Ben Jonson Unmasked

A study of how Ben Jonson's plays reveal Jonson's changing attitude to his fellow playwrights, the theatre as a medium, and his own role as a dramatist

by Kathleen A. Prendergast

Abstract: Jonson's presence in his own work can be interpreted as his way of expressing his dissatisfaction with theatre as a medium, and also as a means of imposing a measure of authorial control. His presence in his plays was not static: over the course of his career one can observe an increasingly subtle and less easily distinguishable presence. In this shift, we can see a concurrent change in the author's attitudes about his role as a playwright / poet, theatre and its audience, poetry, and his contemporaries. It is a gradual and subtle move from hubris and idealism toward at least the beginnings of a humility more consistent with his own time, and a grudging acceptance of the limits of the medium in which he worked, and his place within the wider context of the English Renaissance theatre.



The demands that Ben Jonson makes upon his audiences, as much as they were resisted in his own time, are often seen as a major strength by modern critics, a characteristic setting him apart from his contemporaries. T. S. Eliot writes, "Jonson behaved as the great creative mind that he was: he created his own world, a world from which his followers, as well as the dramatists who were trying to do something wholly different, are excluded" (78). This expectation of challenge associated with Jonson is reflected in a review by Peter Holland of a modern theatrical production of Jonson's The Alchemist, in which the critic complains that the performance supersedes the author's ideas, failing to give Jonson the author his due place:

The virtuosic vocal display becomes the focus for the audience's attention far more than anything that the character is actually saying. Jonson's words, his teasing suggestion that the audience is to be both Face's jury and his next clients (or gulls) pass unnoticed. The meaning of the language is lost in the focus on the actor's performance....This Alchemist never troubles its audience for a second.

This complaint is not unreasonable, as it is evident, from Jonson's own ambivalent attitude toward theatre expressed overtly or covertly in many of his plays and poems, that he himself felt that ideas superseded a pleasing performance. For example, Leatherhead in Bartholomew Fair worries that Littlewit's "puppet-play" will fail to impress:

All the foul i' the Fair, I mean all the dirt in Smithfield - that's one of Master Littlewit's carwhitchets now - will be thrown at our banner today if the matter does not please the people....Your home-born projects prove ever the best, they are so easy, and familiar. They put too much learning i' their things nowadays; and that, I fear will be the spoil o' this. (V i 3-16)

Implicit in these lines is the playwright's own sense of degradation at having to please the ill-educated mob who will not tolerate plays with "too much learning." He wants to challenge his audiences, a difficult maxim to enforce in a medium which was seen, at least in the milieu in which Jonson wrote, primarily as a form of entertainment and diversion. A playwright who "troubles" his audience too much is causing trouble for himself, as Jonson discovered early in his career. [1]

Jonson's presence in his own work can thus be interpreted as his way of expressing his dissatisfaction with theatre as a medium for his own idea of art, and also as a means of imposing a measure of authorial control on an art form in which control is a tenuous thing and in a time when, as Jeffrey Maston notes, the concept of individual authorship was also tenuous: "...the author is a historical development - an idea that gradually becomes attached to playtexts over the course of the seventeenth century..."(370). This tendency of Jonson's has become as much a part of his legend as his off-stage life, as observed by Bruce Thomas Boehrer in his essay "Epicoene, Charivari, Skimmington" - "Jonson is...famous for obtruding his authorial persona onto the business of his plays..."(17) - and also L.A. Beaurline, who notes that "Jonson's expansive, difficult personality so permeates everything he did that it is possible to find the man in his work at nearly every turn." (317)

However, the following essay will argue that Jonson's presence in his plays was not static: over the course of a thirteen-year period, from Poetaster (1601) to Volpone (1606) to Bartholomew Fair (1614), one can observe, if not a graceful retreat by the author from the "business of his plays," then an increasingly subtle and less easily distinguishable presence: in the later plays the masks or personae he chooses to hide behind are more opaque (and more ironic and/or ambiguous), and an increasing number of characters serve as his mouthpieces. In this shift, we can see a concurrent change in the author's attitudes about his role as a playwright/poet, theatre and its audiences, poetry, and his contemporaries. It is a gradual and subtle move from hubris and idealism (about what his own work could accomplish in his time) toward at least the beginnings of a humility more consistent with his own time, a grudging (and always ambivalent) acceptance of the limits of the medium in which he worked, and his place within the wider context of the English Renaissance theatre.

Bruce Thomas Boehrer (in another essay, "The Poet of Labour") writes of Jonson's proprietary notions of authorship: "I take this complex of attitudes to be Jonson's single most revolutionary contribution to western literary history, leading as it does to the nineteenth and early twentieth century myth of isolated, elevated and autonomous authorial genius" (299). However, I would argue that Jonson became increasingly conscious that this notion was indeed, as Boehrer puts it, a "myth." Looking at the progression of his works over this period, his self-aggrandizement increasingly has a satirical edge, as though as he matured as an artist he became less, not more, satisfied with his work and less assured of his classical ideals. Leo Salingar suggests that in Jonson's work "...deeper needs to commend himself seem to have been at work. In his anger with the 'loathsome' ignorance and 'impudence' of his public, there may have been the spark of a suspicion that his own humanism was out-of date. Worse still, it may have been prompted by the suppressed recognition that his own comedies were not, after all, consistently the best he felt himself to be" (45-46).


Presumably, Salingar is speaking here of Jonson's later plays, because in Poetaster evidence of such self-doubt is as absent as Jonson the author is blatantly present. Here he obtrudes himself onto his work not behind a fictional mask or disguise as in Volpone or Bartholomew Fair, but behind the historical persona of the Roman poet Horace. Before this character is introduced, however, Jonson first takes the opportunity to defend himself in the Prologue against the personified "Envy" - a rather thinly concealed attack on his rival playwrights/detractors - which rails against "...this hated play..."(After the second sounding, 17). The Prologue comes in to answer Envy on behalf of the author:

Here now, put case our author should, once more,
Swear that his play were good; he doth implore,
You would not argue him of arrogance:
How e'er that common spawn of ignorance,
Our fry of writers, may beslime his fame,
And give his action that adulterate name.
Such full-blown vanity he more doth loathe
Than base dejection... (The third sounding, 15-22)

And through the Prologue, Jonson attempts to justify his form of defensive writing:

If any muse why I salute the stage,
An armed Prologue; know, 'tis a dangerous age:
Wherein, who writes had need present his scenes
Fortyfold proof against the conjuring means
Of base detractors and illiterate apes,
That fill up rooms in fair and formal shapes.
(The third sounding, 5-10)

Jonson continues in this critical vein in the first act of the play, in which the young Ovid, a character initially seen as sympathetic and possibly a representation of the author (but later proven not to be) defends his pursuit of the poetic vocation to his father:

...would men learn but to distinguish spirits,
And set true difference 'twixt those jaded wits
That run a broken pace for common hire,
And the high raptures of a happy muse,
Borne on the wings of her immortal thought,
That kicks at earth with a disdainful heel,
And beats at heaven gates with her bright hooves;
They would not then with such distorted faces,
And desperate censures stab at poesy. (I ii 212-220)

He is making a clear distinction between good and bad, or false poetry written for "common hire" (likening it to prostitution) and placing himself firmly in the good category. But this poet is not Jonson's ideal, because in the eyes of Caesar, offended at the frivolous spectacle Ovid and the lesser poets make of the gods and goddesses of Rome (seen as sacrilege: "...oh, impious sight!" IV vi 8 ), Ovid abuses his own gifts:

Are you that first the deities inspired
With skill of their high natures, and their powers,
The first abusers of their useful light;
Profaning thus their dignities, in their forms;
And making them like you, but counterfeits? (IV vi 33-37)

Ovid is not a good poet (although not a distinctly bad one like Crispinus or Demetrius) because he does not serve the interests of gods and kings. Coming from a writer as controversial as Jonson, this could seem a strangely conservative idea, but not if Caesar and company are seen as fictional powers which exemplify Jonson's classical ideals, rather than as portrayals of the political powers of his own time with whom he had a much more complex relationship. Explains Michael McCanles:

Poetaster is a major document in the history of Jonson's understanding and direction of his literary career....In this early stage of his career Jonson already envisions himself as an arbiter of the courts' manners and morals....It is obvious that the dramatic portrait of the Roman emperor embodies Jonson's ideal of a political hierarchy open to appreciating and advancing men of learning and creativity: a portrait of vera nobilitas yearnings almost embarrassing in the details of its wish fulfillment. (198-99)

The poet best able to serve this political hierarchy is not the frivolous Ovid but the practical Horace, to whom poetry is not fun and games but work, and who, when he makes his appearance at the beginning of Act 3, soon becomes the play's most obvious contender for author stand-in. When Crispinus, an equally transparent portrayal of Jonson's dramatic rival John Marston, makes his appearance, any doubts about what Jonson is doing in this play are removed. Bad poets are not just an abstract concept; he has real targets in mind. As Crispinus/Marston bombards him with his coarse verse, Horace/Jonson, confident in his superiority, seeks a discreet escape:

Cri. 'Rich was thy hap, sweet, dainty cap,
There to be placed,
Where thy smooth black, sleek white may smack,
And both be graced."
'White' is there usurped for her brow; her forehead: and then 'sleek' as the parallel to 'smooth,' that went before. A kind of paranomasie, or agnomination: do you conceive, sir?
Hor. Excellent. Troth, sir, I must be abrupt, and leave you.
Cri. Why, what haste hast thou? Pray thee, stay a little: thou shalt not go yet, by Phoebus.
Hor. (Aside) I shall not? What remedy? Fie, how I sweat with suffering! (III i 76-87).

It's a clever device, allowing Jonson to viciously attack his rival through a dignified veneer, and makes for what is by all appearances the one truly comic scene in the play. But Jonson didn't get away with it. Thomas Dekker, another rival playwright satirized by Jonson in Poetaster through the portrayal of an even worse poet, Demetrius, counter-attacked with an alternative view of Horace/Jonson in his play Satiromastix. In this scene showing Horace at work in his study, Dekker portrays him not as a diligent worker and a careful revisor (as Jonson liked to portray himself), but as just another inferior poet for whom writing is an excruciating process due to his lack of talent:

Hor. O me thy Priest inspire.
For I to thee and thine immortall name,
In -- in -- in golden tunes,
For I to thee and thine immortall name,
In -- sacred raptures flowing, flowing, swimming, swimming:
In sacred raptures swimming,
Immortall name, game, dame, tame, lame, lame, lame,
Pux, ha it, shame, proclaime, oh --
In Sacred raptures flowing, will proclaime, not --
O me thy Priest inspyre! (I ii 8-17)

And further on in the play, Dekker attacks Jonson's arrogance, recalling both Jonson's term "adulterate name" in the Prologue to Poetaster and his indirect reference to prostitution:

Hor. The Muses birdes (the Bees) were hiv'd and fed
Us in our cradle, thereby prophecying;
That we to learned ears should sweetly sing,
But to the vulgar and adulterate braine,
Should loath to prostitute our Virgin straine. (Satiromastix, II ii 55-59).

The Horace/Crispinus scene in Poetaster is but one of many instances of the author's own defensive posture. Before Caesar becomes his patron, the underappreciated Horace announces defiantly,

...if to age I destined be,
Or that quick death's black wings environ me;
If rich, or poor; at Rome, or fate command
I shall be banished to some other land;
What hue soever, my whole state shall bear,
I will write satires still, in spite of fear. (III v 95-100).

Jonson could be talking here as much about his troubles with the authorities as his conflicts with other playwrights. But overall, his attempt at self-vindication through the mouthpiece of a classical poet was mocked by his contemporaries, and is seen as offensive by some modern critics. Rosalind Miles writes, "Jonson's decision to introduce himself into this exalted company was hubristic to say the least; and to cast himself in the role of his beloved Horace was vainglorious in the extreme" (57).

Poetaster marks a point in Jonson's career in which he is forced to re-assess the ability of theatre to serve his poetic purposes, a specific agenda which is made clear in Volpone:

He that is said to be able to inform young men to all good disciplines, inflame grown men to all great virtues, keep old men in their best and supreme state, or, as they decline to childhood, recover them to their first strength; that comes forth the interpreter and arbiter of nature, a teacher of things divine no less than human, a master in manners... (Epistle 22-27).

Jonson apparently was temporarily convinced that either he could not meet this maxim or that the public was not worth the effort, as he did not write for a short period after the unsuccessful first production of Poetaster. In the somewhat mis-named Apologetical Dialogue, an epilogue to the play written after it was first performed for the published version and addressed "To the Reader", the Author (shown unmasked this time, as himself) says,

I, that spend half my nights, and all my days,
Here in a cell, to get a dark, pale face,
To come forth worth the ivy, or the bays,
And in this age can hope no other grace --
Leave me. There's something come into my thought
That must, and shall be sung, high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf's black jaw, and the dull ass's hoof. (231-39)

Again, he feels unjustly treated, arguing that the serious efforts he makes at producing poetry "worth the ivy", worthy of praise and fame, entitle him to more respect. Miles writes of this scene,

The aggrieved poet, brooding on his wrongs...framed quite clearly the hope that he could somehow find the way to work on the higher products of poetry which he knew he was capable of at a safe distance from the destructive malice or the crushing stupidity of the public at large (67).


He did not find a way. Jonson's "retirement" after the debacle of Poetaster did not last long, so presumably he retained a sense of the value of theatre and a confidence in his own abilities to suit it to his purposes. Nonetheless, as is evidenced in Volpone, a note of caution begins to temper the confidence, a sense that as an author he may be as susceptible to the errors of the "jaded wits" from whom he distinguished himself in Poetaster. The difference in the way Jonson perceives himself as an author is apparent when we note the similarity between the scene in which Volpone meets the tedious Lady Wouldbe and the scene between Horace and Crispinus noted earlier. In this scene it is obvious that Volpone represents the author as much as the Horace/Jonson connection is obvious in the earlier play; Volpone's lines in particular could be read as a slight re-wording of Horace's. And Volpone/Jonson's contempt for Lady Wouldbe, as her name implies a pretender to poetic grace and knowledge, is just as devastating:

Volpone: The poet
As old in time as Plato, and as knowing,
Says that your highest female grace is silence.
Lady Wouldbe: Which o' your poets? Petrarch?
Or Tasso? Or Dante?
Guarini? Aristo? Aretine?
Cieco di Hadria? I have read them all.
Volpone (aside): Is everything a cause to my destruction?
Lady Wouldbe: I think I ha' two or three of 'em about me.
Volpone (aside): The sun, the sea, will sooner both stand still
Than her eternal tongue! Nothing can scape it. (III iv 77-85)

Lady Wouldbe reveals her ignorance in being unable to distinguish inferior poets from the superior, a fault apparently on almost the same scale as being one of those inferior poets. But as unforgiving as Jonson still is, the nature of the character through which he voices these views in Volpone indicates just how far he has departed from his own poetic ideal, and his righteousness about his own authorial role. This incarnation of Jonson comes much closer to the self-caricature that he carries yet further in Bartholomew Fair. Volpone is no Horace; rather than serving Jonson's professed purposes of poetry, being "...a teacher of things divine no less than human, a master in manners," Volpone uses his poetic gift primarily to manipulate and deceive others. This ability he enjoys for its own sake, quite apart from the fact that it also makes him rich. In this sense he is truly an artist, albeit a twisted one. But Volpone, unlike Horace, is a flawed hero; the author has apparently by this time recognized his own hubris. Volpone's flaw is a refusal to recognize any limitations to his art. He believes that he can win the unwilling Celia over, for example, with his lofty verse (III vii 166-183); when poetry fails, he resorts to extravagant promises notable only for their nauseating excess:

Thy baths shall be the juice of July-flowers,
Spirit of roses, and of violets,
The milk of unicorns, and panthers' breath
Gathered in bags and mixed with Cretan wines.
Our drink shall be prepared gold and amber,
Which we will take until my roof whirl round
With the vertigo; and my dwarf shall dance,
My eunuch sing, my fool make up the antic. (III vii 213-220).

And when promises also fail, Volpone resorts to force. The scene is a devastating process of revelation, or the stripping away of poetic pretensions to reveal the reprobate soul beneath the appealing performer's mask, without which Volpone is nothing:

Fall on me, roof, and bury me in ruin!
Become my grave, that wert my shelter! O!
I am unmasked, unspirited, undone,
Betrayed to beggary, to infamy - (III vii 276-79).

Although Volpone recovers himself and manages to re-mask with the help of Mosca, his recovery is only partial. He has not learned the essential lesson from his first unmasking, that his powers to manipulate and shape his world are limited, both by his own base nature and by his dependence on others. The game he plays is a game of many players and parts; his fault is in losing sight of this fact. The realization starts to dawn on him finally in Act Five:

To make a snare for mine own neck? And run
My head into it wilfully, with laughter!
When I had newly 'scaped, was free and clear!
Out of mere wantonness! (V xi 1-4)

A few lines further, when Volpone begins to suspect that Mosca has betrayed him, he further castigates himself:

I am farther in. These are my fine conceits!
I must be merry, with a mischief to me!
What a vile wretch was I, that could not bear
My fortune soberly; I must ha' my crotchets
And my conundrums! (V xi 13-17)

Self-knowledge has come too late. At the end of the play, when Volpone is sentenced for his crimes, he is virtually silent, saying only "This is called mortifying of a fox" (V xii 125). The implicit suggestion in this lack of protest is that he feels he deserves his punishment, for his arrogance if not for his immorality. Bryant observes:

Volpone, in short, is a presumptuous poet like Ovid in Poetaster and goes the way of all proud fools who acknowledge no master and attempt to make their activity an end in itself....His fault is not in his vitality or his creativity but in his attitude toward these gifts and toward the world from which and on which he works...Volpone is another example of Jonson's poet gone wrong - a perverted artist who can only be made worse if he persists in a failure to recognize his human limitations (64-65)

The "parasite" Mosca, a less appealing character than Volpone, can nonetheless also be seen as representative of the author, or the theatre profession in general. In his soliloquy in Act Three, Mosca makes the philosophical observation: "O! your parasite/ Is a most precious thing, dropped from above....Almost/ All the wise world is little else in nature/ But parasites or sub-parasites" (III i 7-13). The parasitic theatre distracts and amuses its host, the audience, while metaphorically sucking its blood: taking its money, manipulating it, deceiving it, concealing contempt beneath flattery. This whole speech has an air of ironic self-commentary, with Jonson making a very much more cynical distinction between good and bad art than was made in Poetaster:

I mean not those that have your bare town-art....nor those
With their court-dog tricks, that can fawn and fleer,
Make their revenue out of legs and faces,
Echo my lord, and lick away a moth.
But your fine, elegant rascal, that can rise
And stoop, almost together, like an arrow....
And change a visor swifter than a thought,
This is the creature had the art born with him;
Toils not to learn it, but doth practice it
Out of most excellent nature... (III i 14-32)

Gone is Jonson's respect for the laborious aspect of writing, his argument against the criticism that he wrote slowly. [2] Through this ironic mask (or the unapologetic actor celebrating his masks of deception) we see an author with a deep sense of ambivalence toward the medium in which he works, evident also in the Epistle to Volpone:

...the writers of these days are other things: that not only their manners, but their natures, are inverted, and nothing remaining with them the dignity of poet but the abused name, which every scribe usurps; that now, especially in dramatic, or, as they term it, stage poetry, nothing but ribaldry, profanation, blasphemy, all license of offense to God and man is practiced (31-37)

In Volpone Jonson appears to be far more conscious than previously of two fundamental aspects of theatre: first, it is a reductive medium, in which language is reduced and fitted into a framework; what is of poetic merit is not necessarily what serves the drama. And second, it is a manipulative medium. Jonson the idealist is gone. In place, through the mask of Volpone, we see a more conflicted artist who both revels in and is ashamed of his own trickery. The contrast is noted by Bryant:

For those attuned to Jonson's reverence for poetry, creativity, and the human capacity for invention, the effect of Volpone can be devastating indeed; for here human genius, given the reins, ends not in triumph but in perversion and corruption (59)

The audience's discomfort and confusion regarding Jonson's real intentions is not necessarily alleviated by the distancing device of Volpone (or the actor playing him) coming forward at the end to speak of his character in the third person: "...though the fox be punished by the laws,/He yet doth hope there is no suff'ring due..."(v xii 153-154). This device is interpreted by critics in remarkably different ways. W. David Kay remarks of it, "Since we are being asked to judge the performance as a whole and since our delight comes from seeing poetic justice visited on all the characters, including Volpone, our applause will be a mark of appreciation for Jonson's 'true creation, not Volpone's false one"(399). To Alan Fisher, however, the device has more sinister implications: "...if we take what we have been seeing as a spectacle of immorality, this appeal to friendship asks us to lower our standard or accept our complicity..."(82).

It seems more likely that Jonson's intent was closer to the one proposed by Kay, because the device is far from unusual in English Renaissance drama. [3] It can be seen simply as a part of the formal end of every performance, in which all of the performers remove their masks - literal or figurative - and bow to the audience, inviting their applause, indicating closure and a return to reality. However, a potential problem with Kay's interpretation of this device in Volpone is the fact that the title character is too appealing for the audience to be really "delighted" at his harsh punishment.

What this problematic ending to the play seems to highlight, above anything else, is Jonson's own problematic relationship with his audience, which persisted despite the author's own gradual realization of the limits of his art. John Gordon Sweeney III writes:

Jonson's is one theatre...which cherishes the moment of confrontation between author and spectator. His theatre insists that all activity dealing with social man inevitably must face the question of authority and its natural concomitant, conflict. Author and spectator meet to judge one another, and the fictional experience mediates what is a potentially explosive situation. One of Jonson's special aptitudes was recognizing that his authority to judge his spectators resided in his willingness to indulge their judgment of himself (8-9)

But, as Sweeney observes further, Jonson was not always happy with such an equitable relationship between author and audience: "At times, moral and intellectual imperatives are complicated by personal motives; in other instances, the level of aggression seems inconsistent with any 'higher purpose'"(15).

Bartholomew Fair

This tension between author and audience, and between the author's own conflicting ideas about the purposes of theatre, is as evident in the later play Bartholomew Fair as in Volpone; the difference, however, is Jonson's lighter hand and his even more diffuse authorial presence in the play. In Poetaster, the author was represented by a single character; in Volpone, we can see the author reflected in both the title character and, to a lesser extent, in Mosca; in Bartholomew Fair, a number of different characters can be seen as authorial stand-ins at various points in the play, and most of these self-portraits are plainly satirical.

The most obvious of these is Justice Overdo. Despite his profession, in disguising himself Overdo is taking on a role more akin to that of author/player attempting to manipulate, through deceit and trickery, the behaviour and attitudes of others. (Overdo's name in itself could be seen as self-commentary, as Jonson was often accused of literary excess. [4] ) Like Jonson, he is fond of invoking the classical poets to justify his own authority: "...I will sit down at night and say with my friend Ovid, Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira, nec ignis, etc"(II v 61-63). The quote - in translation, "And now I have finished a work, which neither the anger of Jove, nor fire, nor sword, nor devouring time will ever destroy" - echoes Jonson's own hopes for his work. Further on, still in the classical vein, he refers ironically to Leatherhead as "Orpheus among the beasts" (II v 7), but the term could just as easily be applied to himself, and fits Jonson's own conception of himself as an author: an underhanded commentary on the audience whom, like Orpheus the musician/poet, he is trying to "tame" with his art. It is a term at once indicative of his condescension toward his audience and an ironic commentary on the duplicity of his own role.

G.R. Hibbard says in an introduction to Bartholomew Fair, "(Overdo is) like Volpone, like Volpone's dupes, and like the dupes in The Alchemist, a product of Jonson's perception that the last thing a man will abandon is his illusions, and especially his illusions about himself" (xxviii). And in fact, Overdo's illusions fail him, as he is shown in the end to be the one deceived - by Edgeworth, by his wife - rather than the deceiver. And Quarlous, one of the characters he has attempted to dupe, has no hesitation in pointing out to Overdo where his fault lies: "...remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! You have your frailty" (V vi 93-94). This "Orpheus" has failed to charm the beasts. As Volpone is "unmasked" and brought low, so too is Overdo, although his presumption does not hold the same dire consequences.

Other than through the most obvious one of Overdo, the author's voice can be heard through several other characters in the play, all of them either seriously deluded or amoral. The tone of the anti-theatre invective of the Puritan Busy, as much as he is an object of the author's contempt, is often just a few steps removed from the tone of Jonson's own criticisms of theatrical vice in the Epistle to Volpone previously noted. Busy responds to Leatherhead's argument that his play has been approved by the Master of Revels: "The master of Rebels' hand, thou hast - Satan's! Hold thy peace; they scurrility shut up thy mouth; thy profession is damnable..." (V v 16-18). Littlewit, a more direct caricature of authors in general, provides the author with many opportunities to attack both bad art and authorial presumption. For example, Littlewit is unaccountably impressed with Winwife's vulgar similes, and untroubled by the fact that they are in reference to Littlewit's wife:

Winwife: Alas, you ha' the garden where they grow still! A wife here with a strawberry-breath, cherry-lips, apricot-cheeks, and a soft velvet head, like a melicotton.
Littlewit: Good i' faith! -- Now dullness upon me, that I had not that before him, that I should not light on't as well as he! Velvet Head! (I ii 13-18)

Like Jonson, Littlewit sees himself as superior to his colleagues: "A pox o' these pretenders to wit! your Three Cranes, Mitre, and Mermaid men! Not a corn of true salt nor a grain of right mustard amongst them all" (I ii 33-35). Littlewit is also obsessed with seeing the performance of his own work, a proprietary interest no doubt disproportionate to the value of the work itself and the cause of the disasters he and his wife meet with when they enter the fair: "I have an affair i' the fair, Win, a puppet-play of mine own making -- say nothing -- that I writ for the motion-man, which you must see, Win" (I, v, 131-134).

And even the minor characters are given comments reflective of the author's views. When the disaster-prone Cokes refuses to listen to his domineering servant Wasp's counsel because Wasp has "been i' the stocks"(V iv 88), possibly a reference to Jonson himself having been jailed, Wasp replies sarcastically, "Nay, then the date of my authority is out; I must think no longer to reign, my government is at an end. He that will correct another must want fault in himself" (V iv 89-91). Joan Trash attacks Leatherhead as a "parcel-poet and an inginer" (II ii 15) and asks him, "Are you puffed up with the pride of your wares? Your arsedine?" (II ii 17-18). Leatherhead, in preparing the puppet-play for performance, reveals in his discussion with Cokes a condescending (but no doubt realistic) attitude toward the audience:

Cokes: But do you play it according to the printed book? I have read that.
Leatherhead: By no means, sir.
Cokes: No? How then?
Leatherhead: A better way, sir. That is too learned and poetical for our audience. What do they know what Hellespont is? Guilty of true love's blood? Or what Abydos is? Or 'the other Sestos hight'?
Cokes: Th'art i'the right, I do not know myself.
Leatherhead: No, I have entreated Master Littlewit to take a little pains to reduce it to a more familiar strain for our people. (V iii 93-103)

These meta-theatrical elements in Bartholomew Fair have two contradictory effects. On the one had, they are appealing to the audience, as Alan Fisher notes: "Bartholomew Fair is (Jonson's) friendliest play, because he seems to satirize not only folly but authority like his own..."(82-83). But the self-satire does not entirely obscure the play's underhanded commentary on its audience's ignorance. For example, in the play's Induction, which Fisher says "treats its playhouse audiences with open contempt"(83), the Book-Holder (another stand-in for the author) says of the play about to be presented, "...the author hath writ it just to his meridian, and the scale of the grounded judgements here, his playfellows in wit" (Induction, 53-55). The author has condescended (like the fictional collaborators Leatherhead and Littlewit) to keep his play at a level which the audience can understand. The Scrivener announces further on:

In which time the author promiseth to present them, by us, with a new sufficient play called Bartholmew Fair, merry, and as full of noise as sport, made to delight all, and to offend none -- provided they have either the wit or the honesty to think well of themselves. (Induction, 77-81).

These are hardly "friendly" words, and they reveal the flip side of Jonson's generous spirit, this compulsion (never fully overcome) to put himself above those whom his business is to entertain: an attitude at odds with the essential humility demanded by the theatrical medium. Says Fisher, "On these views Jonson's wit retains its hostility and his audiences must retain their discomfort" (83).


As a playwright distinctive in his ability to make his audience feel "discomfort," Jonson was equally adept at pleasing his audience, and the enduring appeal of the latter two plays discussed indicates that he was enough of a pragmatist to realize that he had to give at least equal weight to the pleasing and the troubling elements of his plays. And he was in many ways a creature of his time, as much as his superior education set him apart from his audience and most of his colleagues: for example, the implicit misogyny and the obsession with cuckoldry in Bartholomew Fair (ironically, characteristics as likely to offend modern audiences as to please contemporary ones) shows that he was familiar with the common concerns and prejudices of his audience, and had no hesitation in exploiting them for the purposes of comedy. Observes Erin Roland-Leone:

There are many things that Ben Jonson does not hold sacred in this play: legal fanaticism, Puritanism, relationships, merchandising, women. The crux of the issue, though, is that whatever else may come and go, women will always be women. To make indictments against an entire gender...seems to contradict Jonson's supposed humanism. However, this also puts him in the mainstream regarding the problem of women (14)

With such obviously mainstream ideas, the question needs to be raised as to whether Jonson really was a man apart from his contemporaries, and whether, indeed, he was ever really secure in such a notion of himself. Certainly, the defensive and desperate tone of many of his responses to his "base detractors", and his increasing tendency to cut himself down to size via his fictional counterparts, suggest that he was not secure. His obsession with authorial control notwithstanding, Jonson must have been cognizant of the theatrical medium's resistance to control by a single author: theatre is collaborative in nature, and the author of a play essentially relinquishes control and/or ownership of his work when he hands it over for production. Boehrer comments on this characteristic of theatre:

Himself a product of authorial labour, the author becomes one moving fiction among a host of others; moreover, just as the others - Volpone, Subtle, Brainworm, and so on - nonetheless remain subject to subsequent refictionalization through the media of performance, reading, literary history, etc., so does Jonson, too. His work - even his own name - becomes appropriable by others, and thus it resists Jonson's own insistence upon the determinacy of authorial labour, essence, and property (305-306)

It has been the argument of this essay, however,that Jonson, at least from Volpone onward, was fully conscious of the essential "fiction" of his authorship, as much as he resisted the idea and incorporated the resultant tension into his plays. His awareness of his ultimate dependence on the audience can be seen in so simple and complex a gesture as his ending of Volpone: he can ask the audience to "clap their hands," but he cannot insist on it. The audience can always choose not to applaud, or alternately (and as they frequently did) throw at the stage "All the foul i' the Fair...all the dirt in Smithfield." Art, for all its lofty purposes, happens on the ground, and in Jonson's "dangerous age" it is neither a clean nor safe business. Any serious artist must be prepared for the "dirt" - of which, justly or unjustly, Jonson received more than his share - along with the praise.


1. I am referring here to Jonson's conflict with the authorities and imprisonment resulting from the presumed slander in his collaborative plays The Isle of Dogs (1597) and Eastward Ho! (1604), the threatened prosecution of Jonson by the people attacked in Poetaster, and the commercial failures of Poetaster and Sejanus. (Hibbard, xii-xiii).

2. Jonson defends himself from the criticism that he wrote slowly at the beginning of Volpone:

This we were bid to credit from our poet,
Whose true scope, if you would know it,
In all his poems still hath been this measure:
To mix profit with your pleasure;
And not as some, whose throats their envy failing,
Cry hoarsely, "all he writes is railing,"
And when his plays come forth, think they can flout them,
With saying, "He was a year about them."
(Prologue 5-12)

He also comments on the need for a serious writer to revise constantly in his poem, "To the Memory Of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare: and What He Hath Left Us:"

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. And, that he,
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses' anvil: turn the same,
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel, he may gain a scorn,
For a good Poet's made, as well as born.

3. As an example of this device, Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream has the actor portraying Puck step partly out of character to address the audience at the end of the play, essentially to beg
their indulgence:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend. (V i 412-419).

4. Re. Jonson's tendency to overwrite: G.R. Hibbard writes of the opening of Jonson's Sejanus in 1603, "Still underrated by many critics, this is, in fact, one of the greatest political plays of the time; but its massive achievement did not save it from the wrath of the groundlings who could not tolerate its long speeches." (xiii). Anthony Burgess writes, "When The Poetaster or His Arraignment was first performed by the boys at the Blackfriars, it impressed more with its smell of the lamp than by the sting of its satire. Ben shows off his learning in speeches of great length (one can hear those children crying as the lines were beaten into them...)" (176).

Works Cited
Beaurline, L.A. "Moralists, Scoundrels and Ninnies." Modern Language Quarterly 46.3 (1985): 316-325.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Ben Jonson's Volpone, or The Fox. New Haven: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. "Epicoene, Charivari, Skimmington." English Studies 75.1 (1994): 17-33.
___. "The Poet of Labour: Authorship and Property in Ben Jonson." Philological Quarterly 72.3 (1993): 289-312.
Burgess, Anthony. Shakespeare. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970.
Cox, John D. and Kastan, David Scott, eds. A New History of Early English Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Dekker, Thomas. Satiromastix. The Dramatic Works, Volume I. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
Eliot, T.S. Essays on Elizabethan Drama. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1932.
Fisher, Alan. "Jonson's Funnybone." Studies in Philology 94.1 (1997) 59-84.
Hibbard, G.R. "Introduction." Bartholmew Fair. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1977. xi-xxxii.
Holland, Peter. "A cheater and his punk brought low." Times Literary Supplement. 25 Oct. 1996: 20.
Jonson, Ben. Bartholmew Fair. Ed. G. R. Hibbard. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1977.
___. Poetaster. Complete Plays Volume II. Ed. G.A. Wilkes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. 125-228.
___. "To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us." Ben Jonson's Literary Criticism. Ed. James D. Redwine, Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. 165-167
___. Volpone. Ed. Alvin B. Kernan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.
Kay, W. David. "Classicism and complexity in Ben Jonson's art." Modern Language Quarterly 43.4 (1982): 395-403.
Maston, Jeffrey. "Playwriting: Authorship and Collaboration." Cox and Kastan 357-382.
McCanles, Michael. Jonsonian Discriminations: The Humanist Poet and the Praise of True Nobility. Toronto: U of T Press, 1992.
Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Roland-Leone, Erin. "Jonson's Vessels Runneth Over: A Look at the Ladies of Bartholomew Fair." English Language Notes 33.3 (1995): 12-14.
Salingar, Leo. "Comic Form in Ben Jonson: Volpone and the Philosopher's Stone." Bloom 45-66.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Complete Works. Ed. Peter Alexander. London: Wm. Collins & Sons Co. Ltd., 1978. 198-222.
Sweeney, John Gordon Sweeney III. Jonson and the Psychology of Public Theatre: To Coin the Spirit, Spend the Soul. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

© May 2001, by Kathleen A. Prendergast
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