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Ben Jonson's 1616 folio.

Physically bulky and historically significant, Ben Jonson's First Folio of 1616 early acquired something of an establishment aura. Yet its contents tell another story: satire, dangerous matter about tyrants, disrupted prologues, masques and poems which interrogate a real court while hymning an ideal one. It is a more complex cultural event than has sometimes been assumed.

The essays in Ben Jonson's 1616 Folio which go furthest towards engaging with this complexity are by Sara van den Berg and Jennifer Brady. Van den Berg, in 'Ben Jonson and the Ideology of Authorship', shows how (in both front matter and poetic collections) Jonson has to struggle to establish the humanist ideology of autonomous authorship, 'working to reconcile the impersonal resources of genre and rhetorical mode with the personal resource of his own unique voice'. (Similar conclusions are reached in the essays by Herendeen on Jonson's dedications and by Joseph Loewenstein on the Folio texts of the masques.) Brady considers the way in which, in the 1620s and 1630s, 'parricidal' Sons of Ben used the 1616 collection 'To hold Jonson hostage to a remembered perfection'. This propelled his subsequent poetry in the one direction left by the confident editorial manner of the Folio: 'tentatively, he began to affirm the imperfect in himself.' The Under-wood is presented as 'lesser Poems, of later growth'; there are fragments, poems once allegedly lost, genres 'that would have seemed too ephemeral for inclusion in the Workes--birthday poems, poems on the queen's "lying in," poems acknowledging gifts of ink'; above all there are admissions of bodily infirmity and that 'happiness is contingent and circumscribed'.

Acting on its author, the post-1616 Folio did not stay monumentally still. No more, several of the essays point out, was its classicism as monolithic as might be supposed. As van den Berg says, the allusions to Horace in the volume's frontispiece proclaim a particular link with Horace rather than acknowledge a general self-abasing classical debt; the use of Latin here and elsewhere in Jonson celebrates both the classical and the contemporary. Stella P. Revard usefully distinguishes the influence on Jonson's poems of Martial and other classical poets from that, little less pervasive, of their neo-classical imitators including Marullus and Secundus. William Blissett reflects (perhaps a little summarily) on the factors which make the three Roman plays very much of Jonson's rather than Horace's or Tacitus' time.

Truly classical or not, however, the Folio helped Jonson's work to a classic status which, Kevin J. Donovan reminds us in an essay on the Folio texts, was perpetuated by the privileging of its readings in the Oxford edition. More remains to be said about how far such choices may have been culturally conditioned to enhance the monumentality as much of the volumes of 1925-52 as of that of 1616.

Finally in this collection, Katharine Eisaman Maus's piece contrasts the idealized material abundance of masques and celebratory poems with the attitude which, in the comedies, leaves 'things' in short supply, not created but transferred; Volpone, for instance, can't even enthuse to Celia about Lollia Paulina's jewels without mentioning that they were 'the spoiles of provinces'.

Ben Jonson's 1616 Folio is helpful but not essential reading for Jonson specialists. Richard Allen Cave's Ben Jonson is aimed at a broader audience. It takes the comedies in performance as its main subject, tactfully omits Catiline, and stresses that 'Jonson's remarkable erudition was offset by as prodigious an appetite for life and a great relish for the absurd, quixotic and outrageous in human behaviour'. Cave is able to demonstrate usefully how this works in the theatre thanks to recent productions (mostly since 1980) of seven of the comedies. Discussion of productions is particularly appropriate to Cave's uncontroversial but dexterously argued thesis that Jonson's plays, by exposing their own theatricality, show the ubiquity of human 'performance'. The plays which carry no Induction or dramatized Prologue are those where the mechanics of performance are immediately laid bare by some sort of role play or impersonation or 'the deliberate choice to act as audience of another's activity'.

Cave mentions Brecht just once, but this is no doubt only because the analogy is becoming tired. We are given 'the travesty of the conventions of romantic comedy in The Case is Altered which seems designed to make an audience question why it should indulge in such escapist nonsense', a Pru who, transforming the Inn into a Court of Love, has deftly fashioned 'Out of a stage that matched the temper of Frances's quixotic mind . . . one that now matches Lovel's tenor of high seriousness', Brainworm, Tiberius, Dol, Subtle, and Face as professionals who remain aware of the fact of performance amid farcical amateurs who seek identification with their roles.

The prevalence of this theme narrows Cave's book to manageable, distinctly un-Folio-like dimensions; there is a perhaps dangerous tendency to co-opt or reject productions on the grounds of how far they put his thesis (convincing though it is) into action. But this is certainly an excellent introduction to Jonson's plays; Cave ably maintains the perspectives of both scholar and practitioner in, for instance, his acute passage on the way modern directors of The Alchemist sometimes miss the element of danger, the ever-present risk that the deceivers will be pilloried, mutilated or hanged, savagely punished for occult dabblings, pimping, forgery, fraud, thieving and over-dressing. Jonson in the Folio professes himself 'contentus paucis lectoribus'; books like Cave's attract a larger group, some members of which will go on to experience the 'more remov'd mysteries' of works like the Brady and Herendeen volume.
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Author:Garrett, Martin
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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