Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction

Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction

Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction

Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction

Excerpt

This book is a critical study of Jonson's plays by one of their admirers. Criticism is a modest calling, useful as it returns its reader clear-eyed to the art which gives it excuse for existence; and I hope this book will do that. Since each section contains information or judgments that have not been put down before, it may sharpen a reader's understanding of the plays. I have not tried to be startling on every page, because I would rather be conventional than wrong; and I have leaned on my betters where I could. This book will not replace theirs, but it might supplement them. My task has been to define Jonson's dramatic ideas by close examination of the structure of the plays and to deal with some of the principal scholarly controversies touching them. Though partisan, I have tried not to be blind. In clarifying each play's principle of unity, I have compared the more successful to the less, and Jonson himself to his lesser -- and greater -- contemporaries: Jonson's are not the only plays deserving notice. And I have tried to be brief.

When I started this study, I had no axe to grind. I had no preconceived notions that I was prepared to defend. As I have read these plays over the years, several generalizations have forced themselves upon me; and the individual sections of this book, though having independent integrity, are nonetheless closely related to the convictions. In the interests of clarity they should be stated at the outset. Jonson's plays strike me as more indigenous than classical, for they are elaborations of the Tudor morality drama. They are not one-dimensional, however. The characters in them may be of the surface, as Eliot says -- I think he means that their motives are uncomplicated and obvious -- but the total plays in which they exist have more than surface significance. Jonson enriches the simplicity of his drama by setting his contemporaneous world within a mythic one. The majority of his plays are written against some explicit, fabulous background, and their full meaning is available when we recognize it. The Venetian foxes and Bartholomew Fair puppets thus inhabit several worlds simultaneously. Jonson strives to show the timeless implications of his characters' problems in this way.

The narrative -- that is, the dramatic action -- is not Jonson's chief interest, nor is it the chief concern of the morality writers from whom he . . .

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