From Halleck's New English Literature by Reuben Post Halleck. New York: American Book Company, 1913.
Life. About nine years after the birth of Shakespeare his greatest successor in the English drama was born in London. Jonson outlived Shakespeare twenty-one years and helped to usher in the decline of the drama. Ben Jonson, the son of a clergyman and the stepson of
a master bricklayer, received a good education at Westminster School. In one respect Jonson's training was unfortunate for a poet. He was taught to write prose exercises first and then to turn them into poetry. In this way he acquired the habit of trying to express unpoetical
ideas in verse. Art could change the prose into metrical rhyming lines, but art could not breathe into them the living soul of poetry. In after times Jonson said that Shakespeare lacked art, but Jonson recognized that the author of Hamlet had the magic touch of nature. Jonson's pen rarely felt her all-embracing touch.
If Jonson served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, as his enemies afterward said, he did not continue long at such work. He crossed the Channel and enlisted for a brief time as a soldier in the Netherlands. He soon returned to London and became a writer for the theater, and
thenceforth lived the life of an author and a student. He loved to study and translate the classics. In fact, what a
novice might think original in Jonson's plays was often borrowed from the classics. Of his relations to the classical writers, Dryden says, "You track him everywhere in their snow."
Jonson was known as the most learned poet of the age, because, if his plays demanded any special knowledge, no subject was too hard, dry, or remote from common life for him to attempt to master it. He knew the boundaries of Bohemia, and he took pleasure in saying to
a friend: "Shakespeare in a play brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where
is no sea near, by some hundred miles."
Jonson's personal characteristics partly explain why he placed himself in opposition to the spirit of the age.
He was extremely combative. It was almost a necessity for him to quarrel with some person or with some opinion.
He killed two men in duels, and he would probably have been hanged, if he had not pleaded benefit of clergy. For
the greater part of his life, he was often occupied with pen
and ink quarrels.
When James I ascended the throne in 1603, Jonson soon
became a royal favorite. He was often employed to write
masques, a peculiar species of drama which called for magnificent scenery and dress,
and gave the nobility the opportunity of acting the part
of some distinguished or supernatural character. Such
work brought Jonson into intimate association with the
leading men of the day.
It is pleasant to think that he was a friend of Shakespeare. Jonson's pithy volume of prose, known as Discoveries Made upon Men and
Matter, contains his famous criticism on Shakespeare, noteworthy because it shows how a great contemporary regarded him, "I loved the man
and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any." Few English writers have received from a great
rival author such convincing testimony in regard to lovable
In 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died, Jonson
was made poet laureate. When he died in 1637, he was
buried in an upright position in Westminster Abbey. A
plain stone with the unique inscription, "O Rare Ben
Jonson," marks his grave.
Plays. Ben Jonson's comedies are his best dramatic work. From all his plays we may select three that will
best repay reading: Volpone, The Alchemist, and The
Silent Woman. Volpone is the story of an old, childless,
Venetian nobleman whose ruling passion is avarice.
Everything else in the play is made tributary to this
passion. The first three lines in the first act strike the
keynote of the entire play. Volpone says:
"Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
Hail the world's soul and mine! "
The Alchemist makes a strong presentation of certain
forms of credulity in human nature and of the special
tricks which the alchemists and impostors of that day
adopted. One character wants to buy the secret of the
helpful influence of the stars; another parts with his
wealth to learn the alchemist's secret of turning everything into gold and jewels. The way in which these
characters are deceived is very amusing. A study of this
play adds to our knowledge of a certain phase of the times.
In point of artistic construction of plot, The Alchemist is
nowhere excelled in the English drama; but the intrusion
of Jonson's learning often makes the play tedious reading,
as when he introduces the technical terms of the so-called science of alchemy to show that he has studied
it thoroughly. One character speaks to the alchemist
"Your lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heautarit,"
and another asks:
"Can you sublime and dulcify? calcine?
Know you the sapor pontic? sapor stiptic,
Or what is homogene, or heterogene?"
Lines like the following show that Jonson's acute mind
had grasped something of the principle of evolution:
"... 'twere absurd
To think that nature in the earth bred gold
Perfect in the instant: something went before.
There must be remote matter."
The Silent Woman is in lighter vein than either of the
plays just mentioned. The leading character is called
Morose, and his special whim or "humor" is a horror of
noise. His home is on a street "so narrow at both ends
that it will receive no coaches nor carts, nor any of these
common noises." He has mattresses on the stairs, and
he dismisses the footman for wearing squeaking shoes.
For a long time Morose does not marry, fearing the noise
of a wife's tongue. Finally he commissions his nephew
to find him a silent woman for a wife, and the author uses
to good advantage the opportunity for comic situations
which this turn in the action affords. Dryden preferred
The Silent Woman to any of the other plays.
Besides the plays mentioned in this section, Jonson
wrote during his long life many other comedies and
masques as well as some tragedies.
Marks of Decline. A study of the decline of the drama,
as shown in Jonson's plays, will give us a better appreciation of the genius of Shakespeare. We may change
Jonson's line so that it will state one reason
for his not maintaining Shakespearean excellence:
"He was not for all time, but of an age."
His first play, Every Man in his Humor, paints, not the
universal emotions of men, but some special humor. He
thus defines the sense in which he uses humor:
"As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits and his powers,
In their connections, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a Humor."
Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson gives a distorted or incomplete picture of life. In Volpone everything is subsidiary
to the humor of avarice, which receives unnatural emphasis. In The Alchemist there is little to relieve the picture
of credibility and hypocrisy, while The Silent Woman has for its leading character a man whose principal "humor"
or aim in life is to avoid noise.
No drama which fails to paint the nobler side of womanhood can be called complete. In Jonson's plays we do not
find a single woman worthy to come near the Shakespearean characters, Cordelia, Imogen, and Desdemona. His
limitations are nowhere more marked than in his inability
to portray a noble woman.
Another reason why he fails to present life completely
is shown in these lines, in which he defines his mission:
"My strict hand
Was made to seize on vice, and with a gripe
Squeeze out the humor of such spongy souls
As lick up every idle vanity."
Since the world needs building up rather than tearing
down, a remedy for an ailment rather than fault-finding,
the greatest of men cannot be mere satirists. Shakespeare
displays some fellow feeling for the object of his satire,
but Jonson's satire is cold and devoid of sympathy.
Jonson deliberately took his stand in opposition to the
romantic spirit of the age. Marlowe and Shakespeare had
disregarded the classical unities and had developed the drama on romantic lines. Jonson resolved
to follow classical traditions and to adhere to unity of time and place in the construction of his plots. The action in
the play of The Silent Woman, for instance, occupies only twelve hours.
General Characteristics. Jonson's plays show the touch
of a conscientious artist with great intellectual ability.
His vast erudition is constantly apparent. He is the
satiric historian of his time, and he exhibits the follies and
the humors of the age under a powerful lens. He is also
the author of dainty lyrics (p. 137), and forcible prose
Among the shortcomings of his plays, we may specially
note lack of feeling and of universality. He fails to comprehend the nature of woman. He is not a sympathetic
observer of manifold life, but presents only what is perceived through the frosted glass of intellect. His art is
self-conscious. He defiantly opposed the romantic spirit
of the age and weakened the drama by making it bear the
burden of the classical unities.
How to cite this article:
Halleck, Reuben Post. Halleck's New English Literature. New York: American Book Company, 1913. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/benjonson.html >.