Ben Jonson as a dramatist in The Alchemist

Though he never went to a university, Ben Jonson was well educated. By self-study he had acquired wide and deep knowledge of classics. All the stories of ancient literature were open to him; and he was familiar not only with the perfect productions of the Greek dramatists, but even with the fragments that lay scattered among the works of the grammarians, The Case is Altered and Every Man in His Humour offer ample evidence that Jonson came to playwriting fresh from the study of Plautus and Terence.

Jonson appeared on the scene when the Renaissance had already made itself strongly felt, particularly in an ardent revival in the study of Greek and Latin classics. In the last quarter of the Elizabethan age was formed a literary circle consisting of the supporters of the classics. Sir Philip Sidney was one of them and exercised an influence which was almost supreme during this short life (1554-1586). Admirer of the classics, Jonson was greatly influenced by Sidney and carried forward his fight for classicism and earned the reputation of being “one of the first significant neo-classic critics.” His critical views are to be found in practically all that he wrote: in his poems and plays, notably, The Poetaster: in his prefaces and dedications to his plays; in his Conversations with Drummond: and most of all, in his Discoveries.

Ben Jonson neo-Classicism, a Remedy for Elizabethan Extravagance-

The English literature in Elizabethan and Jacobian ages suffered from many ills which have been summed up in one word “excess”: excess of passion, excess of imagination, excess of expression. Even the great Shakespeare was not free from them. Jonson had grasped the value and usefulness of the classical tradition and, saw the peril that attended the native or romantic tradition which gave free reign to English poetry and drama. He found a cure for the ills in classicism. He advocated order and discipline in writing. He emphasized the need of “care and industry” He advised the writer never to be content with the first word that offers itself nor with the first arrangement in composition. That is, he wanted the writer to write well not by chance, but knowingly. He held that the writer should revise his writing repeatedly to arrive at the best. He should take care to use words with due regard to their intelligibility, for “the chief virtue of a style is perspicuity, and nothing so vicious in it as to need an interpreter.” He adds that perfection in style depends on a writer’s “choiceness of phrase, round and clean composition of sentence, sweet falling of the clause, varying of an illustration by tropes and figures, weight matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, and depth of judgment.”

Jonson’s view of the structure of the plot is derived from Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, Following the Greek critic, he says, ‘The fable (or plot) is called the imitation of one entire and perfect action; whose parts are so joined, and knit together, as nothing in the structure can be changed, or taken away, without impairing, or troubling the whole. “He also requires of the plot. “a certain proportional greatness, neither too vast, nor too minute.” He is of the opinion that the plot may have episodes and digressions like “necessary household stuff and other furniture”. In his view the episodes and digressions do not impair the unity of action. Jonson has endeavored to follow up his precept in the construction of his own plots.

Also Read : 


“Tragedy,” says Aristotle, “endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun. “But he says to casually and only once, and he nowhere insists on this as a condition of good plot. The Unity of place is not mentioned at all by Aristotle. But Jonson’s masters are of the sixteenth century, the Italian Castelvetro, the French playwright Jean de la Taile, and above all, Sir Philip Sidney, who insisted on the observance of these two unities besides the unity of action. Jonson meticulously observes these unities, for example, in his Every Man in His Humour Prologue’ is a manifesto enunciating Jonson’s whole-hearted adherence to neoclassical doctrine.

Defects of Ben Jonson Classicism-

Jonson’s classicism, however, has its defects too. What most discourages the reader of Jonson is the absence of charm. We move away with Jonson from the world of flesh and blood and permeating spirit that Shakespeare created towards an exhibition of automations splendidly constructed to perform their maker’s bidding; the high romantic temper of the Shakespearean comedy gives way to the artificial treatment of whims, freaks and ‘Humours’, the realism of Shakespearean tragedy and its universality are displaced in Jonson by learned frigidity. While reading Jonson, we rarely forget that it is only a play and dialogue. True to his classical programmer, Jonson ridiculed the abuses and fashionable follies of the time by making the persons of his dramas represent the peculiar hobbies or “humours” of men, but in doing this his drama lost faithfulness to life through a method which inclined him to make the mere caricature of what we call a “fad” take the place of a character. Jonson’s tragedies Sejanus and Catalane are massive, scholarly, and painstaking but they lack the warmth and humanity which distinguish Shakespeare’s treatment of classical themes, and one is apt to read them with respect and with profit rather than delight.

Jonson, as we have noticed, set himself boldly to cure the theatrical evils of the time by establishing a comic and a tragic form based on classic example. In the latter endeavour he had no success; in the former he succeeded in making himself the greatest figure of his age.

This classicism of Jonson is best reflected in his Every man in His Humour. Jonson here tries to harmonize medieval medical conceit with the methods employed in the Latin theatre. For the middle Ages the “humours’ or natural moistures of the brain governed a man’s nature; too much of one, or shifting of the due proportions governing normality, would produce eccentricity of one sort or another. Thus, melancholy, greed, timorousness, choler, all were ‘humours’, and the persons who exhibited any of these was described as ‘humorous’. It is quite obvious that if art is to make use of these humours, the artist, must deal with a type, not with a personality. This was what Terence did in his dramas. His testy old fathers are all the same, his cunning slaves have all the same features; he picks up some salient features of a class of men and pictures them in his characters. Jonson, being a classicist, determined to follow this method. Besides this, Jonson also decided to follow in practice another old classical dictum. The object of the classical comic dramatists was to ridicule the vices of men, put folly in a foolish shape before the spectators and so laugh out the audience into good behaviour. Jonson too determined that his comedy should be a satiric comedy; and for that purpose the humours gave him the very tool he required.

Opposed to the romantic portraiture of “monstrous” Jonson concentrates on characters congruent with the setting, on the creation of literary types:

Persons, such as comedy would choose,

When she would shew an image of the times,

And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

Jonson’s characters are all based on the Greek medical theory ascribed to Hippocrates, who lived in the fifth century. B.C. He taught that “the body is composed of four cardinal ‘humours’, or Juices-blood, phlegm, yellow bill and black bile. When these are out of balance, disease results.” Jonson’s characters are all based on this theory. He says that “the purpose of comedy is to note those elements in human character, which either naturally and permanently dominate in each man, or which, on occasion, in the hazard of life, overflow and exceed their limit at the expense of the other contributing elements; to note this in a number of characters differently humoured, and in the clash of contrasts, to point, with pleasant laughter, the “moral’ of these disorders. And this is the purpose Jonson sets before him in writing his comedies. And this was what, Terence did in his dramas. His testy old father’s are all the same, his cunning slaves have all the same features. He picks up some salient features of a classicist, determined to follow this method. He had another reason, too. The object of the classical comic dramatists was to ridicule the vices of men, to put folly in a foolish shape before the spectators, and so laugh them out into good behaviour. For this purpose the “humours” gave Jonson the very tool he required. True to his classical programmer, Jonson, ridiculed the abuses and fashionable follies of the time by making the persons of his drama represent the peculiar hobbies or “humours” of men and women.

Another aspect of Jonson’s classical temperament was him zest for moral justice. He viewed himself as a moral satirist. If the comedies of the contemporaries of his early days affected any beneficial purpose, if they led to exposure and detestation of any evil quality, or the correction of any prevalent folly. It was by accident, not design; but with Jonson thin was the primary object. We see it in the first play which he is know to have written.

Jonson did not love the classics for their own sake. He loved English more. But it was English raised to the excellence of Greek and Latin. With this noble end in view he applied himself assiduously to the service of English Literature, particularly drama. Nevertheless, classicism did not do him that good which romanticism did to Shakespeare. We move away with Jonson from the world of flesh and blood to the artificial treatment of whims, freaks and “Humours”. The realism of Shakespearian tragedy and its universality, in short, are displaced in Jonson by what may he termed as learned frigidity.

Jonson set himself boldly to cure the theatrical evils of the time by establishing a comic and a tragic form based on classical example. In the latter endeavour he had no success; in the former he succeeded in making himself the greatest figure of his age.

Humour in Medical Science-

The ancient and medieval physicians help that the universe was compounded of four elements-the earth, water, air and fire. They were also present in human body. The earth was conceived of as possessing the qualities: cold and dry. It was further believed that the cold and dry qualities of the earth produced black bile within man’s body: and if black bile predominated, it produced melancholy, Water with its cold and moist qualities produced phlegm. An excess of this element made man’s temperament phlegmatic; he became sluggish, apathetic and slow to anger. The preponderance of the hot and moist qualities of air resulted in an excess of blood and produced ruddy complexion and sanguine temperament which is characterized by a courageous, hopeful and amorous disposition. The hot and dry fire produced yellow bile or choler. A person with an excess of this element became hot-tempered and quick to take offence. Melancholy, phlegm. blood and choler’ are known as four humours, the predominance of one of which determines a personal temperament.

In the prologue to Every Man out of his Humours Jonson gives his own conception of humours, which is derived from the medieval science. Below is quoted his conclusion about humours:

That whatso’ir hath flexure and humidity,

As wanting power to contain itself

Is humour. So in every human body

The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,

By reason that they flow continually

In some one part, and are not continent,

Receive the name of humours. Now thus far

It may, by metaphor, apply itself

Unto the general disposition:

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 conflictions, all to run one way;

That may be truly said to be a humour.

In Ben Jonson’s age it has become, to quote George Sampson, “fashionable to dignify any eccentricity or pose with the name of ‘humour’, and to deem the most miserable affectations worthy of literary comment. Hence arose a literature of ‘humours’, and ‘humour’ became as tiresome a word in that age as ‘complex’ in this.”The satires of Juvenal served as a model for they dealt with the ‘humours’ of unpleasing persons.

Jonson based his comedies on the theory of “Humours”. In Volpone he studied, not a foible or whim, but a master passion, the passion of greed, as it affects a whole social group, In The Alchemist he made an elaborate study of human gullibility. Jonson has rightly come to be known as the inventor of “the comedy of humour”

Let us now discuss Jonson’s comedies of the early representative plays of Jonson. Every Man in His humour was the masterpiece. The plot, of Jonson’s own invention: deals with tricks played upon the elder Knowell and the jealous Kitely, involving the exposure of various humours and ending happily with the marriage of young Knowell and Kitely’s sister.

The comedy of humours was carried on in Every man out of his Humour. A vain-glorious knight, a public jester, an affected courtier, a doting husband and others exhibit their humours and are finally forced out of their affectations through the agency of Macilente, who, also, is cured of his besting envy.

Cynthia’s Revels resembles Every man, out of His Humour in its general plan of group of would-be gallants and ladies whose follies are exposed to ridicule and shame through the efforts of a censor representing the author’s attitude.

After this Jonson deserted comedy for a time. Jonson’s return to comedy after Sejanus was made in 1604, when in collaboration with Chapman and Marston, he wrote Eastward Ho. The four comedies which followed, rank with Every Man in His Humour as his masterpieces. They are all comedies of humours; but each is a peculiar development of the type. In Volpone, the Plautain model appears only in the use of then clever servant as the mainspring of the action, and of entanglements based on the trickster-tricked-type of plot. The play has little mirth; but it is a vigorous exposure of greed and inequity. Its purpose is not amusement but satire its subject not folly but vice, its protagonist not the managing servant but his master, a monster of villainy.

The Silent Woman is much less intent on moral castigation than is Volpone, and also, much merrier. Its plot is farcical, dealing with the entrapping of Morose, who hates noise, into marriage with the Epicoene, who turns out to be a noisy tartar, and after Morose has forgiven his nephew, proves to be a boy; Sir Dauphine, the nephew, and his friends are the wits. There is abundant satire of the manners and affectations of the day..

In the Alchemist, Jonson essays another large canvas of tricksters and gulls. The alchemist Subtle, Doll Common and Face, a house-keeper, have set up their snares in the house of Face’s master. One after another, the different characters expose their folly and greed, and add to the fun→→ and entanglement, until the master of the house returns and joins with Face to keep the spoils, including the widow, and to lock the doors on dupers and duped. Perhaps in no other play has Jonson so completely succeeded in accomplishing what he intended as he has in this. The entire play is in blank verse. The language is varied, idiomatic and precise; the style, finished and animated.

In the presentation of manners and character, Bartholomew Fayre may, indeed, be held to outrank even The Alchemist. In many respects, however, its inferiority is palpable. It is unwieldy in structure; its humour is often gross and farcical; and it is overcrowded with persons and incidents. But the characters and incidents are freer from imitation of Plautus and Aristophanes than are those of any other of his comedies. Original in its scheme and subject, daring in its invention. Bartholomew Fayre, marks the highest development of the comedy of humours as a national type.

The Divell is an Asset betrays a flagging invention. But this was only to be expected after the prodigal expenditure of the four preceding comedies. The remaining comedies of Jonson come near to deserving Dryden’s harsh criticism: ‘mere dotages”

The great excellence of Jonson’s comedies is their delineation of character. This is, however, conditioned more by classical models and rules, as in the observance of the unities, or his fidelity to historical authorities, or his copying of the Plautian types. it is so conditioned by his method of making each person the illustration of one trait of humour, and by his disposition to substitute description for drama, and satire for fact, and to exaggerate his satire into farce. Akin to this defect are Jonson’s overuse of the long monologue after the fashion of classical models, the heaviness and coarseness which his realism often gives to his vocabulary and his thoroughness, which refuses to let go person, speech, or situation until it is absolutely exhausted. Yet nevertheless. Jonson’s comic portraiture remains among the greatest achievements of the English drama, because of its clearness and certainly, its richness of humour and dramatic veracity.

John Addington Symonds comments on Jonson’s comedies as follows:

“Humour he (Jonson) conceived to be something dependent upon the physical constitution of the individual, which provokes a habit, constitutes a ruling foible, and diverts the action of this subject into courses which move mirth….His comedies form an inexhaustible Hogarthian picture gallery of sixteenth century oddities. But he was too profound a student of human nature to stop here. he knew the point at which eccentricity shades off into vice, and discerned the subtle links whereby crime is connected with moral weakness. Therefore in the noblest of his plays dominant passions tower above the undergrowth of humours. Lust, hunger for gold, jealousy, brutal egotism, vulgar ambition, control and sway the multiform kaleidoscope of minor aberrations brought before our notice in bewildering profusion… The robust power of characterization and of maintaining the gradations of dramatic interest is Jonson’s highest quality. But it has a corresponding defect…. Though we retire from his theatre, overwhelmed by the man’s prodigious inventive and delineative force. we feel that we have been, after all, at a marionette show, where the puppets are moved by wires.

In the seventeenth century, we find the realistic comedy always opposing the artificiality of the romantic tragi-comedy and of the pastoral drama. it should be noted that in the late sixteenth century, the realistic farce, deriving its tone from the earliest interludes, had preserved an independent existence alongside the romantic comedy patronized by Greece and Lyly. This earliest form of realistic play, often with close reminiscence of the Latin plays, was employed by many dramatists in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, and was carried forward by them, until Jonson came to set his seal upon the type and gave it a strength and a purpose which previously it had only too often lacked.

Shakespeare deserves attention among these earlier dramatists. since in his The taming of the Shrew and in The Merry Wives of Windsor he produced two of the most capable and interesting work of the realistic type of comedy written in the last years of the century.

To Ben Jonson belongs the credit of infusing into this form of drama a richer and a deeper note. True to his realistic ideal, Jonson presents the life of his time, but especially the low life of Elizabethan London, with a hard, dry literalism. Jonson’s power of observation was very keen and minute, his familiarity with contemporary London very great, and his ‘humours’ or individualization of certain traits, are based upon London’s society and life. “No more genuine sketches of London character are to be found in the drama. They are Hawn, not from books but from observation, and as an observer Jonson had no equal among his contemporaries.”- (Introduction to Mermaid Series of Ben Jonson, Vol I, Ixix). In his Every Man in his Humaour, Jonson gives us a wonderful picture of the customs and habits of the London of his time. Form his window in Fleet Street, or standing in St. Paul’s he closely observes the crowd of common folk, and draws a true picture of the various types.

It was only to be expected from Ben Jonson that his observations should turn’ rather to the uglier side of human nature than to the better. Depravity, failing, moral shortcomings attract his attention; he analyses them minutely, and draws a striking picture of them. He has been compared, in this respect, to the Flemish painters. Meziers points out his resemblance in this respect to Balzac. Perversity of character or disposition, and exceptional faults attract both these authors.

One of the follies and vices which Jonson criticized and against which he levelled the sharpest arrows of his satire is avarice Jacques, in The Case is Altered written in 1598, reminds us of Harpagon in Moliere’s L’ Avare, although the influence of Plautus is easily recognizable.

Commenting on Jonson’s Every man Out of His Humour, Emile Legous says: “This play and its predecessor reproduce so much that belongs to the manners of their time, that London and London life in 1600 might he partly reconstituted with their aid. In his Bartholomew Fayer too, we see this same realistic vein. it is rich in details taken from life and glimpses of actual manners, for which he certainly made copious notes on the spot.

According to Arthur Compton-Rickett, ‘Whether he (Jonson) is dealing with clear-cut characters or clear-cut repartee, he is equally happy. He has an eye for external peculiarities, unequalled by any of our men of letters save Smollett and Dickens. Note the touches with which he builds up Volpone’s character:

“I gain

No common way; I use no trade, no venture;

Wound no Earth with ploughshares, fat no beasts

To feed the shambles, have no mills for iron

Oil, corn, or men to grind them into powder.”

“There is something of Dicken’s enjoyment in comic invention with which he overlays his figures. One recalls Zeal of the Land Busy in Bartholomew Fayre, who pretended to be so greatly shocked by the gaieties, yet is discovered…. ‘with a great white loaf on his left hand and a glass of Malmsey on his right’….There is no more elaborate painter of London life than Jonson; Shakespeare paints with a bigger brush, but for detailed effect Jonson is supreme. He satirizes vice with the vigoro of Moliere, but not with his adroitness. had he lashed less furiously he might, have kept a better edge on his rapier.”- (A History of English Literature).

As far as realism was concerned, the classical quality of Jonson’s comedies gave them an interest that is permanent, and an influence that was far-reaching. One difference between the romantic spirit and the classic is that the former tends towards escape from the actual conditions of life, while the latter tends to work realistically within them. This appears evident when we compare Twelfth Night or The Tempest with Every Man in his Humour. The former are full of glancing imagination and irresponsible fancy; the latter moves in the hard light of everyday London. This realism, the vivid picture of London life, makes Jonson’s comedies among the most interesting plays of the period. From Jonson’s comedies alone, as it has been very remarkably said, it would be possible to reconstruct whole areas of Elizabethan society; a study of them is indispensable if one would know the brilliant and amusing surface of the most sociable era of English History. At least one of Jonson’s comedies, too, gives this close and realistic study of manners with a gaiety and grace fairly rivalling Shakespeare; The Silent Woman is one of the most sparkling comedies ever written, full of splendid fu, and with a bright, quick movement which never flags.

In conclusion, let us quote from R.S. Knox’s Essay on Jonson: “A realistic comedy of manners, in which the emphasis is on character rather than on incident, and the attitude is that of the satirist-such was the play type which Jonson first introduced to the English stage and of which he remains still the unrivalled master. All the elements in this new comedy remains still the unrivalled master. All the elements in this new comedy the mirroring of everyday life and of contemporary characters and the satire may, indeed, be found sporadically in previous drama, as early as the moral interludes and as the first comedies of Shakespeare but never before had they deliberately been sought and brought together as the essential matter of comedy…No other series of comedies afford such a rich and shrewd momentary on the own life of the time, for, whenever he may place the scene, Jonson’s eye is ever on London. he has ranged over the whole of its society from courtier to water carrier and has se vividly before us a motley company of its types. he has faithfully mirrored the variety of its fashions and ruthlessly anatomized its reigning follies. it would be hard to find elsewhere in English drama such a teeming gallery of satiric pictures of the amities and shams to which men are liable, and while this satire may be levelled at the absurdities of his own day, much of it has lasting point. We still; have with us our Bodbadills and Matthews, our quacks and quackeries and at these Jonson an yet help us to take a knowing laugh.”

The following points may be noted:

(1) Jonson set up the classical principle of order and harmony against romantic lawlessness and freedom. He stood by the three unities of time, place, and action, which were openly violated by the romantics. The material of Plautus and Terence was freely drawn upon; and their construction of plots and their technique were followed.

(2) Jonson invented the humour comedy in which exaggerated traits in individuals were exploited, and so the follies and vices of society were hold up to ridicule. His success in creating a new type of comedy on the classical line remains unquestioned, but it is recognized that it has a limited range and scope, missing the broader and a more or less universal significance of Shakespeare’s comedy. To tell the truth, Jonson, after all, deals with automations, and not with live human beings.

(3) Jonson was less successful with his tragedies. His massive learning and scrupulous manipulations of historical material are illustrated in his tragedies, but his technique and his worship of classical authorities fail to give life and colour and movement to his tragedies,

(4) Jonson’s realism is a notable contribution. he sketched the life of the time, though often seamy side of life. His keen and minute powers of observation, his founds of humour, if sometimes somber and unallied to pity, his knowledge of contemporary London, all came handy to him in painting certain phases of Elizabathan or Jacobean society. So, one critic says that London and London life in 1600 can be reconstructed from his plays.

Andrew Gurr comments, “Jonson evolved a theory of comedy which was moral and educative. No clear-cut idea of comedy survived from classical times of the sort. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher- critic provided for tragedy in his Poetics. Cicero, Horance and Terence, the chief Latin writers on comic theory, all had their formulas, but there was no one clear pattern. The Renaissance extended the scope of classical ideas by adding romance to the subject matter. Shakespeare’s comedies owe much less of debt to classical comedy than to the romantic. tales of The Middle Ages and The Renaissance. So, Jonson was to a large extent free to develop his own theory of what comedy in the theatre could and should do.



Leave a Comment