Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience


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Satire and the Audience

Things were not exactly friendly between England and Spain in the s, and relations between European Catholics and Protestants were even worse. This confessional unease in England was a contributing factor to the English Civil Wars , which kicked off about twenty years later.

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Ben Jonson, John Marston And Early Modern Drama: Satire And The Audience

Middleton—city chronologer, well-established playwright, and staunch Protestant—was not afraid to make his views on the subject known through his work. In , he and his long-term collaborator William Rowley had written The Changeling , which characterized the Spanish as untrustworthy, lusty, immoral, and obnoxiously Catholic. Although it was illegal to portray a living monarch onstage at the time, Chess portrays two pretty transparently: King James, and Philip IV, King of Spain.

It also portrays their queens and a number of recognizable noblemen. Most notably, the Black Knight is a straight-up satirical representation of Count Gondomar, the former Spanish ambassador. The connection between the Black Knight and Gondomar was blatantly obvious; check out this account from the ambassador who succeeded Gondomar, don Carlos Coloma:.


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The second act was directed against the Archbishop of Salatro, at that time a white piece, but afterwards won over to the black side by the Count of Gondomar, who, brought onto the stage in his litter almost to the life, and seated in his chair with a hole in it they said , confessed all the treacherous actions with which he had deceived and soothed the king of the whites. When A Game at Chess premiered at the Globe on August 6, , no one could have predicted that it would become such a sensation.

In an earlier part of his letter, written after the play had already been running for four days, don Carlos Coloma describes the crowds that were still flocking to the Globe:. There was such merriment, hubbub and applause that even if I had been many leagues away it would not have been possible for me not to have taken notice of it. A Game at Chess would most likely have continued to play for as long as people wanted to see it, but Coloma complained to the King. By August 14, the theatre had been shut down and the actors had been summoned to appear before the Privy Council, a group of councillors tasked with advising the monarch.

Middleton himself went into hiding, his son Edward was arrested, and many of the actors were imprisoned.

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For all the gory details, check out T. Today, and in light of the controversy around Julius Caesar, I also want to see its epilogue as a call to arms. A lot of people went to a lot of trouble to make sure that the text of the play and its extraordinary performance history would survive censorship. Not only is A Game at Chess the most popular play of the English Renaissance, bar none, but it is also one of the most thoroughly documented. It survives in more manuscripts than any other play of that period—a total of six.

For six manuscripts of a single play to make it through four hundred years of trials and tribulations is no mean feat, and it indicates that these were valuable documents to those who owned them. It also suggests that there may have been many more manuscripts produced than we know of. If we stop theatres—especially theatres that offer free tickets—from presenting challenging, satirical, or even offensive material, who is losing access?

Who is being excluded from the debate? In addition, A Game at Chess is the first play of the early modern period to be published in single-play editions with engraved title pages the image that accompanies this article is one of them. The title page images suggest costuming and possible staging from the performances. There were, ultimately, four quarto publications of the play during the late s, indicating that it was very popular with readers long after it closed down at the Globe. It is worth thinking about whether this still happens today.

So I argue, although its topical humor has since lost its bite, this play and its aftermath still have much to teach us about political theatre, censorship, and resistance. You're so welcome! It's a bit of a slog to read because it was so topical, but it really comes to life when performed.


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Interested in following this conversation in real time? Again, in "The Wonder of Women," the majestic figures of Massinissa, Gelosso, and Sophonisba stand out in clearer relief than the traitors of the senate, the lecherous malignity of Syphax, or the monstrous profile of the sorceress Erichtho. In this labored and ambitious tragedy, as in the two parts of "Antonio and Mellida," we see the poet at his best — and also at his worst. A vehement and resolute desire to give weight to every line and emphasis to every phrase has too often misled him into such brakes and jungles of crabbed and convulsive bombast, of stiff and tortuous exuberance, that the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge: the hot and heavy blossoms of rhetoric blaze and glare out of a thickset fence of jagged barbarisms and exotic monstrosities of metaphor.

The straining and sputtering declamation of narrative and oratory scarcely succeeds in expressing through a dozen quaint and far-fetched words or phrases what two or three of the simplest would easily and amply have sufficed to convey. But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles when he does not prefer to make them stutter in a dialect worthy of Lycophron.

And in the tragedy of "Sophonisba" the display of this happy capacity is happily reserved for the crowning scene of the poem. It would be difficult to find anywhere a more preposterous or disjointed piece of jargon than the speech of Asdrubal at the close of the second act:. Brook open scorn, faint powers! The lofty sweetness, the proud pathos, the sonorous simplicity of these most noble verses might scarcely suffice to attest the poet's possession of any strong dramatic faculty.

But the scene immediately preceding bears evidence of a capacity for terse and rigorous brevity of dialogue in a style as curt and condensed as that of Tacitus or Dante:. What unjust grief afflicts my worthy lord? Ha, the cause? Bondage: Roman bondage. No, no! How then have I vowed well to Scipio? How then to Sophonisba? Wilt thou be slaved?

No; free. How then keep I my faith? Thou darest not die!

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (CH_01)

How near was I unto the curse of man, Joy! How like was I yet once to have been glad! Happiness makes us base. The man or the boy does not seem to me enviable who can read or remember these verses without a thrill. In sheer force of concision they recall the manner of Alfieri; but that noble tragic writer could hardly have put such fervor of austere passion into the rigid utterance, or touched the note of emotion with such a glowing depth of rapture.

That "bitter and severe delight" — if I may borrow the superb phrase of Landor — which inspires and sustains the imperial pride of self-immolation might have found in his dramatic dialect an expression as terse and as sincere: it could hardly have clothed itself with such majestic and radiant solemnity of living and breathing verse.

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The rapid elliptic method of amoebaean dialogue is more in his manner than in any English poet's known to me except the writer of this scene; but indeed Marston is in more points than one the most Italian of our dramatists. His highest tone of serious poetry has in it, like Alfieri's, a note of self-conscious stoicism and somewhat arrogant self-control; while as a comic writer he is but too apt, like too many transalpine wits, to mistake filth for fun, and to measure the neatness of a joke by its nastiness.

Dirt for dirt's sake has never been the apparent aim of any great English humorist who had not about him some unmistakable touch of disease — some inheritance of evil or of suffering like the congenital brain-sickness of Swift or the morbid infirmity of Sterne. A poet of so high an order as the author of "Sophonisba" could hardly fail to be in general a healthier writer than such as these; but it cannot be denied that he seems to have been somewhat inclined to accept the illogical inference which would argue that because some wit is dirty all dirt must be witty — because humor may sometimes be indecent, indecency must always be humorous.

It does happen that the drollest character in all Marston's plays is also the most offensive in his language — "the foulest-mouthed profane railing brother"; but the drollest passages in the whole part are those that least want washing. How far the example of Ben Jonson may have influenced or encouraged Marston in the indulgence of this unlovely propensity can only be conjectured; it is certain that no third writer of the time, however given to levity of speech or audacity in the selection of a subject, was so prone — in Shakespeare's phrase — to "talk greasily" as the authors of "Bartholomew Fair" and "The Dutch Courtesan.

In the two parts of his earlier tragedy the interest is perhaps, on the whole, rather better sustained than in "The Wonder of Women. Its eccentricities and perversities of phrase [3] may be no less noticeable, but should assuredly be accounted less memorable, than its profound and impassioned fervor of grave and eloquent harmony. Strange, wayward and savage as is the all but impossible story, rude and crude and crabbed as is the pedantically exuberant language of these plays, there are touches in them of such terrible beauty and such terrible pathos as to convince any competent reader that they deserve the tribute of such praise and such dispraise.

The youngest student of Lamb's "Specimens" can hardly fail to recognize this when he compares the vivid and piercing description of the death of Mellida with the fearful and supernatural impression of the scene which brings or thrusts before us the immolation of the child, her brother. The labored eccentricity of style which signalizes and disfigures the three chief tragedies or tragic poems of Marston is tempered and subdued to a soberer tone of taste and a more rational choice of expression in his less ambitious and less unequal works. It is almost impossible to imagine any insertion or addition from the hand of Webster which would not be at once obvious to any reader in the text of "Sophonisba" or in either part of "Antonio and Mellida.

Not all the conscientious art and skill of Webster could have given this uniformity to a work in which the original design and execution had been less in keeping with the bent of his own genius and the accent of his natural style. Sad and stern, not unhopeful or unloving, the spirit of this poem is more in harmony with that of Webster's later tragedies than with that of Marston's previous plays; its accent is sardonic rather than pessimistic, ironical rather than despondent.

The plot is neither well conceived nor well constructed; the catastrophe is little less than absurd, especially from the ethical or moral point of view; the characters are thinly sketched, the situations at once forced and conventional; there are few sorrier or stranger figures in serious fiction than that of the penitent usurper when he takes to his arms his repentant wife, together with one of her two paramours, in a sudden rapture of forgiving affection; the part which gives the play its name is the only one drawn with any firmness of outline, unless we except that of the malignant and distempered old parasite; but there is a certain interest in the awkward evolution of the story, and there are scenes and passages of singular power and beauty which would suffice to redeem the whole work from condemnation or oblivion, even though it had not the saving salt in it of an earnest and evident sincerity.

The brooding anger, the resentful resignation, the impatient spirit of endurance, the bitter passion of disdain, which animate the utterance and direct the action of the hero, are something more than dramatically appropriate; it is as obvious that these are the mainsprings of the poet's own ambitious and dissatisfied intelligence, sullen in its reluctant submission and ardent in its implacable appeal, as that his earlier undramatic satires were the tumultuous and turbid ebullitions of a mood as morbid, as restless, and as honest. Coarse, rough, and fierce as those satires are, inferior alike to Hall's in finish of verse and to Donne's in weight of matter, it seems to me that Dr.

Grosart, their first careful and critical editor, is right in claiming for them equal if not superior credit on the score of earnestness. The crude ferocity of their invective has about it a savor of honesty which atones for many defects of literary taste and executive art; and after a more thorough study than such rude and unattractive work seems at first to require or to deserve, the moral and intellectual impression of the whole will not improbably be far more favorable than one resulting from a cursory survey or derived from a casual selection of excerpts.

They bring no manner of support to a monstrous and preposterous imputation which has been cast upon their author; the charge of having been concerned in a miserably malignant and stupid attempt at satire under the form of a formless and worthless drama called "Histriomastix"; [4] though his partnership in another anonymous play — a semi-romantic semi-satirical comedy called "Jack Drum's Entertainment" — is very much more plausibly supportable by comparison of special phrases as well as of general style with sundry mannerisms as well as with the habitual turn of speech in Marston's acknowledged comedies.

There is a certain incomposite and indigestive vigor in the language of this play which makes the attribution of a principal share in its authorship neither utterly discreditable to Marston nor absolutely improbable in itself; and the satire aimed at Ben Jonson, if not especially relevant to the main action, is at all events less incongruous and preposterous in its relation to the rest of the work than the satirical or controversial part of Dekker's "Satiromastix.

The satirical references to Jonson are more pointed and effective in this comedy than in either of the two plays last mentioned; but its best claim to remembrance is to be sought in the admirable soliloquy which relates the seven years' experience of the student and his spaniel. Marston is too often heaviest when he would and should be lightest — owing apparently to a certain infusion of contempt for light comedy as something rather beneath him, not wholly worthy of his austere and ambitious capacity. The parliament of pages in this play is a diverting interlude of farce, though a mere irrelevance and impediment to the action; but the boys are less amusing than their compeers in the anonymous comedy of "Sir Giles Goosecap," first published in the year preceding: a work of genuine humor and invention, excellent in style if somewhat infirm in construction, for a reprint of which we are indebted to the previous care of Marston's present editor.

Far be it from me to intrude on the barren and boggy province of hypothetical interpretation and controversial commentary; but I may observe in passing that the original of Simplicius Faber in "What you Will" must surely have been the same hanger-on or sycophant of Ben Jonson's who was caricatured by Dekker in his "Satiromastix" under the name of Asinius Bubo. The gross assurance of self-complacent duncery, the apish arrogance and imitative dogmatism of reflected self-importance and authority at second hand, are presented in either case with such identity of tone and coloring that we can hardly imagine the satire to have been equally applicable to two contemporary satellites of the same imperious and masterful egoist.

That the same noble poet and high-souled humorist was not responsible for the offence given to Caledonian majesty in the comedy of "Eastward Ho! In the last scene of "The Malcontent" a court lady says to an infamous old hanger-on of the court: "And is not Signor St. Andrew a gallant fellow now? It is impossible to suppose that he would not have come forward to assume the responsibility of his own words — as it is impossible to imagine that Jonson or Chapman would have given up his accomplice to save himself.

But the law of the day would probably have held them all responsible alike. In the same year as "Eastward Ho! A more brilliant and amusing play than "The Dutch Courtesan," better composed, better constructed, and better written, it would be difficult to discover among the best comic and romantic works of its incomparable period. The slippery and sanguinary strumpet who gives its name to the play is sketched with such admirable force and freedom of hand as to suggest the existence of an actual model who may unconsciously have sat for the part under the scrutiny of eyes as keen and merciless as ever took notes for a savagely veracious caricature — or for an unscrupulously moral exposure.

The jargon in which her emotions are expressed is as Shakespearean in its breadth and persistency as that of Dr. Caius or Captain Fluellen; but the reality of those emotions is worthy of a less farcical vehicle for the expression of such natural craft and passion. The sisters, Beatrice and Crispinella, seem at first too evidently imitated from the characters of Aurelia and Phoenixella in the earliest surviving comedy of Ben Jonson; but the "comedy daughter," as Dickens or Skimpole would have expressed it, is even more coarsely and roughly drawn than in the early sketch of the more famous dramatist.

Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience

On the other hand, it must be allowed — though it may not be recognized without a certain sense of surprise — that the nobler and purer type of womanhood or girlhood which we owe to the hand of Marston is far above comparison with any which has been accomplished or achieved by the studious and vehement elaboration of Ben Jonson's.

The servility of subservience which that great dramatist exacts from his typically virtuous women — from the abject and anaemic wife of a Corvino or a Fitzdottrel — is a quality which could not coexist with the noble and loving humility of Marston's Beatrice. The admirable scene in which she is brought face to face with the impudent pretentions of the woman who asserts herself to have been preferred by the betrothed lover of the expectant bride is as pathetic and impressive as it is lifelike and original; and even in the excess of gentleness and modesty which prompts the words, "I will love you the better; I cannot hate what he affected," there is nothing less noble or less womanly than in the subsequent reply to the harlot's repeated taunts and inventions of insult: "He did not ill not to love me, but sure he did not well to mock me: gentle minds will pity, though they cannot love; yet peace and my love sleep with him.

Coarse as is often the language of Marston's plays and satires, the man was not coarse-minded — not gross of spirit nor base of nature — who could paint so delicately and simply a figure so beautiful in the tenderness of its purity. Hardly any Jourdain or Pourceaugnac, any George Dandin or Comtesse d'Escarbagnas of them all, undergoes a more grotesque experience or plays a more ludicrous part than is devised for Mr. Mulligrub by the ingenuity of the indefatigable Cocledemoy — a figure worthy to stand beside any of the tribe of Mascarille as fourbum imperator.

The animation and variety of inventive humor which keep the reader's laughing attention awake and amused throughout these adventurous scenes of incident and intrigue are not more admirable than the simplicity and clearness of evolution or composition which recall and rival the classic masterpieces of Latin and French comedy.

There is perhaps equal fertility of humor, but there certainly is not equal harmony of structure in the play which Marston published next year — "Parasitaster; or, the Fawn"; a name probably suggested by that of Ben Jonson's "Poetaster," in which the author had himself been the subject of a greater man's rage and ridicule. The wealth and the waste of power displayed and paraded in this comedy are equally admirable and lamentable; for the brilliant effect of its various episodes and interludes is not more obvious than the eclipse of the central interest, the collapse of the serious design, which results from the agglomeration of secondary figures and the alternations of perpetual by-play.

Ben Jonson, John Marston And Early Modern Drama: Satire And The Audience

Three or four better plays might have been made out of the materials here hurled and huddled together into one. He would fain see more of Dulcimel and Tiberio, the ingenious and enterprising princess, the ingenuous and responsive prince; he is willing to see as much as is shown him of their fathers, the masquerading philosopher and the self-complacent dupe; Granuffo, the patrician prototype of Captain John Bunsby, may take a seat in the chambers of his memory beside the commander of the Cautious Clara; the humors of a jealous foul-minded fool and a somewhat audaciously virtuous wife may divert him by the inventive and vigorous exposure of their various revolutions and results; but the final impression is one of admiring disappointment and possibly ungrateful regret that so much energetic satire and so much valuable time should have been spent on the somewhat nauseous follies of "sickly knights" and "vicious braggarts" that the really admirable and attractive parts of the design are cramped and crowded out of room for the due development of their just and requisite proportions.

A more eccentric, uneven, and incomposite piece of work than "The Insatiate Countess" it would be difficult to find in English or in other literature. The opening scene is picturesque and impressive; the closing scene of the serious part is noble and pathetic; but the intervening action is of a kind which too often aims at the tragic and hits the burlesque. The incessant inconstancy of passion which hurries the fantastic heroine through such a miscellaneous multitude of improvised intrigues is rather a comic than a tragic motive for the conduct of a play; and the farcical rapidity with which the puppets revolve makes it impossible for the most susceptible credulity to take any real interest or feel any real belief in the perpetual rotation of their feverish moods and motives, their irrational doings and sufferings.

The humor of the underplot constantly verges on horse-play, and is certainly neither delicate nor profound; but there is matter enough for mirth in it to make the reader duly grateful for the patient care and admirable insight which Mr. Bullen has brought to bear upon the really formidable if apparently trivial task of reducing the chaotic corruption and confusion of the text to reasonable form and comprehensible order.

Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience
Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience
Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience
Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience
Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience

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