Guide Literature and Drama: with special reference to Shakespeare and his contemporaries

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It satirised both John Marston , who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness in Histriomastix , and Thomas Dekker. Jonson attacked the two poets again in Poetaster Dekker responded with Satiromastix , subtitled "the untrussing of the humorous poet".

This " War of the Theatres " appears to have ended with reconciliation on all sides. Jonson collaborated with Dekker on a pageant welcoming James I to England in although Drummond reports that Jonson called Dekker a rogue. Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson and the two collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho , a play whose anti-Scottish sentiment briefly landed both Jonson and Chapman in jail. At the beginning of the English reign of James VI and I in Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort [3] Anne of Denmark.

In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney daughter of Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson's most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst. That same year he was questioned by the Privy Council about Sejanus , a politically themed play about corruption in the Roman Empire. He was again in trouble for topical allusions in a play, now lost, in which he took part. Shortly after his release from a brief spell of imprisonment imposed to mark the authorities' displeasure at the work, in the second week of October , he was present at a supper party attended by most of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

After the plot's discovery he appears to have avoided further imprisonment; he volunteered what he knew of the affair to the investigator Robert Cecil and the Privy Council.

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Father Thomas Wright, who heard Fawkes's confession, was known to Jonson from prison in and Cecil may have directed him to bring the priest before the council, as a witness. At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career, writing masques for James's court. The Satyr and The Masque of Blackness are two of about two dozen masques which Jonson wrote for James or for Queen Anne, some of them performed at Apethorpe Palace when the King was in residence.

The Masque of Blackness was praised by Algernon Charles Swinburne as the consummate example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing and spectacle. On many of these projects he collaborated, not always peacefully, with designer Inigo Jones. Perhaps partly as a result of this new career, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theatres for a decade. He later told Drummond that he had made less than two hundred pounds on all his plays together. This sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works that year.

See: Ben Jonson folios. For the most part he followed the great north road, and was treated to lavish and enthusiastic welcomes in both towns and country houses. Drummond undertook to record as much of Jonson's conversation as he could in his diary, and thus recorded aspects of Jonson's personality that would otherwise have been less clearly seen. Jonson delivers his opinions, in Drummond's terse reporting, in an expansive and even magisterial mood. Drummond noted he was "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others". The period between and may be viewed as Jonson's heyday.

By he had produced all the plays on which his present reputation as a dramatist is based, including the tragedy Catiline acted and printed , which achieved limited success [3] and the comedies Volpone acted and printed in , Epicoene, or the Silent Woman , The Alchemist , Bartholomew Fair and The Devil Is an Ass Of Epicoene , Jonson told Drummond of a satirical verse which reported that the play's subtitle was appropriate, since its audience had refused to applaud the play i.

Yet Epicoene , along with Bartholomew Fair and to a lesser extent The Devil is an Ass have in modern times achieved a certain degree of recognition. While his life during this period was apparently more settled than it had been in the s, his financial security was still not assured. Jonson recounted that his father had been a prosperous Protestant landowner until the reign of " Bloody Mary " and had suffered imprisonment and the forfeiture of his wealth during that monarch's attempt to restore England to Catholicism. On Elizabeth 's accession he was freed and was able to travel to London to become a clergyman.

Jonson's elementary education was in a small church school attached to St Martin-in-the-Fields parish, and at the age of about seven he secured a place at Westminster School , then part of Westminster Abbey. Notwithstanding this emphatically Protestant grounding, Jonson maintained an interest in Catholic doctrine throughout his adult life and, at a particularly perilous time while a religious war with Spain was widely expected and persecution of Catholics was intensifying, he converted to the faith.

Jonson's biographer Ian Donaldson is among those who suggest that the conversion was instigated by Father Thomas Wright, a Jesuit priest who had resigned from the order over his acceptance of Queen Elizabeth's right to rule in England.

William Shakespeare

Conviction, and certainly not expedience alone, sustained Jonson's faith during the troublesome twelve years he remained a Catholic. His stance received attention beyond the low-level intolerance to which most followers of that faith were exposed. The first draft of his play Sejanus was banned for " popery ", and did not re-appear until some offending passages were cut.

His habit was to slip outside during the sacrament, a common routine at the time—indeed it was one followed by the royal consort, Queen Anne , herself—to show political loyalty while not offending the conscience. In May Henry IV of France was assassinated, purportedly in the name of the Pope; he had been a Catholic monarch respected in England for tolerance towards Protestants, and his murder seems to have been the immediate cause of Jonson's decision to rejoin the Church of England. Jonson's productivity began to decline in the s, but he remained well known.

However, a series of setbacks drained his strength and damaged his reputation. He resumed writing regular plays in the s, but these are not considered among his best. They are of significant interest, however, for their portrayal of Charles I 's England. The Staple of News , for example, offers a remarkable look at the earliest stage of English journalism. The lukewarm reception given that play was, however, nothing compared to the dismal failure of The New Inn ; the cold reception given this play prompted Jonson to write a poem condemning his audience the Ode to Myself , which in turn prompted Thomas Carew , one of the "Tribe of Ben," to respond in a poem that asks Jonson to recognise his own decline.

The principal factor in Jonson's partial eclipse was, however, the death of James and the accession of King Charles I in Jonson felt neglected by the new court. A decisive quarrel with Jones harmed his career as a writer of court masques, although he continued to entertain the court on an irregular basis.

Despite the strokes that he suffered in the s, Jonson continued to write. At his death in he seems to have been working on another play, The Sad Shepherd. Though only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: a move into pastoral drama.

During the early s he also conducted a correspondence with James Howell , who warned him about disfavour at court in the wake of his dispute with Jones. Jonson died on or around 16 August , and his funeral was held the next day. It was attended by 'all or the greatest part of the nobility then in town'. Another theory suggests that the tribute came from William Davenant , Jonson's successor as Poet Laureate and card-playing companion of Young , as the same phrase appears on Davenant's nearby gravestone, but essayist Leigh Hunt contends that Davenant's wording represented no more than Young's coinage, cheaply re-used.

It has been claimed that the inscription could be read "Orare Ben Jonson" pray for Ben Jonson , possibly in an allusion to Jonson's acceptance of Catholic doctrine during his lifetime although he had returned to the Church of England but the carving shows a distinct space between "O" and "rare". It includes a portrait medallion and the same inscription as on the gravestone.

It seems Jonson was to have had a monument erected by subscription soon after his death but the English Civil War intervened. Apart from two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline , that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences, Jonson's work for the public theatres was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for boy players , present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies.

Already in the plays which were his salvos in the Poet's War, he displays the keen eye for absurdity and hypocrisy that marks his best-known plays; in these early efforts, however, plot mostly takes second place to variety of incident and comic set-pieces. They are, also, notably ill-tempered. Thomas Davies called Poetaster "a contemptible mixture of the serio-comic, where the names of Augustus Caesar , Maecenas , Virgil , Horace , Ovid and Tibullus , are all sacrificed upon the altar of private resentment".

Another early comedy in a different vein, The Case is Altered , is markedly similar to Shakespeare's romantic comedies in its foreign setting, emphasis on genial wit and love-plot. Henslowe's diary indicates that Jonson had a hand in numerous other plays, including many in genres such as English history with which he is not otherwise associated. The comedies of his middle career, from Eastward Hoe to The Devil Is an Ass are for the most part city comedy , with a London setting, themes of trickery and money, and a distinct moral ambiguity, despite Jonson's professed aim in the Prologue to Volpone to "mix profit with your pleasure".

His late plays or " dotages ", particularly The Magnetic Lady and The Sad Shepherd , exhibit signs of an accommodation with the romantic tendencies of Elizabethan comedy. Within this general progression, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognisable. He announces his programme in the prologue to the folio version of Every Man in His Humour : he promises to represent "deeds, and language, such as men do use".

He planned to write comedies that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory—or rather, since all but the loosest English comedies could claim some descent from Plautus and Terence , he intended to apply those premises with rigour. He set his plays in contemporary settings, peopled them with recognisable types, and set them to actions that, if not strictly realistic, involved everyday motives such as greed and jealousy. In accordance with the temper of his age, he was often so broad in his characterisation that many of his most famous scenes border on the farcical as William Congreve , for example, judged Epicoene.

Literature And Drama With Special Reference To Shakespeare And His Contemporaries

He was more diligent in adhering to the classical unities than many of his peers—although as Margaret Cavendish noted, the unity of action in the major comedies was rather compromised by Jonson's abundance of incident. To this classical model Jonson applied the two features of his style which save his classical imitations from mere pedantry: the vividness with which he depicted the lives of his characters, and the intricacy of his plots. Coleridge, for instance, claimed that The Alchemist had one of the three most perfect plots in literature.

Jonson's poetry, like his drama, is informed by his classical learning. Some of his better-known poems are close translations of Greek or Roman models; all display the careful attention to form and style that often came naturally to those trained in classics in the humanist manner.

Jonson largely avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that had consumed Elizabethan classicists such as Thomas Campion and Gabriel Harvey.

Ben Jonson - Wikipedia

Accepting both rhyme and stress, Jonson used them to mimic the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint and precision. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers and spies abound. Although it is included among the epigrams, " On My First Sonne " is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, intensely personal and deeply felt, typifies a genre that would come to be called "lyric poetry.

A few other so-called epigrams share this quality. Jonson's poems of "The Forest" also appeared in the first folio. Underwood , published in the expanded folio of , is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains A Celebration of Charis , Jonson's most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth ; the Execration against Vulcan and others. The volume also contains three elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne one of them appeared in Donne's posthumous collected poems.


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There are many legends about Jonson's rivalry with Shakespeare , some of which may be true. Drummond also reported Jonson as saying that Shakespeare "wanted art" i. Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, the comments fit well with Jonson's well-known theories about literature. In "De Shakespeare Nostrat" in Timber , which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more conciliatory comment.

He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted i. His own claimed response was "Would he had blotted a thousand! Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern ; Fuller imagines conversations in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the two men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson's references to him but because Shakespeare's company produced a number of Jonson's plays, at least two of which Every Man in His Humour and Sejanus His Fall Shakespeare certainly acted in.

However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated. Jonson's most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the second of the two poems that he contributed to the prefatory verse that opens Shakespeare's First Folio. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us" , did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine, and lesse Greeke", [49] had a natural genius.

The poem has traditionally been thought to exemplify the contrast which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and sceptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote. But the poem itself qualifies this view:. Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but others see it as a heartfelt tribute to the "Sweet Swan of Avon", the "Soul of the Age! Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous for he has been described as 'One of the most vigorous minds that ever added to the strength of English literature'.

John Aubrey wrote of Jonson in " Brief Lives. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson's type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but overall he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein. In , after more than two decades of research, Cambridge University Press published the first new edition of Jonson's complete works for 60 years.

Bentley notes in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared , Jonson's reputation was in some respects equal to Shakespeare's in the 17th century. After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II , Jonson's work, along with Shakespeare's and Fletcher 's, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory.

It was not until after that Shakespeare's plays ordinarily in heavily revised forms were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the 18th century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasise the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber , and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies.

Elizabethan theater: Shakespeare and The Globe

For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson representing art or craft with Shakespeare representing nature, or untutored genius has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to have initiated this interpretation in the second folio, and Samuel Butler drew the same comparison in his commonplace book later in the century. At the Restoration, this sensed difference became a kind of critical dogma. John Dryden offered a more common assessment in the "Essay of Dramatic Poesie," in which his Avatar Neander compares Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil : the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice.

But "artifice" was in the 17th century almost synonymous with "art"; Jonson, for instance, used "artificer" as a synonym for "artist" Discoveries, Nicholas Rowe , to whom may be traced the legend that Jonson owed the production of Every Man in his Humour to Shakespeare's intercession, likewise attributed Jonson's excellence to learning, which did not raise him quite to the level of genius.

A consensus formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with any accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life. But there were also more negative spins on Jonson's learned art; for instance, in the s, Edward Young casually remarked on the way in which Jonson's learning worked, like Samson's strength, to his own detriment.

Earlier, Aphra Behn , writing in defence of female playwrights, had pointed to Jonson as a writer whose learning did not make him popular; unsurprisingly, she compares him unfavourably to Shakespeare. Particularly in the tragedies, with their lengthy speeches abstracted from Sallust and Cicero , Augustan critics saw a writer whose learning had swamped his aesthetic judgment.

In this period, Alexander Pope is exceptional in that he noted the tendency to exaggeration in these competing critical portraits: "It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Johnson had much the most learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both. Though his stature declined during the 18th century, Jonson was still read and commented on throughout the century, generally in the kind of comparative and dismissive terms just described.

Shortly before the Romantic revolution, Edward Capell offered an almost unqualified rejection of Jonson as a dramatic poet, who he writes "has very poor pretensions to the high place he holds among the English Bards, as there is no original manner to distinguish him and the tedious sameness visible in his plots indicates a defect of Genius. The romantic revolution in criticism brought about an overall decline in the critical estimation of Jonson. Hazlitt refers dismissively to Jonson's "laborious caution.

The early 19th century was the great age for recovering Renaissance drama. Jonson, whose reputation had survived, appears to have been less interesting to some readers than writers such as Thomas Middleton or John Heywood , who were in some senses "discoveries" of the 19th century. Moreover, the emphasis which the romantic writers placed on imagination, and their concomitant tendency to distrust studied art, lowered Jonson's status, if it also sharpened their awareness of the difference traditionally noted between Jonson and Shakespeare. This trend was by no means universal, however; William Gifford , Jonson's first editor of the 19th century, did a great deal to defend Jonson's reputation during this period of general decline.

In an essay printed in The Sacred Wood , T. Eliot attempted to repudiate the charge that Jonson was an arid classicist by analysing the role of imagination in his dialogue. Eliot was appreciative of Jonson's overall conception and his "surface", a view consonant with the modernist reaction against Romantic criticism, which tended to denigrate playwrights who did not concentrate on representations of psychological depth. Around mid-century, a number of critics and scholars followed Eliot's lead, producing detailed studies of Jonson's verbal style.

At the same time, study of Elizabethan themes and conventions, such as those by E. Stoll and M. Bradbrook , provided a more vivid sense of how Jonson's work was shaped by the expectations of his time. The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. Finally, some of the problems created by the instability of theatrical art.

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