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Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder plot.

Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot, by Richard Dutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 178. Cloth $95.00.

Richard Dutton is editing Jonson's comedy Volpone for the forthcoming modernized six-volume Cambridge Ben Jonson. In Ben Jonson, Volpone, and the Gunpowder Plot, a by-product of his editing labors, Dutton advances several claims. In keeping with the preference among many Jonson scholars for Jonson's edgier quarto editions over the later versions of the plays published in the monumental first folio of 1616, Dutton favors the 1607 quarto edition of Volpone. He focuses attention on its prefatory poems by John Donne, George Chapman, and Edmund Bolton, among others, and its Epistle addressed to the play's dedicatees, the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Jonson scholars have long recognized the aesthetic significance of his Epistle, in which Jonson articulates his humanist credo and defends by means of classical precedents the harsh judgments meted out to the protagonists of his satiric comedy. Dutton, by contrast, reads the Epistle and several of the prefatory poems as coded political responses to the crisis of the Gunpowder Plot. In Volpone, Dutton argues, Jonson uses a beast fable set in Venice to address "the parlous state of England--rather than Venice--at the time it was written, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, albeit hiding behind the [plausible] deniability which beast fable, of all forms, traditionally affords" (73). Dutton also reads Volpone's biting satire of patronage relations, and its subplot starring the inane English diplomat Sir Politic Would-be, as vehicles for Jonson's political and religious estrangement from the government over its repression of religious minorities.

One of the key assumptions Dutton makes in his study relates to Jonson's Catholicism. Dutton views Jonson's conversion to "Roman Catholicism as an act of symbolic resistance to the overweening state" (25-26) that had branded and imprisoned him in the years immediately prior to the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Jonson was a recusant, with peripheral social ties to some of the plotters. Dutton is right to insist that Jonson responded intensely to the discovery of the Plot; his "protestations of loyalty" in his letter to Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, are, however, discounted by Dutton, who construes them as "prudential gestures" (23). Dutton ignores Jonson's epigrams to Lord Mounteagle and King James, poems that elaborate the government's story of the miraculous discovery of the Plot and act as further confirmation of Jonson's claims in his letter to Cecil. There are good reasons to take Jonson at his word here. The first is the unabashed fervor with which he expresses his loyalty to "his Maiesty, and my Country" and "all Christianity" (1) in his November 7 letter. The second relates to the king's speech to Parliament just two days later, on November 9, where James distinguished the plotters' monstrous treason from the loyalty shown by the majority of English Catholics, who remained in his words "good and faithful Subiects." (2) James's speech cautioned his listeners explicitly and at length against the urge to demonize all Catholics: "I would be sorie that any being innocent of this practise [treason], either domesticall or forraine, should receiue blame or harme for the same. For although it cannot be denied. That it was the onely blinde superstition of their errors in Religion, that led them [the plotters] to this desperate deuice; yet doth it not follow, That all professing that Romish religion were guiltie of the same." (3) In light of the hysteria generated by the Plot's discovery, James's speech distinguishing between the plotters and those Catholics who were loyal to his rule and government was an important intervention in the unfolding crisis. James and his ministers were resolved to prosecute the surviving plotters rigorously, but the king's determination not to persecute "innocent" Catholics suggests a temperate and measured response. Dutton fails to register these more nuanced responses to the Gunpowder Plot, either on the part of the government or among English Catholics. He assumes, without ever proving his case, that Jonson was disingenuous in professing his loyalty to king and country during the Gunpowder crisis and that his conversion to Roman Catholicism was prompted solely by Jonson's defiance of an overbearing government.

The title of Dutton's book is misleading, since he relegates discussion of the Gunpowder Plot itself to a few inconclusive pages in the first chapter. Dutton admits that "I have nothing new to say on these questions, much less anything definitive. Beyond a certain point I am more concerned with what people thought at the time had happened, and the consequences to individuals like Jonson of what was deemed to have happened, than I am in the events themselves" (18-19). This is a curious stance given that Dutton's announced purpose in focusing attention on Jonson's Volpone in relation to the Gunpowder Plot is "to put the play back into that history" (1). Dutton seems not to have consulted Mark Nicholls' Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991). (4) Nicholls' balanced history of the Stuart government's investigation and prosecution of the plotters is based on extensive archival research. Investigating Gunpowder Plot effectively demolishes many of the conspiracy theories that have clung to this notorious instance of early modern terrorism. Among the rumors Nicholls dispels is the speculation that Robert Cecil, James I's controversial minister, stage-managed the Plot as a devious and self-promoting means of advancing his own repressive anti-Catholic policies. Historians have concluded that Cecil's political ambitions, while real, did not reach to his inventing or fomenting the Plot itself, nor was he a religious fanatic bent on persecuting Catholics. In vilifying Robert Cecil and even insinuating that he may have had a hand in the Plot itself, Dutton flies in the face of recent scholarship on the Gunpowder Plot. The credibility of his argument is considerably undermined by his preference for recycling conspiracy theories over attending more scrupulously to new historical research. When Dutton defends his anti-Cecil reading by saying, "I should stress, of course, that the issue here is not whether any of this is true or not, but how things were perceived, in some quarters at least, at the time" (42), it does not inspire confidence, at least not in this quarter.

When we engage in interdisciplinary projects of this kind, we need to be responsible to the disciplines we draw on and from. In undertaking this book. Dutton should have attended more to the facticity of history and the complex mesh of religion and politics in early modern England. His failure to do so ultimately vitiates a project that had real promise and interest, not only to Jonson scholars but to the larger community of readers that Dutton evidently wanted to reach with this book.


(1.) Ben Jonson, "To the most honorable and honour'd Earle of Salisbury," in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), 202.

(2.) King James, "A SPEECH IN THE PARLIAMENT HOVSE," in King James VI and I: Political Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 152.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Mark Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). Nicholls' book was recommended reading for all of us who participated in the workshop held at the Folger Institute on November 4-5, 2005, on the topic, "Early Modern Terrorism? The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its Aftermath."

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Author:Brady, Jennifer
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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