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Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation.

IAN DONALDSON. Pp. x+240. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. [pounds]35.

This thoughtful and sensitive book is a series of individual essays, some of which have appeared previously. They are loosely connected by a number of preoccupations, chief of which is a concern that literature and biography should be seen as interrelated, and Donaldson proceeds to demonstrate that the latter has much to tell us in the interpretation of Jonson's works. The approach is, however, properly cautious as Jonson, for all his use of a self as a material element in his writing, is concomitantly very reticent about many things, quite apart from whether the self he presents and manipulates is fact or fiction. The resulting investigations by Donaldson are thus well directed, as well as scrupulous in their refusal to jump to conclusions. In the end this approach proves very informative and gives rise to a number of important themes about both the biography and the writings. These may be grouped around character, Jonson's attitude to his work and its reputation, and his use of place and time.

Jonson's view of the self revolved round a circular notion which is epitomized in his impresa, the broken compass. The circle itself implied completeness, but the break suggested that there was always something incomplete. Donaldson proposes the idea that the self was a deliberate gathering of elements (derived from Epigrams 98) which could include emulation, and a process of will which enabled the self to be constructed. This would also involve self-satire, and it is plain that Jonson follows Chaucer in presenting a limited and comic self in his work which is manifestly both a construct and incomplete. (Chaucer does not appear in the index, which suggests that Donaldson might have given more attention to his influence.)

Whatever the problems of his place in his own age, Jonson thought that history would vindicate his work. Donaldson here investigates the development of the 'rivalry' with Shakespeare, noting that Jonson himself was partly responsible for some of its earliest formulations. He points to the contribution of Dryden, who set the tone of much that was to come by the attribution of Art to Jonson and Nature to Shakespeare. He might have added that Dryden was emphatically responsible for the stigmatization of Jonson's later plays as 'dotages', a distinctly destructive contribution to the development of the Jonson canon. Though Donaldson himself does occasionally mention some of the uncanonical plays, he follows the fashion of concentrating upon The Alchemist and Volpone. Nevertheless, the identification of Dryden's position is valuable here.

The title essay suggests that the house had for Jonson an importance symbolic of the substance of the plays. Concentrating upon the room of Face's plotting, Donaldson shows that it was a magic place in which the hopes and fantasies of the characters could be brought to life. Paradoxically Jonson was most at home in the theatre, and this is emphasized by the tendency for errant and failed characters to be sent home. Such ideas, which can be substantiated from the texts, illustrate the imaginative quality of Donaldson's argument, always conscious of the apparent contradictions in Jonson's thinking.

While the consideration of The Alchemist concentrates upon stage space, that of Volpone is primarily concerned with Jonson's manipulation of time. This is perceived as essential to Jonson's plot techniques. One of the most useful of Donaldson's discussions is that about the way Jonson controls the twin processes of concealing and revealing. Once again there is a paradoxical element here, for the revelation of the later parts of the plots often arises from a labyrinthine elaboration which is also bewildering.

In further studies, Donaldson addresses the historicist debate surrounding Jonson's work, and the complex localization of the 'Charis' poems. For the former he makes a case for 'adventitious topicality', suggesting that Jonson included enough real events to make his disclaimer about 'picklocks' only a partial truth. For 'Charis' Donaldson proposes that there is an amorous game within the story which reflects a puzzling relationship between Art and Life.

The items noted here form part of a rich enquiry into Jonson's work. Though the emphasis is largely biographical there is a strong interest in the development of a methodology of biography in the face of such a complex subject. The complexity extends through a very long working life, and encompasses a number of important mysteries, developments, and changes, including the period when Jonson was a Catholic. This book encourages revaluation of Jonson as man and author, and it does it in ways which are both intriguing and enjoyable.

PETER HAPPE University of Southampton
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Author:Happe, Peter
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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