The other great Elizabethan dramatists were famous for tragedy, and it was only Ben Jonson who wrote comedies that have lasted. When I say lasted, I should note that very little of the work of these dramatists, except for Shakespeare, is now performed to any appreciable extent: Marlowe on occasion, perhaps one or other of Webster’s great plays, and one or two of Jonson’s.
This is understandable, but I would argue that there is at least one play of Jonson’s that is well worth both seeing and reading. This is Volpone, with its fantastic beginning, which sets the tone for a more thorough exploration of greed than in any other literary work; and also of deceit in the pursuit of greed –
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:
Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint.
[MOSCA WITHDRAWS THE CURTAIN, AND DISCOVERS PILES OF GOLD,
PLATE, JEWELS, ETC.]
Hail the world’s soul, and mine! more glad than is
The teeming earth to see the long’d-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoards,
Shew’st like a flame by night; or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the centre. O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relick
Of sacred treasure, in this blessed room.
Well did wise poets, by thy glorious name,
Title that age which they would have the best;
Thou being the best of things: and far transcending
All style of joy, in children, parents, friends,
Or any other waking dream on earth:
Volpone is the fox, and his proposed victims also have animal names in accordance with their natures. So we have Voltore (the Vulture) – a lawyer, Corbaccio (the Raven) – an avaricious old miser and Corvino (the Carrion Crow) – a merchant. And we also have Volpone’s sidekick, Mosca, the fly, who is the most interesting character in the play apart from his master. The manner in which Jonson shows the variations in his attitude to Volpone and to his stratagems is masterly.
In addition to what might be termed the main plot, Jonson also introduces a sub-plot with an energy of its own, that of the English traveler, Sir Politick-would-be and his talkative wife. The different tone of this plot is matched by the language in which it is presented. Sir Politick’s opening speech, with its bombast that collapses into the ‘peculiar humour’ of his wife, is a brilliant example of the empty rhetoric associated with so many politicians –
Sir, to a wise man, all the world’s his soil:It is not Italy, nor France, nor Europe,That must bound me, if my fates call me forth.Yet, I protest, it is no salt desireOf seeing countries, shifting a religion,Nor any disaffection to the stateWhere I was bred, and unto which I oweMy dearest plots, hath brought me out; much less,That idle, antique, stale, gray-headed projectOf knowing men’s minds, and manners, with Ulysses!But a peculiar humour of my wife’sLaid for this height of Venice, to observe,To quote, to learn the language, and so forth—
Apart from Volpone, Jonson wrote two other comedies that are still occasionally performed, Every Man in his Humour and The Alchemist. The latter has an intricate plot, but neither characters nor plot serve to make it memorable. And while Every Man does have some entertaining lines, and its farce can be quite entertaining, I suspect that, were it not for Volpone, Jonson would have gone the way of other Elizabethan dramatists.
I should however perhaps note here that Jonson also wrote tragedies and, though neither Sejanus nor Catiline is of great interest, I find instructive the fact that he chose these two characters, off centre as it were in Roman history but nevertheless full of potential that was never realized. Catiline was an aristocrat who tried to organize a rebellion against the establishment, and was immortalized in the series of attacks on him that are amongst the most powerful speeches of the comparatively low born Cicero, who became a pillar of the establishment. And Sejanus was the lover of the daughter of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, whose premature plots led to his execution, which in turn meant that Tiberius was succeeded by his mad great-nephew Caligula. The play is not really memorable, but it does have some striking lines as when the subservience under the empire is contrasted with the bravery of those who fought to preserve the Roman Republic
The men are not the same: ’tis we are base,Poor, and degenerate from the exalted strainOf our great fathers. Where is now the soulOf god-like Cato? he, that durst be good,When Caesar durst be evil; and had power,As not to live his slave, to die his master?Or where’s the constant Brutus, that being proof Against all charm of benefits, did strike So brave a blow into the monster’s heart That sought unkindly to captive his country? O, they are fled the light! Those mighty spirits Lie raked up with their ashes in their urns, And not a spark of their eternal fire Glows in a present bosom. All’s but blaze,Flashes and smoke, wherewith we labour so,There’s nothing Roman in us; nothing good,Gallant, or great: ’tis true that Cordus says,“Brave Cassius was the last of all that race.”
In addition to these efforts, Jonson also had another string to his bow, which perhaps helped his reputation in contrast to that of the many now virtually forgotten dramatists. Some of his poetry has lasted. One memorable piece though derives its popularity mainly because it is about Shakespeare, the first recognition in verse of his genius
Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give……
He was not of an age but for all time!
And all the Muses still were in their prime,
When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
Nature herself was proud of his designs
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please,
But antiquated and deserted lie,
As they were not of Nature’s family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion;
In addition there is the lyric poem To Celia, made the more memorable perhaps by its delightful musical setting –
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
Jonson also wrote another Celia poem, which is much less romantic. It appeared in Volpone, as part of that rascal’s effort to seduce the wife of Corvino, an effort aided and abetted by the latter who thought it would help him to become Volpone’s heir. The poem itself however rises above its context as an early example of the ‘Carpe Diem’ philosophy, that we should enjoy ourselves while we can, since the pleasures of life are so short. It thus anticipates the most famous example of the genre, Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, but is emphatically different in that it does not talk about love. The focus here is on ‘the sports of love’ and the reason not to indulge in these has nothing to do with morality but rather with the fear of being found out.
Come, my Celia, let us prove,
While we can, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever;
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set may rise again;
But if once we lose this light,
’Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumor are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies,
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removèd by our wile?
’Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal;
But the sweet thefts to reveal,
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.