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Ben Jonson, Revisited. (Review Essay).


The renaissance in Ben Jonson studies has been the reassessment of his late work sparked by Anne Barton's Ben Jonson, Dramatist, published in 1984. There has been comparatively little genuinely new work on Jonson's middle plays and some growing interest, but not enough, in his early satires. While several of the books published on Jonson in 1999 and 2000 emphasize in their titles that a profound redefinition of Jonson is underway and while Herford and the Simpsons' great Oxford edition of Jonson's works is under fire from some quarters, much of the work under review here consolidates, extends, and subtly qualifies the contributions of earlier scholars in the field, rather than radically challenging their findings. A new complete edition of Jonson's work is on the horizon from Cambridge University, new Revels Plays editions of Jonson's plays continue to be published, and productions of plays once thought impossible to stage -- The New Inn, The Devil Is An Ass -- at the Swan Theatre in Stratford are establishin g for the first time the theatrical viability of these marginalized works. If there is any other marked trend in this sample of Jonson books, it is the move towards publishing collections of essays organized around large overarching topics. Martin Butler's collection, Re-Presenting Ben Jonson: Text, History, Performance, argues the need for a reconceptualized approach to editing Jonson, and Richard Cave, Elizabeth Schafer, and Brian Woolland's Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory, illuminates contemporary approaches to performing both familiar and little-known Jonson plays. Two other books are grouped together in this review since they are comprehensive surveys of Jonson's work. The fifth book is a study of Jonson's antimasques, the sixth a Revels Plays edition of a neglected late Jonson play, The Magnetic Lady. The availability of a number of jonson's Caroline plays in Revels editions is one of the most promising facets of the reassessment inspired by Anne Barton's influential work.


Ben Jonson Revised, published in Twayne's English Authors Series, is a marvelous critical survey reflecting the areas of broad consensus in Jonson scholarship. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, longtime collaborators, were the editors of a landmark collection, Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben (1982), that did much to galvanize Jonson studies. In this TEAS volume, Summers and Pebworth offer a lucid synthesis of both recent and more traditional Jonson scholarship on the comedies, tragedies, masques, poetry, and prose, devoting two-thirds of their survey to the comedies and nondramatic verse. The coverage of Ben Jonson's contribution to each major genre is impressive. The Twayne volume's extensive notes documenting Jonson criticism will be of use to all students and the authors include a helpful and current annotated bibliography of important books and collections of essays on Jonson.

In their survey of the comedies, Summers and Pebworth emphasize Jonson's brilliant plotting, arguing that in his best plays "the classical strictures Jonson voluntarily adopts never intrude as artificially enforced rules; rather, they serve to strengthen design and to reenforce theme" (35). The authors prefer his comedies to the comical satires, which "sacrifice structure to portraiture" (43), producing a more static, intellectualized kind of drama. Their readings of three comedies -- Every Man in His Humour (1598), the prototype for the great comedies of Jonson's middle period, Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610) -- are especially insightful on Jonson's adapting of the classical unities to his own creative purposes.

Summers and Pebworth explore another key feature of Ben Jonson's plots: the intense contest over priority that undermines his swindlers' tenuous and volatile alliances. Collaborations fail in Jonson's plays (and, arguably, in his professional life, as the bitter feud with Inigo Jones makes clear), foundering on schisms over class identity, legitimation, and recognition. As the Twayne co-authors point out in explaining Mosca's conflict with Volpone, "In this context of social resentment, Volpone's praise begins to smell of condescension. Mosca chafes at the subservient role" (50), making cooperation between them impossible. This pattern recurs in the dynamic between Face and Subtle in The Alchemist and, transposed from the genre of satiric comedy to tragedy, in Sejanus' vertiginous rise to the status of a virtual copartner with Tiberius of the Roman Empire until the Roman emperor disowns his upstart confederate. Summers and Pebworth emphasize this plot device in their adroit discussion of individual plays; the topic could have been developed further, not only across the spectrum of Jonson's drama and his critical pronouncements but also in his professional relations, including his choice to expunge the record of early collaborations with other writers from his self-memorializing folio Workes.

The chapter devoted to the poetry highlights Jonson's conception of his role as a public poet, his imaginative synthetic classicism, and his mastery of formal technique. His poems typically achieve their effects by "allowing a single precise, low-keyed but expansive phrase or word to infuse the understated whole with unexpected force" (154). Summers and Pebworth are gifted interpreters of the subtle emotionality in Jonson's intellectual verse, and their readings of his elegies and his poems centering on friendship are models of close, empathetic analysis. They depart from the received view of Jonson in two respects, since Summers and Pebworth make a strong case for Jonson as an unconventional love poet and even, in the comedies as well as the poetry, a protofeminist. The idealizing view of Ben Jonson offered here will probably not persuade skeptics, but the attention paid to female characters in Jonson's drama and to the women addressed, wooed, or impersonated in his verse usefully challenges the still pervas ive assumption of his misogyny. Overall, the chapter on Jonson's poetry extends Earl Miner's original survey, The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton (1971), and invites comparison with Sara van den Berg's The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry (1987).

Ben Jonson Revised has strong claims to being the best critical introduction elucidating the full range of Jonson's distinctive achievements as dramatist, poet, and critic. Summers and Pebworth gracefully assimilate the past thirty years of Jonson scholarship into their survey. This book does superbly what any other of this stripe aspires to do: it engages both generalists and scholars in a fresh way with Jonson's texts while Summers and Peb worth's ample, informative notes provide readers with the means to track the scholarly debates that have engaged Jonsonians in recent decades.

Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart's The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson covers a number of important subjects: Jonson's life and reception, his complex affiliations with London, Westminster, and Whitehall, his development as a playwright, his masques, his three volumes of poetry, his translations, his classicism, his 1616 Folio. The essays are uniformly well written, and, with the exception of Jonson's tragedies, which are treated only in passing, the editors have done a good job of covering Jonson's corpus. Jonson's translation of Horace's Ars Poetica (1640), a work that is rarely discussed, is given a new prominence in Stanley Stewart's chapter on Jonson's criticism and linked to Jonson's translations in Discoveries (1640) of his readings in classical and continental authors. Martin Butler reinterprets Jonson's ties to London's commercial class through a recently discovered text, the 1609 Entertainment at Britain's Burse, and more than one of the contributors addresses the discovery in 1995 by Katherine Du ncan-Jones of a new epitaph by Jonson on Thomas Nashe. The chronological development of Jonson's career as a poet is well represented in Ian Donaldson's masterful survey, and three essays, by Richard Dutton, David Bevington, and Richard Harp collectively document Jonson's career as a writer of satiric comedy, comedy, and romantic drama. Given the co-editors' evident concern for both coverage and currency, the lack of any chapter on Jonson's tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611), is puzzling. The brief discussions of Sejanus in Russ McDonald's fascinating analysis of Jonson's irregular verse and of Catiline in John Mulryan's discussion of Jonson's classicism do something towards mitigating the omission of tragedy from a survey that is otherwise fairly comprehensive. Still, on this score, one must prefer Summers and Pebworth's introduction to Jonson as the better book, since it offers a more unified and comprehensive guide to his work.

In her graceful account of Jonson's life in The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson, Sara van den Berg highlights his investment in friendships, interpreting Drummond of Hawthornden's famous notes on his impressions of Ben Jonson as evidence that "the encounter between the two men was an abortive attempt at friendship" (3). She discusses Jonson's poems addressed to fellow professionals, scholars, and members of the Inns of Court, underscoring the dimension of envy -- admitted, denied, overcome or, in the case of his quarrel with Inigo Jones, indulged fully -- present in the poems to other professionals. In the notorious Induction to Poetaster (1601), Envy is trampled underfoot, but over the course of Jonson's career, his own envy had a tendency to resurface, most disastrously for him when "Jones slowly superseded the poet" (6) in Charles I's court and Jonson could not disguise his animosity, despite the repercussions for his own reception at court. Leah S. Marcus' essay returns to this issue. Marcus points out that Jonson "could not resist satirizing Jones and his 'almighty shows' even in works like The Tale of a Thb in which his obsessive vendetta had no artistically credible place" (40).

Marcus' study of Jonson's relations with the courts of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I and Martin Butler's depiction of Jonson as an "urban playwright" (28) represent some of the best work in this volume. Butler argues convincingly that Jonson's "drama is deeply invested in the rhythms, meanings and structures of the metropolis, and his works are imbued with and shaped by urban topographies" (15). Jonson often distanced himself from commercial London, preferring to emphasize his connections to the court, but, as Butler demonstrates, Jonson's plays "may be read as foundational texts in the emergence of a modern urban consciousness" (20-21). Leah Marcus offers a compelling portrait of Jonson's relations to three courts, focusing on his obtrusive self-portraits in his early plays, where Jonson often cast himself as the reprover of the court's follies. She makes an important distinction between Jonson's portrayals of Elizabeth I and James I; in the first case, Jonson's early plays fail to capture the rapport E lizabeth had with her subjects, instead presenting her as aloof, while Jonson's "portrayals of James do just the opposite -- create a warmth and familiarity between monarch and subjects that was frequently missing in reality" (33). At the outset and again at the end of his career, Jonson tried in vain to realize his fantasies of influence; he realized a large measure of his ambitions only through his masques written for James I.

Ian Donaldson, who has done more than anyone to promote Jonson's poetry, contributes a gem of an essay to this collection. He reads Epigrammes (1616) as a volume dedicated to performing "a civic role" (123) through its poems of praise or excoriation, proposing that Jonson's collection has a more ambivalent relation to print culture than has typically been assumed since the groundbreaking work of Richard C. Newton. The heart of Donaldson's essay is his discussion of The Forrest (1616), read through the lens of its metaphoric title and the volume's close ties to the Sidney family. In The Underwood (1640), Donaldson focuses on the poems "about money--about borrowing, lending, giving, receiving, thanking, and needing more" (135-6) that some Jonsonians have found embarrassing, and therefore devalued.

There are other noteworthy contributions to The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson that I will mention more briefly. Robert Evans offers a succinct and useful survey of both seventeenth-century and contemporary reception of Jonson's major comedies. John Mulryan's study of Jonson's classicism is perhaps too diffuse in its focus, but wonderfully witty, and his suggestion that Jonson intends Cicero to be a self-righteous bore in Catiline may be helpful to students of the play. Richard Dutton contributes a lively account of Jonson's satiric plays, making a strong case for the importance of The Devil Is An Ass (1616), and showing that Jonson's investment in writing satire long outlived the "dangerous vogue" (59) of the opening half-decade of the seventeenth century. Richard Harp makes an undefensive case for valuing Jonson's late plays, especially his fragmentary Sad Shepherd (1637). In his comparison of Shakespeare and Jonson's prosody, Russ McDonald returns to the kinds of analysis offered in Jonas Barish's brill iant study of Jonson's style, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (1960). Stephen Orgel broaches the issue of Jonson's knowledge of the visual arts in an interesting essay, and James Riddell looks at the shape, typography, and order of the texts printed in the 1616 Folio.

The Selected Bibliography attached to The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson is selective indeed: it focuses narrowly on publications in The Ben Jonson Journal to the exclusion of much other valuable work in the field.


Two books published in 1999 had their origins in conferences held in England, one at Reading University in January, 1996, on 'Ben Jonson and the Theatre' and the other at the University of Leeds in July, 1995, titled 'Ben Jonson: Text, History, Performance,' on the editing of Jonson's texts. Ben Jonson and Theatre is divided into three major sections, each treating theatrical performance of Jonson's plays from a different angle and written by one of the principal collaborators on the volume. Richard Cave considers the choice of playtexts, stage space, scenery, costuming, acting, and directing in the first section; Brian Woolland presents pedagogical strategies for teaching and workshopping Jonson's plays in theater classes in the second part; Elizabeth Schafer addresses postcolonial and gender issues in staging Jonson's plays in the conclusion. The book assembled from these various interests is uneven -- to no small degree, Woolland and Schafer's sections recapitulate issues already rehearsed in Cave's dynami c overview -- but the collection has real merit in its emphasis on the performativity of Jonson's plays and in the strong case the authors make for reviving the less canonical of his plays on the contemporary stage.

Cave advocates that directors follow the embedded clues in the "innovatory ... layout of the dramatic text upon the page" (25) in Jonson's folio Workes, a layout that can be construed as providing its readers at once with both a "performance text and [a] literary text" (26). The received wisdom about the 1616 Folio has been that Jonson recast his plays as literary works in the magisterial volume, elevating their status to literature at the expense of their status as playtexts that were records of performances. Cave contests that distinction in a revisionist account of the first folio's layout and its implications for performance, paying attention to such features as the printing of "rapid, cross-fire talking" (26) in unbroken lines, or the "adjacent columns of text" in crowd scenes to "indicate simultaneous performance" (27) by the actors and dictate the tempo of Jonson's often frenetic stage action. Staging Jonson's plays requires ensemble acting of the first order and a depth of talent in the acting company . In a fascinating discussion of the demands on ensemble acting created by the staging of complex crowd scenes -- the courtroom trials in Volpone, the theft of Cokes' purse at the fair in Bartholomew Fair (1614), the disrupted banquet in Poetaster (1601), the reading of Tiberius' letter to the senate in Sejanus -- Cave deftly sketches in his suggestions for producible interpretations. As he shows, watching a Jonson play requires "alert not passive spectators" (3) capable of assimilating "a divided focus of action" (34).

Brian Woolland's section also engages with the demands Jonson's plays make on audiences and actors. His account of workshops with two kinds of participants, a sixth-form Theatre Studies class studying Jonson's densely topical The Alchemist for the first time and a group of conference members at Reading University working on scenes from The New Inn (1629), a late Jonson play unfamiliar to many of them, provides a practical guide to teachers who might be intimidated by Jonson's formidable reputation. In a lively account of these workshops that is prefaced by an interview with Sam Mendes on his experience directing The Alchemist for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991, Woolland suggests good approaches to teaching Jonson's drama. He argues, for example, that theater students should use "every punctuation mark as a signifier of speech rhythm" since Jonson's characters are defined by their distinctive "vocal mannerisms" (100). The analysis also highlights the significance of silence in Jonson's plays; in plays t hat seem memorable often for the geysers of pressurized speech that characterize his Truewits, Otters, and Corvinos, the silent or silenced characters, often servants, women, or putative women -- Mute, Celia, Frances, Placentia, Epicoene -- become focal points for dramatic interpretation, particularly when their voices have been appropriated by other characters. Wooland's feminist readings of Epicoene (1609), The Devil is an Ass, and The Magnetic Lady (1632) suggest not only the theatrical viability of these plays in the repertory and the classroom but make a case for Jonson's responsiveness to issues of exploitation, oppression, brutalisation and commodification" (134) in his drama.

Elizabeth Schafer counters the perception of Jonson's misogyny through a historical survey of the "daughters of Ben, women who have produced, directed, adapted and acted in jonson's plays and masques" (154). Her survey includes Lena Ashwell's protofeminist Edwardian productions of the masques, Joan Littlewood's brash direction of the comedies in the 1950s, where Ben Jonson is "constructed as a working-class brilliant subversive" (163), and the contribution of Evelyn Simpson, the often-overlooked third editor of Herford and the Simpsons' Oxford edition. Inevitably, however, given its broad net, the chapter works better as theater history than as an argument refuting the charge of Jonson's misogyny. In an interesting chapter on The New Inn included in this section, Julie Sanders explores the implications of Jonson's patronage relations with women at court and on the casting of women in his masques. As Cave, Schafer and Woolland point out in their prefatory remarks to Ben Jonson and Theatre, "Jonson, more than a ny other English playwright in the Renaissance, had a chance to write for actual women, to have women's bodies onstage during his masques" (Cave et al., 2).

Schafer offers a posrcolonialist gloss on a 1996 production of The Alchemist in Sydney, proposing Jonson's opportunist master Lovewit as a type of the British imperialist "reaping all the profits derived from the hard labour of others" (192). Neil Armfield, the director of The Alchemist, actually trumpets his cultural debts to Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet in the interviews Schafer quotes, suggesting that Armfield's production may have been more influenced by postmodernist trends in contemporary film and drama than by postcolonial theory. As a record of an important production in Australia, starring such talented actors as Geoffrey Rush and Hugo Weaving in the cast, Schafer's chapter is a valuable addition to the kind of production history R. B. Parker writes, but the star-studded production of The Alchemist in Sydney, playing to well-heeled Australian audiences who apparently identified with Lovewit as the aggrieved property owner of a vandalized house (193), militates against the postcolonialist reading Schafer wants to impose on the material.

Re-Presenting Ben Jonson is a collection of a dozen essays, edited by Martin Butler, reflecting new advances in the editing of Ben Jonson's texts. James Knowles' contribution alone makes this an important volume, since it is the first publication of Jonson's Entertainment at Britain's Burse, performed at the opening of the New Exchange in April 11, 1609, but only rediscovered as an untitled manuscript in the State Papers Domestic housed in the Public Record Office in 1997. As Knowles points our, few of Jonson's "civic texts" survive and the recovery of this entertainment opens up new avenues of research into Jonson's patronage connections, the relation between civic and aristocratic entertainments, and his attitudes to the City and Jacobean early capitalism" (114). The text of The Entertainment at Britain's Burse is published with textual notes and commentary explicating its topical allusions in arresting detail; in passing, Knowles alludes to "the superlative editorial work" of Herford and the Simpsons' Oxfo rd edition, and his editorial care with this "lost" text of Ben Jonson's, published here in the old-spelling and textual format chosen for the Oxford edition, seems to emulate the best of his predecessors' work. Knowles' discovery of a new Jonson text is the highlight of this collection and a major contribution to Jonson studies.

The introductory essays by Martin Butler and David Bevington are, by contrast, principally polemic attacks on the Oxford edition. Butler, Bevington, and Ian Donaldson are undertaking a "thoroughly new, practical, modernized" (26) five-volume edition of Jonson's works using modern spelling and punctuation, to be published by Cambridge in conjunction with an electronic database capable of frequent updating that would allow readers to consult an archive of other kinds of material on Jonson. In Bevington's words, "Punctuation needs to be aggressively modernized" in an edition that is itself predicated on the gamble of "aggressive modernization" (32-33). He elaborates: "Jonson took care with his texts, but we do not know that he supervised the minutiae of punctuation. Even if he did, his actual choices should not be literally imposed on a modern and modernized edition. His wishes would obviously be central in determining the rhetorical thrust of any given passage, but those wishes now need to be expressed in terms of late twentieth-century idiom" (33). This rationale reflects an editorial preference in search of an argument to shore up its assertions.

Several of the essays in Re-Presenting Ben Jonson offer counter-evidence to the Cambridge editors' determination to impose modernity on the presentation of Jonson's texts. While David L. Gants' study of the printing of Jonson's 1616 Folio confirms the findings of Johan Gerritsen and other bibliographers who have questioned Herford and the Simpsons' (over)estimation of the degree of involvement Jonson had with supervising the folio Workes, Gant hypothesizes that "Stansby's elongated printing procedure expands the time available for proofing, thus allowing early pulls to be ... corrected off-premises at Jonson's residence," in part explaining "the large number of authorial corrections and revisions in the Folio: he produced more changes because he had much more time to do so" (55). Gant includes in his estimation of those authorial revisions "literary, stylistic or indifferent alteration of punctuation with which a printing-house corrector would not bother" (42). Kevin Donovan points out the extraordinary fact that the Folio version of Jonson's early comedy, Every Man Out of His Humour (1616), "adds over 1700 commas to the play. In an essay that discusses the issues involved in re-editing Jonson's texts with admirable clarity and sense, Donovan has this to say about Jonson's punctuation: "The heavy punctuation, unusually dense even by seventeenth-century standards, suggests the same anxiety over misinterpretation and the same desire to guide and structure interpretation that critics have discerned in Jonson's attraction to printing and his ambivalence toward the stage as the site for presenting his works to an audience" (66). The author who wrote The English Grammar -- not once, but twice, after the fire of 1623 destroyed his first version -- can, in other words, be accused of obsessiveness, of an ingrained unwillingness to part with the control his punctuation tried to exert over his readers, but he cannot be said not to have cared about the minutiae of textual presentation.

Jonson's Cambridge editors want to make Jonson more accessible by bringing him into line with the established practice of favoring modernized spelling and punctuation in editions of Shakespeare's plays. They also want to make Jonson less formidable to contemporary readers who lack significant classical training (and perhaps even more to the point, the daunting classical literacy of his three Oxford editors). As Martin Butler puts it, "One unhappy effect of the Oxford edition has been ... to sustain the idea that Jonson is ... an excessively learned writer, prickly, difficult and remote" (2). Jonson is all of these things, as well as being funny and brilliant and often unexpectedly moving. My point is not that the Oxford edition should be enshrined, but that the jettisoning of old-style punctuation in the Cambridge edition seems misguided, unless this edition is designed solely for the use of students who were once served by the Yale Ben Jonson. It is hard to imagine scholars not preferring texts with old-styl e spelling and punctuation.

The other contributors to Re-Presenting Ben Jonson explore issues involved in editing Jonson, staging his plays, or his reception of and by other writers. Helen Ostovich's valuable essay visualizing the staging of the elaborate crowd scenes in the opening scenes of Every Man Out of His Humour complements the kind of analysis offered in Richard Cave's study. She makes a convincing case for preferring the early quarto version of the play to the folio version for both editing and staging purposes. Lois Potter's account of five recent productions of Jonson's plays at the new Swan Theatre at Stratford, much indebted to The Theatre Record, likewise deserves to be read in conjunction with the interviews with directors (Sam Mendes, for instance) and actors (Simon Russell-Beale, John Nettles) involved in these productions published in Cave, Schafer and Woolland's Ben Jonson and Theatre. Hugh Craig's quantitative analysis of A Tale of a Tub (1633), whose dating has been a subject of considerable controversy, suggests a productive new direction for editorial studies. He concludes that A Tale of a Tub probably represents "old material included and unevenly revised" from the Elizabethan era and "altogether new scenes which may well constitute Jonson's last writing for the stage" (230). Robert C. Evans' essay offers a smorgasbord approach to the collecting of new Jonsonian allusions. Blair Worden's insightful study of Jonson's "dexterous and complex" (158) deployment of his classical sources for his tragedy Catiline as compared to the dramatist's more wholesale reliance on Tacitus for Sejanus expands our understanding of Jonson's reception of both classical and intermediary authors. In a comparable vein, Michael Cordner's chapter on James Sutherland's 1663 comedy The Cheats and its reworking in the figure of the casuist preacher Scruple of Jonson's blunt anti-Puritan satire in his portrait of Zeal of the Land Busy, illuminates Jonson's reception in the Restoration in subtle ways. Drawing on Foucault and contemporary trauma the ory, Joseph F. Loewenstein explores Jonson's avid preoccupation with book-burning in "An Execration Upon Vulcan" (1640), a poem on the destruction of his library and works in progress in the fire of 1623. Loewenstein connects this poem to Poetaster, whose opening scene is a defiant staging of the composition of Ovid's Amores, soon after Marlowe's Ovid translations had been burnt publicly by the authorities. As Loewenstein argues with his customary panache, In this theatrical resurrection of a neoclassical poetry snatched from fire, Jonson has put the Marlovian book on stage" (111). But despite the emphasis he places on Jonson's pyromania, Loewenstein overlooks Author's threat in Poetaster to "damne his long-watch'd labours to the fire; I Things, that were borne, when none but the still night, / And his dumbe candle saw his pinching throes" ("Apologetical Dialogue," lines 211-213), a revealing instance of the urge to burn unpublished manuscripts that situates Jonson as both instigator and victim of the impulse to destroy his own texts. Considered as a collection, the essays in Re-Presenting Ben Jonson are sophisticated, well-argued, and reflective of the caliber of scholarship that Ben Jonson's work continues to attract.


Lesley Mickel revisits the Jonsonian masque in a chronological and comparative study of the rise and decline of the antimasque over some twenty-eight court entertainments. Ben Jonson's Antimasques: A History of Growth and Decline investigates the antimasque as a vehicle for a covert dissent or counsel that subtly destabilizes the masque's celebration of Stuart ideology Mickel excludes visual spectacle and music to focus narrowly on the literary text of the masque form, thus sidestepping the Jonson-Inigo Jones rift over the priority of text or technologically-driven spectacle. While this exclusion seems a questionable move on her part in light of the masque form's commitment to the visual dimension, it allows Mickel to highlight the emergence of the antimasque as an innovation ensuring a critical space for the poet's political and poetic values and for challenging, topical reflection on current issues as opposed to the masque's universalizing and idealising expression of monarchial government" (63-64).

Mickel champions the antimasque, arguing that Jonson invented it to accommodate the satiric impetus in his work that co-exists in a dialectical relationship with the masque's commitment to panegyric. In her most suggestive formulation of this principle, Mickel argues "that the emphatic idealism of masque compels the invocation of its binary opposite" (93): thus, the unsettling juxtaposition in the Epigrammes of satiric and encomiastic poems, in the court entertainments of the contradictory modes of antimasque and masque, or, in the specific reading Mickel is advancing here, the exploration in Jonson's Roman plays of the dark side of the Jacobean masque's celebration of autocratic power. The important insight that panegyric compels its binary opposite, satire, into being, making the invention of the antimasque inevitable, can be derived not only from a close study of Jonson's masques but from the implications of one of the books he owned and annotated carefully, Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589). There Puttenham offers an intriguing myth of the evolution of genres, in which he claims that the original poets, after creating hymns of praise honoring their Gods, next invented the art of satire. The dialectic Puttenham first identifies in his influential Elizabethan treatise lends further historical support to the emphasis Lesley Mickel places on the interdependency of encomia and satire in Jonson's work.

In an important chapter that builds on the work of Roy Strong and Stephen Orgel, Mickel explores Jonson's negotiation in his chivalric masques, Prince Henry's Barriers (1610) and Oberon (1611), of the competing Arthurian myths associated with Henry, Prince of Wales, whose militant Protestantism drew a significant faction of support from courtiers disaffected with the king, and James I, whose cultivation of the role of 'Rex Pacificus' in his foreign affairs led him to embrace a classical image. She makes a convincing case for Jonson's alignment with James in this controversy. As Mickel observes of Jonson's strategy in Barriers, "the masque glosses over the available militant associations with King Arthur, transferring the energy and enthusiasm of militant neo-chivalry to the project of uniting the British Isles and representing the new state as dignified and strong in peace" (76). Other chapters examine the topicality of Jonson's antimasques, in particular his response to the multiplying scandals of the Jacobe an court, and the Bakhtinian dimension of the antimasque, which opposes the grotesque carnivalesque body to the classical body idealized in the masque proper.

Mickel views the antimasque as developing from an embryonic form in the early court entertainments to a position of dominance over the masque in Jonson's court entertainments from Love Restored (1612) to the end of James' reign in 1625. She regards the Caroline court masques as failures that reflect both Jonson's marginality and Charles I's intolerance of dissent or counsel. The language she uses to describe Jonson's late work -- "the collapse of the court masque" (171), "the enfeeblement of the antimasque" (172), "the last, declining phase" (172), "the late masques appeare to be a watery dilution of a richer dish" (9) -- conflates the poet's aging and his failing health with a loss of vitality in his masques. We return, via Mickel's metaphors of literary senescence, to Dryden's curt dismissal of the later works as "dotages."


One strong indication of the successful re-evaluation of Jonson's Caroline drama has been the spate of Revels Plays editions published during the 1980s and 1990s. For many of us, I suspect, the Yale Ben Jonson paperbacks, with their brilliant introductions, served as the entrypoint into Jonson studies -- and, as practical criticism, they have yet to be superseded. The Yale Ben Jonson series, issued between 1962 and 1974, emphasized the major plays of Jonson's middle period: Volpone and The Alchemist, edited by Alvin Kernan; Sejan us, edited by Jonas Barish; Bartholomew Fair, edited by Eugene Waith; and, covering the earlier work, Gabrielle Bernhard Jackson's dazzling account of Jonson's comic plotting in her edition of Every Man in His Humor. The Revels Plays include several of these classics (Volpone, The Alchemist, Every Man in His Humor), but the series has also struck off in other productive directions. An important edition of Jonson's early satire Poetaster, by Tom Cain, appeared in 1995. Jonson's late p lays have been particularly well served by Revels over the past two decades: Michael Hattaway's edition of The New inn was published in 1984, followed in 1988 by Anthony Parr's The Staple of News; The Devil is An Ass and The Magnetic Lady, both edited by Peter Happe, came out in 1996 and 2000. These Revels editions reflect, support, and encourage the growing interest in staging Jonson's less well known works and expand our sense of his canon beyond the familiar terrain of his great middle plays.

The strengths of Happe's edition of The Magnetic Lady reflect those of The Revels Plays series as a whole, whose editors tend to be painstaking and diligent. Happe has consulted forty-five copies of the play, a far larger number than did Herford and the Simpsons, and his account of the text and its printing helps to untangle the Magnetic Lady's publication history. He argues that the text used to set The Magnetic Lady for the 1640 Folio was most likely a Jonson autograph (again, heavy punctuation becomes a strong index of Jonson's controlling hand). Unlike the editors of the Oxford edition, Happe finds few errors "of any great moment" (49) in the printing of the play. This finding is significant since Herford and the Simpsons based their sense of Jonson's creative decline so heavily on the apparent disarray of his texts once Jonson was no longer able to supervise their publication with the care he had taken with his 1616 Folio. For Happe, the textual features of The Magnetic Lady are consistent with Jonson's practice elsewhere, and while he acknowledges the constraints under which Ben Jonson lived his last years -- largely solitary; confined to his living quarters in Westminster after his stroke in 1628, in financial straits -- Happe emphasizes the steady creative output of Jonson's last decade. He writes of Jonson's productivity in those final years: "The great variety of moods and settings in the plays he wrote at this time suggests that he remained highly inventive and was still prepared to innovate, though innovation was now often blended with retrospect" (2).

Happe is at a distinct disadvantage in discussing the performance history of The Magnetic Lady, which was unsuccessful in its first run in 1632, and has, as he points out, never developed a "performance culture" (21) given its very rare stagings. Those interested in production should consult Brian Woolland's remarks in Ben Jonson and Theatre on the undergraduate production of The Magnetic Lady he directed at the University of Reading in 1996. Drawn to the play in part because it lacked a performance history, Woolland made two discoveries of note: Polish, the conniving maid who has engineered the switch of Placentia and Pleasance at birth, is the "comic motor" of the play, nor Compass, and "the theatrical energy of the play lies to a remarkable extent with the women and with the 'below-stairs' class" (Woolland, 133). Woolland's report of his experience producing the play counters Helen Ostovich's reading, which focuses on Jonson's nullification of his women characters' voices and the plot's foiling of their pl ots. Both readings are of course tenable, but the differences between them become possible to articulate only when The Magnetic Lady is produced, allowing audiences to register (differently from readers) how Polish defies all efforts to curtail or censure her speech, or how Placentia's silence in the play might serve to draw our attention to her plight. Jonson's Placentia speaks five lines in the play in her ten scenes, as Woolland points out. Polish, by contrast, cannot be squelched. When she is told to listen to her "betters speak," Polish retorts: "Sir, I will speak, with my good lady's leave,! And speak, and speak again" (1.4.22-4), and she continues to do so for stretches of twenty lines in various scenes. The Magnetic Lady creates much the same divided responses as Epicoene: in each case, the comedy can be interpreted as either an endorsement or an anatomy of early modern misogyny. However one adjudicates the complex gender politics, Brian Woolland's positive experience in directing Jonson's The Magneti c Lady suggests that the absence of a strong performance culture may be a boon to a director who is willing to risk staging a play judged a resounding failure in its own day.

Jonson is still very much present in his late work, in the begging poems of The Under-wood, in the expostulations about Shakespeare's reception in Discoveries, and in the Induction and Chorus scenes of The Magnetic Lady, where Boy, acting as the playwright's mediator, debates Jonson's art with Probee and Damplay. The articulation of Jonson's ideals, in particular his concern with fashioning plots, makes The Magnetic Lady a significant work. Damplay complains during the inter-acts that Jonson's plotting is deficient: "But, there is nothing done in it, or concluded: therefore I say, no Act" (1. Chorus, 5-6), he exclaims after the first act has introduced the characters, but done little to advance the plot. By the end of Act 4, Damplay's frustrations peak, and he grouses that Jonson's plot is overelaborate, tangled, and yet too predictable. Boy does not convert Damplay to the proper admiration of the Jonsonian plot, nor did this effort on the playwright's part to defuse vocal objections to The Magnetic Lady work when the play was first staged to the catcalls of Inigo Jones and others. Jonson's Boy, his principal intermediary with the audience, and Probee, the model spectator he creates as Damplay's foil, direct the audience to a right appreciation of the Jonsonian plot: "a good play is like a skein of silk: which, if you take by the right end, you may wind off at pleasure on the bottom or card of your discourse in a tale or so, how you will" (Induction, 130-34). In his last years Jonson had to rely progressively on intermediaries to influence a world that had in many ways relegated him to the sidelines. Jonson's voice is invoked repeatedly by his fictional surrogate Boy, who quotes the author's dictamen, situates The Magnetic Lady in relation to Jonson's early career as the inventor of humors comedies, and conveys the playwright's promise that this new play will "superplease judicious spectators" (Induction, 117). Boy's defenses of Jonson's dramatic practice between the acts of The Magnetic Lady both deny and affirm the playwright's persistent vulnerability to critical rejection of his work. If there is any retrospective justice here, it may lie in the belated revaluing of Jonson's Caroline work -- in particular, his intricate and innovative plots -- undertaken by Jonsonians in recent years.
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Author:Brady, Jennifer
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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