the gallants in Epicoene. They are admirable compared to the other characters, but they too are (in Slights's view) extremely flawed because "the social force of secrets in the play is disintegrative" (103). In The Alchemist Slights sees Lovewit's willingness to profit from the conspiracies of Subtle, Face, and Dol as a devastating comment on citizens who do their cheating from within the ranks of respectability - a fairly familiar idea. But his argument that secrecy also besmirches Cicero, the "good guy" in Catiline, is relatively fresh and original (141).

In discussing Bartholomew Fair, Slights uses the term "secrecy" in connection with interpretation, arguing that each of the visitors to the Fair misinterprets people and events because he or she can see only through the prism of himself or herself: thus the chapter title "Interpretation as Self-Replication in Bartholomew Fair." Especially impressive is Slights's use of a 1615 pamphlet entitled The Mystery of Selfe-Deceiving.

For the most part the prose in this book is lucid, but there are occasional forays into fashionable jargon. Though belonging to no particular critical school, Slights does occasionally use words like "reinscribing" (19), "alterity" 00), "(s)lavishly" (52), "(s)elect" (117), and "reproblematizing" (154). The jargon notwithstanding, this book is (on the whole) worth the attention of specialists.

DAVID MCPHERSON University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McPherson, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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Next Article:Ben Johnson: Poetry and Architecture.

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