Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot

By Brady, Jennifer | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot


Brady, Jennifer, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot, by Richard Dutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 178. Cloth $95.00.

Richard Dutton is editing Jonson' s comedy Volpone for the forthcoming modernized six-volume Cambridge Ben Jonson. In Ben Jonson, Volpone, and the Gunpowder Plot, a by-product of his editing labors, Dutton advances several claims. In keeping with the preference among many Jonson scholars for Jonson's edgier quarto editions over the later versions of the plays published in the monumental first folio of 1616, Dutton favors the 1607 quarto edition of Volpone. He focuses attention on its prefatory poems by John Donne, George Chapman, and Edmund Bolton, among others, and its Epistle addressed to the play's dedicatees, the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Jonson scholars have long recognized the aesthetic significance of his Epistle, in which Jonson articulates his humanist credo and defends by means of classical precedents the harsh judgments meted out to the protagonists of his satiric comedy. Dutton, by contrast, reads the Epistle and several of the prefatory poems as coded political responses to the crisis of the Gunpowder Plot. In Volpone, Dutton argues, Jonson uses a beast fable set in Venice to address "the parlous state of England - rather than Venice - at the time it was written, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, albeit hiding behind the [plausible] deniability which beast fable, of all forms, traditionally affords" (73). Dutton also reads Volpone' s biting satire of patronage relations, and its subplot starring the inane English diplomat Sir Politic Would-be, as vehicles for Jonson's political and religious estrangement from the government over its repression of religious minorities.

One of the key assumptions Dutton makes in his study relates to Jonson's Catholicism. Dutton views Jonson's conversion to "Roman Catholicism as an act of symbolic resistance to the overweening state" (25-26) that had branded and imprisoned him in the years immediately prior to the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Jonson was a recusant, with peripheral social ties to some of the plotters. Dutton is right to insist that Jonson responded intensely to the discovery of the Plot; his "protestations of loyalty" in his letter to Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, are, however, discounted by Dutton, who construes them as "prudential gestures" (23). Dutton ignores Jonson's epigrams to Lord Mounteagle and King James, poems that elaborate the government's story of the miraculous discovery of the Plot and act as further confirmation of Jonson's claims in his letter to Cecil. There are good reasons to take Jonson at his word here. The first is the unabashed fervor with which he expresses his loyalty to "his Maiesty, and my Country" and "all Christianity" ' in his November 7 letter. The second relates to the king's speech to Parliament just two days later, on November 9, where James distinguished the plotters' monstrous treason from the loyalty shown by the majority of English Catholics, who remained in his words "good and faithful Subiects."2 James's speech cautioned his listeners explicitly and at length against the urge to demonize all Catholics: "I would be sorie that any being innocent of this practise [treason], either domesticali or forraine, should receiue blame or harme for the same. For although it cannot be denied, That it was the onely blinde superstition of their errors in Religion, that led them [the plotters] to this desperate deuice; yet doth it not follow, That all professing that Romish religion were guiltie of the same."3 In light of the hysteria generated by the Plot's discovery, James's speech distinguishing between the plotters and those Catholics who were loyal to his rule and government was an important intervention in the unfolding crisis. James and his ministers were resolved to prosecute the surviving plotters rigorously, but the king's determination not to persecute "innocent" Catholics suggests a temperate and measured response.

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