Ben Jonson (1573-1637)
Ben Jonson, born in London, was educated in
the West Minister Grammar School and came out as classical scholar. In 1572, he appeared on stage as an actor but emerged as a dramatist in 1598.
He was a cavalier poet and wrote many plays for the Royal Court and public stages. He died in 1637. Though Jonson is considered to be a
contemporary of Shakespeare, he outlived the latter by 21 years. An M.A. degree of Cambridge University was conferred upon him. Jonson is the
greatest writer of masques during the Elizabethan Age. William Camden, the classical scholar of the Elizabethan Age was his literary
Ben Jonson popularised label names. He is also the founder of the genre ‘Comedy of Humours’. He
has greatly influenced the succeeding dramatists like William Congreve, William Wycherley, Dryden, Oliver Goldsmith, Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, G B
Shaw, Somerset Maughan, in shaping their comedy of manners. The main defects of Jonson as a dramatist are lack of inspiration and imagination.
Like Milton, he parades his deep knowledge in classical allusions and quotations.
Humour in Jonsonian Age
In dramatic construction, Jonson follows the Latin comedy as his model and his characterisation
is based on the assumption that each man is possessed and governed by one particular quality or ‘master passion’ as he calls it. Jonson seizes
upon this master passion, calls it humour and makes a whole character out of it with the result that his men and women are not complex
individuals but types.
Important Dramatical Works of
Ben Jonson was a classicist who adhered to the observance of three unities namely time, place
and action and at the same time rejecting the mixture of tragedy and comedy. He based his dramas on medieval theories of humour.
Every Man in His Humour
This is the first known dramatic production of Ben Jonson. It portrays the contemporary
London life in excellent, realistic manner. It was acted by Shakespeare’s company and it is believed that Shakespeare himself has acted
in this play.
This play is regarded to be the most realistic play of Jonson. It is a satire on the
two pseudo-sciences of Alchemy and Astrology. S T Coleridge qualified it as Jonson’s ‘sterling fiction’. The name of the Alchemist in the
play is Subtle.
Epicoene or Silent Woman
The title ‘Epicoene’ means having the characteristics of either sex. Epicoene is a
comedy of humour which anticipates the comedy of manners. The play centres around an egoistic bachelor with an insane aversion for noise.
The so-called lady presented in the play is neither silent nor a woman. The play was performed at the Court by the Queen’s company. The
essential movement of the Silent Woman is the exploration of themes implicit in the central plot of a noise hating man married to a noise
making woman. The aim of action in Silent Woman is the settling of Morose’s estate on his nephew Dauphine Eugene.
Volpone or The Fox
This is a comedy, which is set in Venice. It is a picture of depravities and a severe
attack on vices. The play was acted in the Globe Theatre, London in the year 1605. The play was dedicated to ‘more equal sisters’ of the
Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Every Man out of His Humour
It is a farcian comedy which is very light in character. The play presents the scenes
of a London Holiday Fair with its ballad singers, stall keepers, bullies and bawds with a high sense of humour.
It is a comedy written on the background of the so-called War of Theatres. The scene is
the court of Caesar Augustus, though it deals with contemporary poets, Jonson and Shakespeare, who represent Horace and Virgil
War of Theatres is a cold war that had taken place between Ben Jonson on one side
and Marston and Thomas Dekker on the other. Marston is responsible for beginning this war, by creating a character in the likeness of
Ben Jonson in one of his plays. Jonson suddenly reacted and attacked Marston. Thomas Dekker came to the rescue of Marston and thus
the War of Theatres began.
Ben Jonson often labels his characters with names that indicate their special
humour or master passion. Morose, Wellbred, Subtle, Sir Epicurous and Cut Beard are some of the typical examples of label
Project Gutenberg Ben Johnson