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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

§ 18. His place in Literature

Jonson’s qualities as a dramatist, with regard to which there is general critical agreement, have, perhaps, been sufficiently indicated. His wide and penetrating observation of manners, whether of city or of court, and his ingenious and systematic construction of plots are obvious merits. But the great excellence of both his tragedies and his comedies is their delineation of character. This is conditioned less than in other Elizabethan dramatists by the story, but more by classical models and rules, as in his observance of the unities, or his fidelity to historical authorities, or his copying of the Plautian plan and types. It is also conditioned by his method of making each person the illustration of one trait or humour, and by his disposition to substitute description for drama, and satire for fact, and to exaggerate his satire into farce. Thus, in Every Man in His Humour, only Bobadill represents the complete transformation of a type into an individual; and, in Bartholomew Fayre, the individualisation follows the broad lines of caricature. Again, each person is set forth with such distinctness of detail that, while it aids visualisation, it often distracts from the interest of situation. Only in The Alchemist is there an entire absence of this impeding garrulity. Akin to this defect are Jonson’s over-use 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, in spite of all these limitations, Jonson’s comic characterisation remains among the greatest achievements of the English drama, because of its clearness and certainty, its richness of humour and its dramatic veracity. A. W. Ward is justified in giving him preeminence in the highest species of comedy, that “in which everything else is subordinated to the dramatic unfolding of character.”

What most discourages the reader of Jonson is the absence of charm. Jonson was certainly not incapable of depicting noble passions or of writing winsome verse; but in his plays he resolutely refused to attempt either. This refusal, in marked contrast with the practice of his fellow Elizabethans, is precisely the negative side of his most positive characteristics. He did not write of passions, but of follies—not of fairyland, but of London; he often deliberately preferred prose to poetry, and he always restrained poetry to his subject. If poetry must, at times, have freedom, it must, at times, have restraint; if, at times, it may soar on fancy’s wing or evoke glorious or appalling habitants for our reflection, at other times it may well cling to the actualities of daily existence. Comedy, of all forms of literature, has its duties in the street or tavern as well as in Arden or on the sea-coast of Bohemia. Jonson found neither charm nor heroism in London streets, though both were unquestionably there. He found neither the truth and passion that lay at the heart of puritanism nor the joy and fancy that stirred the light-hearted moods of Fletcher, Shirley, or Herrick. But he mirrored what he saw of men and manners with an untiring fidelity, heightened and coloured his picture with a hearty and virile humour and interpreted it by a sound and censorious morality. Imaginative idealism, characteristic of the Elizabethan age and its literature, had another and a greater master; but interest in the depiction and criticism of the actual life of the day—an interest essential to vitality in the literature of any age, and manifest in the golden days of the Armada as well as in degenerate Jacobean times—had its chief exponent in Jonson.

His influence, commanding in his own day, has continued down to the present. His comedies were imitated so soon as they appeared; witness Everie Woman in her Humor (1609, acted by 1600). Beaumont and Fletcher studied in his school, as The Woman Hater, written by the former, testifies; and Marston, Middleton and Chapman profited from his example. Of later dramatists, Field, Randolph, Cartwright, Nabbes and May—to name no others—employed Jonson’s methods and wrote plays in his manner. The comedy of humours became, in fact, an established model, which few later writers altogether disregarded. All realistic comedy owned its influence, and reminiscences of its most effective scenes and types of character found their way into every kind of drama. There were other leaders in realistic comedy, Middleton in particular, who may be said to have set an example of a less satirical, less moral, but hardly less Plautian, representation of London manners. But Jonson continued through his lifetime the chief advocate and exemplar of serious realism.

After the Restoration, Jonson’s reputation, for a time, increased. Dryden’s praise was echoed by Dennis and others, especially by those who were most eager to see neo-classical rules and models prevail in the theatres. Both his tragedies and his comedies were held in high esteem. The former were revived, but did not long hold the stage. The latter found a warm welcome on the stage and maintained themselves there during the long period when Shakespeare’s romantic comedies failed to please. Bartholomew Fayre disappeared (1731), even before As You Like It returned to the stage (1740), and, of Volpone, The Silent Woman and The Alchemist not one has outlasted the eighteenth century on the public boards. The last three were revived by Garrick, who also brought out a revision of Every Man in his Humour. That play continued on the stage well into the nineteenth century.

Jonson’s influence, moreover, has been felt in the novel as well as in the drama. His plays have been constantly read and have always encouraged a study of the absurdities of character and the incongruities of manners. Fielding and Smollett were conscious of their incentive, and Dickens, who knew them well and himself acted Bobadill, must, to no inconsiderable extent, have been indebted to their suggestion. Not only are there specific resemblances, as between Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Stiggins, but Dickens’s comic invention and characterisation are often strikingly Jonsonian in method and effect. Whether Jonson’s comedies are ever again revived on the stage or not, they are likely to continue long to encourage in fiction a frank and searching presentation of foible and folly.