A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve
SHAKESPEARE'S CONTEMPORARIES AND SUCCESSORS IN DRAMA

SHAKESPEARE was at the height of his comic power when Ben Jonson ( 1537?-1637) threw down the gauntlet, not so much to him as to the whole idea of Romantic Comedy. Jonson was a born leader of revolt-honest, opionative, and pugnacious--he killed two men in single combat. He revolted against Romantic Comedy as being Italianate, improbable, Sentimental, loose in construction, highflown, and purposeless; whereas comedy should be realistic, using

language such as men do use,
And persons such as comedy would choose;

and it should have a social purpose beyond mere entertainment. Jonson's conception of the purpose of comedy is bound up with the doctrine of the 'humours.' Human folly is due to the excess of this or that 'humour,' which so colours a man's whole conduct as to make him, so to speak, that humour incarnate: the confirmed braggart brags on all occasions, and the jealous man is jealous of his shadow. It is the function of comedy to reduce such excesses by showing folly her own image exaggerated, as it were in a distorting mirror. Jonsonian comedy looks back to the Morality and forward to the Comedy of Manners. Its danger is that it walks a razor's edge between homily and caricature. In Every Man in his Humour Jonson kept his balance well enough, and Bobadil, though he is not a new type and is pasteboard compared to Falstaff, does excellently for the braggart soldier. But in Every Man out of his Humour Jonson toppled over into caricature, and even, it would seem, into caricature of living persons. Satire became lampoon in Cynthia's Revels and The Poetaster, where he fell foul of Dekker and Marston. They gave him as good as they got, and Jonson broke off the engagement to show Shakespeare how to write a Roman play; and try "if tragedy have a more kind aspect." Sejanus ( 1603) is carefully con-

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