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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

§ 17. His later Comedies

The Divell is an Asse betrays a flagging invention, as was to be expected after the prodigal expenditure of the four preceding comedies. The machinery of the devils is not very happy. Pug, a lesser devil, is despatched by Satan to do some mischief; but his stupidity renders his expedition unsuccessful, and, indeed, leaves it without effect on the action of the play. Jonson, apparently, planned to enlarge his collection of gulls by proving the devil one; but the result of this humorous conception is merely to add another stupid and uninteresting person to the dramatis personae. The other characters are more or less repetitions of those in earlier plays, though the chief gull, Fitzdottrel, who aims to become “Duke of Brownlands” through taking part in a project for draining the waste lands of the kingdom, gives rise to plenty of humour. The satire is lively, especially that on the exorcism of supposed evil spirits, and that on projectors and projects—among which is one for “serving the whole state with toothpicks.” Mrs. Fitzdottrel is drawn with more sympathy than is common in the case of Jonson’s female characters, and all the characters are, as usual, carefully, differentiated. But the comic entanglements are cumbersome, and the play moves heavily.

Nine years intervened before the appearance of Jonson’s next comedy, The Staple of Newes. Though his prologue is as boastful as ever, yet, in the induction and the intercalary scenes, there are indications that he felt the uncertainty of his powers and was driven back to the stage by want. He went to Aristophanes for a model, composing an allegorical satire based on Plutus, from which and from The Wasps he borrowed certain passages. The main allegory of Pecunia, Pennyboy, Mortgage and the rest, is tiresome; but the secondary plot, dealing with the Staple-of-News office, has excellent satire and fun. So, too, has the scheme of the Canters’ college. But the details of the plan are not fused into a dramatic whole. More than any play since Cynthia’s Revels, this production lacks the movement and verisimilitude indispensable in comedy.

The remaining comedies come near to deserving Dryden’s harsh criticism: “mere dotages.” The New Inne was incontinently damned at its first representation, and published two years later (1631) by Jonson with an angry address to the reader. The improbable plot, dependent on the disguises of Lord Frampul as an inn-keeper, his wife as a vulgar Irish beggar and their second daughter as a boy, deals, mainly, with the winning of the elder daughter by Lord Lovel, thanks to two elaborate orations on love and valour before a mock court of love. The play aims at taking advantage of the current interest in “platonism” fostered at court by the queen; and both the platonic Lady Frampul and her suitor are treated sympathetically. But the platonic addresses are dull; and so, indeed, is the low comedy supplied by Fly, Bat Burst, Sir Glorious Tipto and others. The failure of the play called forth Jonson’s ode “Come, leave the loathe¨d stage”; but one’s sympathies incline to remain with the audience. Four years later, The Magnetick Lady: Or Humors Reconcil’d attempted a continuation and conclusion of the series of comedies of humours begun thirty-five years before. A marriageable young niece of the magnetic lady is constituted the “centre attractive, to draw thither a diversity of guests, all persons of different humours, to make up his [the author’s] perimeter.” This plan is carried out in a half-hearted way, though with the usual elaborate attention to details, and explanatory intermezzos. But, while the acts conform to the laws of protasis, epitasis and catastasis, there is no life or wit. A Tale of a Tub was acted in the same year. Various references to the queen make it likely that the play was first written about 1597; but the satire on Inigo Jones as In and In Medley must have been incorporated in the 1633 revision. The separation of the early crudities and the later dotages is now impossible. The action, of the trickster-tricked variety, deals entirely with rustics, and presents considerable ingenuity and possibility of fun. The characters, however, are all beneath interest, and the whole treatment reveals neither fresh nor worthy impulse.

Two additional plays, which, on some seventeenth century authority, have been ascribed in part to Jonson, probably owe little or nothing to his pen. The Widdow, published (1652) as by Jonson, Fletcher and Middleton, was, probably, wholly by Middleton. The Bloody Brother (entered in the Stationers’ register, 1639, as by “B. J.,” and printed in 1640 as by “B. J. F. ”) is, undoubtedly, in part by Fletcher. Jonson’s share can hardly have extended beyond the second scene of act IV.