Ben Jonson and his Comedies

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The English and Literature Department

Qualification work on speciality English philology

on the theme:

“Ben Jonson and his comedies.”

Tojieva Dilnoza’s qualification work

on speciality 5220100

Supervisor: Tojiev Kh.



Some notes on Ben Johnson’s Works

Born in 1572 Jonson began his working life as a bricklayer and then a soldier and it is perhaps experiences in these fields – and his prodigious intake of falling down water – that shaped his no-nonsense confrontational personality.

Jonson became an actor after serving in the army in the Netherlands. By all accounts he was not a very good actor but during his time with Pembroke's Men he co-authored a play "Isle of Dogs " with Nashe. The play accused of spreading sedition would lead to one of many brushes with the State and he was imprisoned for some months.

Jonson wrote for the Admiral's Men until 1856 when a quarrel with Gabriel Spencer one of the company's leading players led to a duel. Spencer was killed and Jonson only spared execution by drawing on his knowledge of Latin to invoke the benefit of the clergy which enabled the convicted criminal to pass as a clergyman and therefore obtain a discharge from the civil courts. It is believed that while in Newgate Prison he converted to Roman Catholicism and here was branded on his thumb with the "T" for Tyburn (the most famous place of execution in London after the Tower) to ever more remind him of his lucky escape.

Jonson's first box office successes came about with comedies like "Every Man In His Humour " which featured Shakespeare in the cast. It is thought Shakespeare was probably the one who first championed Jonson as a writer of note. Jonson's method of working began to crystallize about this time and he began to produce more hard-edged biting satire dispensing with a lot of the farce and frippery that were Shakespeare's tools. As his work became ever more distinctive and classically inspired he began to heap disdain on other writers and their work.

Boys' Company performance of "Poetaster"In the early 1600's Jonson embraced a new phenomenon. Boys Companies were as seductive to audiences and as threatening to Shakespeare's brand of theatre as N*Synch and Boys 2 Men were to today's Springsteens REMs and Rolling Stones.

Boys Companies were highly trained in vocal and instrumental music and with their youthful looks and skin were probably a lot easier to relate to in women's roles than the half shaved former soldiers of the adult theatre companies.

Jonson the classical scholar and Shakespeare the populist crowd-pleaser as Jonson saw him even came to blows in a "discussion" over the merits or otherwise of the Boys Companies. A protracted and wordy War of the Poets ensued with both sides of the argument trading digs and insults through their work.

Imagine an episode of the TV show Frasier that lasts three years and features an unbroken argument between Niles and Frasier Crane on the relative merits of Jung and Freud and you get the general idea.

Jonson would find himself in trouble with the State time and time again – for ridiculing the Scots in "Eastward Ho!" and most seriously when he was questioned over the gunpowder plot after which he renounced his "provocative" Roman Catholicism. Later his play "Sejanus " would also fall foul of the censors.

Jonson always something of a misunderstood outsider in his own writing would comment on his lot at the hands of a society rife with envy and suspicion:

Know tis a dangerous age

Wherein who writes had need present his scenes

Forty-fold proof against the conjuring means

Of base detractors and illiterate apes

(It's interesting that spooky rock person Marilyn Manson has been quoted as referring to Limp Bizkit's front man Fred Durst as an "illiterate ape " Manson being another artistic figure who felt his work was being misrepresented after the atrocious events at Columbine.)

With the arrival of James I on the throne Jonson found himself in favor once again and with his co-writer Inigo Jones created Court Masques for Queen Anne until their inevitable quarrel. Jonson and Shakespeare seem to have called a truce on their dispute and become close again around 1609. Until Shakespeare's death they seem to have continued their almost good natured jibes and sniping with Jonson typically dismissing his friend as having "small Latin and less Greek."

Ben Jonson clearly saw himself as a champion of intellectualism – totalitarian states often don't care for intellectuals to the point that they will generally kill most of them. Shakespeare could ultimately be said to be cleverer in diluting his classical influences to reach a wider audience. It's that old Hollywood-versus-arthouse debate.

It was said at the time that "gentle Will" Shakespeare showed Jonson a courtesy that was not returned. Jonson certainly seems to have been brusque and volatile a matter not helped by his drinking. Everyone drank alcohol in Elizabethan and Jacobean London because the quality of the available drinking water was so bad. But Jonson literally turned it into an art form composing whole poems about his favorite drinking holes.

There seems to have been an almost brotherly relationship between Jonson and Shakespeare. Though their rivalry was strong and their verbal jibes at each other cutting both seemed to recognize the talent in each other – Jonson grudgingly Shakespeare more generously. They seem to have spent a great deal of time in each other's company. It is believed that Shakespeare may have become ill prior to his death after a typically uproarious night out drinking (something strong and noxious probably with an odd name like Left Leg) with Jonson and others.

Ultimately it was Jonson – perhaps his greatest and most constant critic – who gave Shakespeare his most enduring epitaph: "He was not of an age but for all time."

Ben Jonson died in 1637.

Works by Ben Jonson:

"The Alchemist"

"Cynthia's Revels"

"Every Man in His Humour"

"Every Man out of His Humour"





"Bartholomew Fair"

"The Devil is an Ass"

"Staple of News"

"Eastward Ho!"


Main Part


Ben Jonson's Volpone: Issues and Considerations


1.  The opening scene of the play (1.1.1-27) is often considered a satire of some sort on the Catholic Mass. If this is so and considering that Jonson was a Catholic at the time of the writing why would the author include such a scene?

2.  Volpone is set against a background of decadence and corruption in Venice. Renaissance (and Enlightenment) England was publicly suspicious of the supposed corruption that traveling to Italy brought. How does Jonson use this background to further the themes and purpose of his play? Are the images stereotypical?

3.  How much is Volpone a play shaped by monetary fears and concerns? How much is it a play about the use and abuse of authority?

4.  How would you map out the ascent climax and denouement of the main plot? Where does the scene between Celia and Volpone fall? Where do the two court scenes belong?

5.  What is the purpose of the subplot involving Sir Pol Lady Pol and Peregrine? Does it in any way reflect on the larger plot?

6.  What is the role of Nano Castrone and Androgyno?

7.  How would you play the court Avocatori? Are they primarily serious or farcical characters?

8.  How complicit are we as a audience with Volpone and Mosca's vices? Are they too attractive (at first) as characters? Why is Volpone given a chance to address the audience in the closing speech?

9.  Is this a comedy? How do you account for the punishments awarded at the end the vulgar attempted rape by Volpone and the play's more serious moments? Is the ending comic?

Does this play have (in the end) a positive ethical message? If so what is it? If not why not?

In addition to the reading assignment on the syllabus please read through the material on this well-researched web page by a student (identified only as "Jason") in Professor Christy Desmet's Renaissance Drama course at the University of Georgia: Venice as the Setting for Volpone

1. In Act I scene 1 (pp. 1131-2) Volpone lists the many means of making money (honestly and dishonestly) that he does not use. What is his "trade"? How does he make his money?

2. Trace the gold imagery in the first three acts. What functions does gold serve in the world of Volpone?

3. Jonson draws on animal fables for his characters' names and personalities. How does this technique affect your expectations as a reader? Does the text fulfill those expectations?

4. Other than Mosca the only members of Volpone's household are his three servants (rumored to be his illigitimate children). In each of them the natural body of a man has been in some way warped mutilated or curtailed: Nano is a dwarf Androgyno a hermaphrodite (a person with characteristics of both sexes) and Castrone a eunuch (a castrated male). What is the effect of Volpone's bing surrounded by such creatures?

5. Note the performance given by Nano Androgyno and Castrone in Act 1 scene 2. It is a dramatic rendering of a popular Italian prose form the paradox in which the writer makes a witty display by considering (usually scornfully) some supposedly paradoxical assertion. Donne wrote some such prose paradoxes (e.g. "That a wise man is known by much laughing " which defends that idea in face of the usual proverb that you know a man is a fool if he's always laughing). Volpone's minions present a Praise of Folly. What is the point of this play within a play?

6. In Act 2 scene 1 Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-Be converse. How is this scene related to Act 1? And what is Peregrine's function in the play? How are we (as readers or audience members) to understand his role in relation to the other characters we have seen thus far?

7. In Act 2 scene 2 Volpone adopts the "disguise" he decided to use at the end of Act 1. Taking on the role of the mountebank Scoto of Mantua he sets up a stage near the house of Corvino. His speeches in the person of Scoto are printed in italics. His act is to hawk "Scoto's Oil" ("oglio del Scoto") a cure for all ills; how does his performance as Scoto compare to his performance as a dying man in Act 1?

8. Celia appears at her window and throws down a handkerchief full of coins to the supposed mountebank below. Why do you suppose she does this? And what do the various characters in the play assume to be her motivation? Does her motivation matter in the overall scheme of Jonson's play?

9. In scenes 6-7 of Act 2 Corvino's greed takes precedence over his jealousy so that he becomes willing to become a bawd or pander (i.e. a pimp) selling his own wife to Volpone. Compare his speeches to Celia at the end of scene 5 (lines 48-73) and in scene 7 (lines 6-18). What ironies emerge from the language he uses in each case?

1. At the beginning of Act 3 Mosca speaks a grand soliloquy on his profession: that of the parasite. What is a parasite? Who qualifies as a "sub-parasite"? If "Almost / All the wise world is little else in nature / But parasites and sub-parasites " does anyone qualify as another kind of being?

2. Lady Politic Would-Be is like Voltore Corbaccio and Corvino a fortune-hunter. But is she in the same category with the other three? What if anything sets her apart? As you think about this question take a look at this web page (again by Jason from the University of Georgia) on Courtesans in Venice.

3. What means does Volpone use in his attempt to seduce Celia in 3.7.139-154? In 154-164 of the same scene? In the "Song" that follows? And in 185-239? All of these attempts at seduction fail because of Celia's unassailable virtue. At what if anything do they succeed? Do they have an effect on you as a reader?

4. How do Volpone's addresses to Celia in 3.7 compare with his address to gold in 1.1?

5. Is there any shift in the degree to which the audience (or reader) identifies with Volpone and/or Mosca at various points in the play?

6. What does Peregrine's trick on Sir Pol add to the play's plot and theme?

7. With whom if anyone do the audience's (or reader's) sympathies lie in the play's final scenes?

8. Courtroom scenes are versions of the play-within-a-play technique for lawyers and witnesses are performers very conscious of the audience that will judge them. How good are the performances in the courtroom scene of Act 5 scene 12? How does the courtroom "play" compare to the earlier plays-within-a-play (such as Volpone's deathbed act or his performance as Scoto)? How does the courtroom play-within-a-play relate to the play Volpone itself? That is how do the performances in the courtroom (directed toward the judges) comment on that of the play Volpone (directed toward the theater audience)?

5. How do the various punishments meted out to Volpone Mosca and the others compare? Why are they so inequitable?

6. In Act 3 attempting to defend against the foul plans of her husband Mosca and Volpone Celia declares her dedication to the preservation of honor (her own and her husband's). Corvino's response dismisses her scruples. Is Celia's view of honor vindicated by the end of the play?

7. The Norton introduction to the play speculates "that what Venice is in the play England is about to become in the city of London the year of our Lord 1606"; and that Jonson given his "vigorous social morality would not have rejected" such an interpretation.

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