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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 13. His Tragedies

Jonson now deserted comedy for a time. His additions to The Spanish Tragedie and the non-extant Richard Crookback were acted within the next two years. In connection with Sejanus (acted 1603), we may consider Catiline (acted 1611) as representing Jonson’s contribution to tragedy; The Fall of Mortimer is only a fragment, and, apparently, was intended to be even more classical than Catiline.

In these two plays, Jonson attempted in tragedy a reform similar to that which he had striven for in comedy. He sought to treat Roman history with scholarly accuracy and to exemplify upon the public stage what he regarded as the essential rules of tragic art. Such representations of Roman history as Lodge’s The Wounds of Civill War, or the still more incongruous medley of Heywood’s Lucrece, must have excited in him even greater condemnation than did the English chronicle plays. We know that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar provoked a sneer or two from Jonson, though its dramatisation of Plutarch’s portraits apparently excited his emulation and suggested much in his treatment of Sejanus and Catiline. Mere spectacle and farce disappear, and events are treated in accord with a well thought-out theory of historical tragedy. But Jonson’s theory proved hampering; while his effort to secure fidelity to the historical authorities led him to encumber Sejanus with an absurd paraphernalia of notes, and to transcribe large portions of Cicero’s orations into Catiline. And, as he was forced to confess, the historical material and the style of action demanded by the audiences of the day did not readily lend themselves to the restrictions of classical rules.

His plays, it must be remembered, were intended for the public stage, and are not to be classed with closet dramas like those of Fulke Greville and William Alexander. Jonson had already contributed to current popular forms of tragedy, and he started with these as a basis, attempting to rebuild them into something more like classical models. His cardinal error was his acceptance of the belief of the classicists that the essential difference between epic and dramatic fable lay in the observance of the three unities and similar proprieties. In Sejanus he gave up unity of time, but kept that of place; he retained the comic scenes of the courtesan, but avoided any grotesque mixture of the comic and the tragic. He omitted battles, jigs and spectacles, and secured a coherent and carefully integrated development of the main action. In Catiline, which he boldly proclaimed a “dramatic poem,” he adopted the Senecan technique of an introductory ghost and a segregated chorus. In both plays, he was following both humanistic and popular practice in choosing for his themes the evil effects of ambition resulting in conspiracy and civil war.

When we consider the self-imposed restrictions by which he was bound, his achievement must seem remarkable. His interest lay largely in characterisation, and in this resides the chief merit of the plays. Jonson, to be sure, never learned Shakespeare’s art of transforming incidents and events into terms of a spiritual conflict. His method is rather that of exposition, each scene illustrating and emphasising some trait without securing much illusion of life. Yet the chief persons, Sejanus and Tiberius, Catiline and Cicero, are thoughtfully conceived and faithfully represented. Moreover, the minor characters are depicted with care and even with vivacity, so that the picture of Roman life carries a strong impression of truthfulness, due to the whole-hearted concentration of Jonson’s imagination upon his task as well as to his painstaking study of authorities. In their interpretation of historical characters, his tragedies resemble those of his friend Chapman; but he lacks Chapman’s extraordinary eloquence. Jonson’s style, especially in long speeches, is too often rhetorical, and rarely displays great beauty or dramatic power. Yet it is masterly in its way, competent to its purposes and free from obscurity or over-ornamentation. The two tragedies, however, in spite of their excellences, must be regarded as representing another failure to turn popular English tragedy back into the classical mould.

Jonson’s return to comedy after Sejanus was made in 1604–5, in collaboration with Chapman and Marston, in Eastward Hoe. No success has attended any endeavour to disentangle the contributions of the three authors, and their co-operation was probably very intimate. It seems likely that Jonson aided largely in plan and suggestion, and that comparatively little of the prose text was by him.