Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays

Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays

Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays

Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays

Excerpt

Probably no major author in English has suffered such a catastrophic decline in popularity since his own day as has Ben Jonson. Certainly none has been so punished for the crime of not being Shakespeare. Jonson was from the beginning tied to the kite of Shakespeare criticism, or perhaps it would be more exact to say that he was dragged captive behind the triumphal chariot of Shakespeare worship. In the seventeenth century it was fashionable, and profitable, to compare them, as Dryden did, to set them side by side as the two giants of the English theater, to discuss their respective virtues and evaluate their respective merits. By the time the century was over criticism had rendered its verdict: Shakespeare's pre-eminence would henceforth pass unchallenged. But by this time the luckless Jonson was yoked to Shakespeare in an odious tandem from which two centuries of subsequent comment would scarcely suffice to extricate him.

During the eighteenth century Jonson remained much appreciated as a writer for the stage. His chief plays held the theater fairly steadily till about 1785. But during this same period his good name was being poisoned in print by the editors of Shakespeare, who discovered early that a convenient and safe way to praise "their" poet was to abuse Jonson. The well-authenticated tradition of Jonson's conviviality gave way to a fraudulent countermyth: that Jonson, throughout his life, harbored an envenomed dislike of Shakespeare, whom he lost no opportunity of reviling and ridiculing, despite the fact--so ran the tale--that it was Shakespeare to whom he owed his start in the theater.

This insecure edifice of fantasy rested on a few bricks of fact. Jonson had, to be sure, regarded his own kind of drama as superior to Shakespeare's. He had poked fun at the rambling chronicle play, at the meandering romance. He had alluded slightingly to the "servant-monster" in The Tempest, and had dismissed Pericles as a "mouldy tale." He . . .

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