Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation

Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation

Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation

Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation


The playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was commonly regarded during his lifetime and the century following his death as a writer whose powers were equal, if not superior, to those of Shakespeare. In this new collection of biographical, critical, and historical essays, Ian Donaldson challenges many long-held and recent assumptions about the nature of Jonson's personality and creative achievement, offering fresh readings of his life and art.


'I, OFT, have heard him say, how he admir'd / Men of your large profession', says Mosca ingratiatingly to the lawyer Voltore in the first act of Volpone,

that could speake

To every cause, and things mere contraries,
Till they were hoarse againe, yet all be law;
That, with most quick agilitie, could turne,
And re-turne; make knots, and undoe them;
Give forked counsell; take provoking gold
On either hand, and put it up: these men,
He knew, would thrive, with their humilitie. . . .

(I. iii. 52-60)

Jonson here imagines a juridical system that is as pliable as the criminal energies it seemingly attempts to contain, turning and returning as occasion and advantage offer. The lawyer's readiness to take bribes from any source is benignly regarded as another proof of the legendary even-handedness of the law, and his ability to argue for opposing causes is admired as a form of rhetorical virtuosity and personal abasement: 'these men, / He knew, would thrive, with their humilitie'. Two of Jonson's epigrams darkly celebrate similar skills in a lawyer named Cheverel. The skin of the cheverel or kid makes the softest and most malleable of gloves, that can be turned inside out in a moment: as can the lawyer.

No cause, nor client fat, will Chev'rill leese,
But as they come, on both sides he takes fees,
And pleaseth both. For while he melts his greace
For this: that winnes, for whom he holds his peace.

(Epigrams, 37)

Jonson was later to present in The Devil is an Ass another representative of the law appropriately named Sir Paul Eitherside.

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