Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Not Clothes but Brains: Display, Status, and Reading in Ben Jonson's the New Inn

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Not Clothes but Brains: Display, Status, and Reading in Ben Jonson's the New Inn

Article excerpt

WHEN BEN JONSON'S PLAY The New Inn premiered at Blackfriars in 1629, it was an immediate failure, and its anticipated court performance never took place. (1) When, two years later, Jonson arranged for the play to be printed, he provocatively called attention to this failure through the title page and other paratextual material. (2) This material became part of the play's legacy: reproduced verbatim in future printings of The New Inn, it ensured that the play would be handed down to posterity attached to the history of its failure--which suggests that there was something important in the failure itself that Jonson wanted to emphasize. (3) The title page reads:

   THE
   NEW INNE.
   OR.
   The light Heart.
   A COMOEDY.
   As it was neuer acted, but most
   negligently play'd, by some,
   the Kings Seruants.
   And more squeamishly beheld, and censured
   by others, the Kings Subiects.
   1629
   Now, at last, set at liberty to the Readers, his [Ma.sup.ties]
   Seruants, and Subiects, to be iudg'd.
   1631
   By the Author, B. Ionson.
   Hor..... me lectori credere mallem:
   Quam spectatoris fastidia ferre superbd

This contentious phrasing proclaims the superiority of readers to spectators, asserting that while the original spectators (aided by the poor work of the players) failed to judge Jonson's play fairly, its print readers are fully equipped to do so. The Latin epigram, borrowed from Horace, lends classical weight to the assertion. (5) This was not the first time Jonson articulated the notion that reading a play was intellectually superior to attending live theater, and certainly not the first time he defiantly sought print for a play that had failed on the stage; scholars therefore tend to read this title page in the context of Jonson's antitheatrical sentiments and his mounting personal frustrations as he succumbed to financial troubles and ill health toward the end of his life. (6) In their reckoning, calling attention to the plays failure was a consequence of hurt pride. However, reading the play's front matter in this context obscures the positive ways Jonson frames reading itself, and the broader implications of this framing.

In claiming that The New Inn is "set at liberty ... to be iudg'd" by its readers, the title page asserts strong faith in its readers' capacity for judgment. Judgment, the ability to distinguish substance from illusion and appropriately assess that substance's moral and ethical value, was a lifelong preoccupation of Jonson's. In order to exert good judgment, Jonson argued at one point, a person must use "election and a mean," or in other words, discrimination and judiciousness, forms of discernment that require the exercise of intelligence and understanding. (7) Jonson was invested in the labor that this kind of judgment required; for example, in an epigram dedicated to Benjamin Rudyerd, he writes,

   Writing thyself, or judging others' writ,
   I know not which thoust most, candour or wit;
   But both thoust so, as who affects the state
   Of the best writer and judge should emulate. (8)

By giving the phrase "judging others' writ" a weightier iambic rhythm than the swift trochee that begins "Writing thyself," Jonson forces his reader to pause over the word "judging," emphasizing its importance. In the next two lines, Jonson claims that judging requires just as much skill as writing: both require candor and wit, and both earn his equal respect. In another poem, "An Epistle to Master John Seiden," Jonson expresses what an honor it is to be asked for his judgment:

   Your book, my Seiden, I have read, and much
   Was trusted that you thought my judgement such
   To ask it (9)

Here he asserts that submitting one's work to the judgment of a reader is an indication of deep respect, because doing so implies that the reader has the intelligence and skill necessary to judge that work well. The title page of The New Inn articulates such respect toward all of its readers, apparently without exception. …

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