Volpone and Lear – Introduction

The third requisite in our poet or maker is imitation, imitatio, to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use.  To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him until he grow very he, or so like him as the copy may be mistaken for the principal.  Not as a creature that swallows that it takes in, crude, raw, or undigested; but that feeds with an appetite and hath a stomach to concoct, divide, and turn all into nourishment.

Ben Jonson’s Discoveries

 

Ben Jonson was a young man in his mid 20s (almost 10 years younger than Shakespeare) and a writer of some notoriety, having been jailed for his part in the Ile of Dogs a scandalous play a year or two earlier. But the play he presented in 1598 to Shakespeare’s Company, the then Lord Chancellor’s actors, Everyman in His Humour, was to mark an historic beginning in a relationship that would continue, certainly on Jonson’s part, beyond Shakespeare’s death in 1616,  since in 1623 Jonson was to write a famous celebratory poem to Shakespeare that was prefixed to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works.   He entitled it “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare”.  Yet in 1598 and throughout the next half dozen years Shakespeare and his actors could hardly have foreseen the alternative kind of drama and personal turbulence that Jonson’s part in their lives would mean.

Jonson, as distinct from Shakespeare’s achievement in the 1590s with History and Romantic Comedy, was sending young people out on to metropolitan streets to experience what present life meant for themselves.  Everyman in His Humour has the air of what we know today as a ‘sitcom’, a light, bright recognisable set of exchanges between adult and young, dealing with current topics the audience is at ease with, and subtly displacing in Seinfeld style old ways of talking about social manners and beliefs.  The term ‘Everyman’, by contrast, had once belonged to the Morality play tradition of the fourteenth and fifteenth century theatre, signifying a universal character such as Mankind often at the point of death and confessing what he had learned about life.  Jonson deconstructs this world and presents instead a contemporary situation laughing at the old forms of social pietism and offering himself as psychologist, sociologist and poet-cum-journalist of the day.

Shakespeare himself is listed as one of the actors in Everyman in His Humour. In 1598 he was at a high point in the first phase of his career as a dramatist, and was about to move into his central period of dramatic achievement in both tragedy and comedy.  From Richard II to King Lear, from 1598 to 1606, Shakespeare was identifying with and penetrating the inner workings of the human spirit.  Jonson, however, in these same years  would be losing touch with the freshness of his first success and more and more becoming a stand-off, censorious critic of his times and his fellow dramatists.  In his next play Everyman Out of His Humour (1600) we see the critic in Jonson beginning to displace the dramatist.   Jonson’s social notoriety also followed him in these years, being jailed for his part in slaying a fellow actor in a duel and while in jail converting to Roman Catholicism.

Jonson became embroiled in public controversy in these years in what is known as ‘The Wars of the Theatres’ where ancient Roman subjects were used as a medium for personal abuse and wrangling among fellow dramatists.  Yet in Sejanus (1603) Jonson recovered to a certain degree offering a powerful presentation of Roman villainy that could be translated into contemporary terms, robustly analysing the Renaissance and European worship of power as if he were an English Machiavelli. The play failed and Jonson in the preface of the published text of Sejanus acknowledged his work as a disaster on stage.  He observed that the audience reacted more trenchantly to it than did the Roman citizens to Sejanus himself. (They tore Sejanus to pieces).  Here, it is intriguing to note that Shakespeare is listed as a principal actor in Jonson’s Sejanus, and it may have been the one time Shakespeare was booed off the English stage.  The irony was compounded further when comparisons were publically made between Sejanus and Shakespeare’s Othello, closely appearing at much the same time with the same actors, clearly to Shakespeare’s credit and Jonson’s discredit.

In spite of these ups and downs, however, Shakespeare and Jonson must have survived in their relationship since the Humour plays are known to have been presented in 1604 at the Christmas entertainments of the Court of James I.  It is as if Shakespeare’s actors had seen what was good in Jonson’s work in spite of its difference from Shakespeare’s work and were ready in 1605 when the opportunity to present Volpone came along.  Jonson, himself, in Timber or Discoveries being observations on Men and Manners, gives a valuable, and lively, account of one exchange he had with the actors.  They were boasting about Shakespeare’s gift of fluency.   Jonson objected, only to cause a sharp reaction among the actors.

I  remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line.  My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ which they thought a malevolent speech.  I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted.

It is worth noting the boldness, candour and self confidence in Jonson in this moment of critical opinion.  He passed judgment often on his fellow poets and dramatists – Spenser, Donne, Daniel were among them – in this same critical but equally judicious way.  Here, however, it led him to go on with praise of Shakespeare that stands out like a beacon.  Jonson continues in Timber:

And to justify mine own candour, for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.

A phrase such as ‘on this side Idolatry’ has slipped into the English language as both proverbial and paradoxical to suggest, if possible, an ultimate in qualified praise.  Here it is offered with the warm-hearted wit of an admiring equal.  Jonson goes on in an open and personal way to comment on Shakespeare:

He was, indeed, honest and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.  ‘Sufflaminandus erat’ as Augustus said of Haterius.  His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too!

Within the room offered by these judicious, if somewhat distancing remarks, there is opportunity to sense Jonson’s robust presence and temper.  His remarks strike a modern note and tone, not merely historical.  Yet it may not be easy to recognize them as remarks by one contemporary writer on another contemporary.  They are lifted up out of the morass of antiquarian eulogy to present with judgment and praise a fellow writer in terms that later centuries would be glad to assume and share.

Nowhere is this gift of Jonson providing later tradition with language for the praise of Shakespeare more clear than in the eulogy he penned for the first Folio of Shakespeare’s Works in 1623.  Jonson had twenty or more years behind him when he came to make his most celebrated statement on Shakespeare.  He clearly wished to make a statement worthy of the great mass of Shakespeare’s works that Hemmings and Condell had collected.  Yet he was self conscious and diffident as he approached the writing.  The opening sixteen lines read awkwardly for the modern reader, with Jonson showing an awareness of the many false steps he could take in praising Shakespeare.  It is a negative gambit yet one that in the poem’s ninety lines creates a kind of ballast for when the poem’s praise is released with magnificent wind in its sails.  So it is in this way that Jonson begins his eulogy; and then bursts out:

I therefore will begin.  Soul of the age!

            The applause!  Delight!  The wonder of our stage!

            My Shakespeare, rise;

Such remarkable exclamations burst into orbit from a ground of ordinariness, historically speaking, in English eulogies.  They carry with them an original feel for Zeitgeist, capturing and ennobling the spirit of the times.  They express themselves in the language of the theatre:  applause, drama, delight, stagecraft.  It is a huge and sudden claim Jonson makes for Shakespeare, its hugeness controlled by the focus and judgement in the phrasing.

Then follows ten lines of comparison with both earlier and contemporary English writers; it is literary history in the making, seemingly objective and offering judgements yet at the same time strikingly original on Jonson’s part.  (Jonson’s early sense of English literary history is a mark of his originality.)  At the same time as he skirmishes with reputations he throws off a definitive judgement of Shakespeare in simple words and almost in proverbial form:

Thou art a monument without a tomb

            And art alive still while thy book doth live

He, then, carries on with an ancient joke drawn from Roman ignorance of the Greek language; and proceeds to apply it to Shakespeare:

            And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek

It allows Jonson a segue into classical comparisons where Shakespeare is compared with Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Virgil, extravagant praise mixing with jostling humour at Shakespeare’s expense from a friend and comrade.  Jonson’s classical knowledge easily handles references to: ‘tart Aristophanes, Neat Terence, Witty Plautus’ where qualities are mentioned only to be associated with, and then surpassed by, Shakespeare. It is on this big stage of Western cultural history that Jonson sees Shakespeare’s achievement.

From this height Jonson has given himself room to descend, which he does in an equally remarkable, if challenging, way through awareness of the art of writing:

Yet must I not give Nature all; thy Art,

            My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part. 

            For though the poet’s matter Nature be,

            His art does give the fashion; and that he

            Who casts to write a living line must sweat

            {Such as thine are} and strike the second heat

            Upon the muse’s anvil; turn the same,

            And himself with it, that he thinks to frame.

            Or for the laurel he may gain or scorn;

            For a good poet’s made as well as born.

Recalling Jonson’s exchange with the actors about Shakespeare’s fluency, we must suspect Jonson of projecting his own situation into this last way of praising Shakespeare.  The passage seems to be a clarion call for neoclassicism in poetry.  The heroic couplet that Dryden and Pope would later refine is here being announced in Jonson’s original style.  There is an openness, a roughness, in the context and reference of the words.  The ten syllable line and rhyming couplets announce a preferred closed style, yet one that plays a secondary role to the meaning being offered.

Continuing the above quotation:

And such wert thou!  Look how the father’s face

            Lives in his issue, even so the race

            Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines

            In his well-turned and true filed lines,

            In each of which he seems to shake a lance

            As brandished in the eyes of ignorance.

Within the tautness of these couplets Jonson is showing off the many facets of Shakespeare’s presence of an artist.  Nevertheless, Jonson is keeping his own voice both alive and distinct in the praise he offers.

Jonson having exhausted his limits of praise in literary terms moves towards the end of his poem with social awareness of Shakespeare’s background and the fame he won in English eyes, including royalty:

Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were

            To see thee in our waters yet appear,

            And make those flights upon the banks of Thames

            That so did take Eliza and our James!

Queen and King are deftly acknowledged in this way yet all to Shakespeare’s fame.  The tone is generous, even indulgent, finally allowing Jonson to rise in his closing lines both to extravagant celebration while noting that the English theatre  following Shakespeare’s death had slipped into a period of decline.  Jonson never lost his realism while celebrating Shakespeare’s rise to a transcendent position.

Ben Jonson was a young man in his mid 20s (almost 10 years younger than Shakespeare) and a writer of some notoriety, having been jailed for his part in the Ile of Dogs a scandalous play a year or two earlier. But the play he presented in 1598 to Shakespeare’s Company, the then Lord Chancellor’s actors, Everyman in His Humour, was to mark an historic beginning in a relationship that would continue, certainly on Jonson’s part, beyond Shakespeare’s death in 1616; since in 1623 Jonson was to write a famous celebratory poem to Shakespeare that was prefixed to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works. He entitled it “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare”. Yet in 1598 and throughout the next half dozen years Shakespeare and his actors could hardly have foreseen the alternative kind of drama and personal turbulence that Jonson’s part in their lives would mean.
Jonson, instead of Shakespeare’s achievement in the 1590s with History and Romantic Comedy, was sending young people out on to metropolitan streets to experience what present life meant for themselves. Everyman in His Humour has the air of what we know today as a ‘sitcom’, a light, bright recognisable set of exchanges between adult and young, dealing with current topics the audience is at ease with, and subtly displacing in Seinfeld style old ways of talking about social manners and beliefs. The term ‘Everyman’, by contrast, had once belonged to the Morality play tradition of the fourteenth and fifteenth century theatre, signifying a universal character such as Mankind often at the point of death and confessing what he had learned about life. Jonson deconstructs this world and presents instead a contemporary situation laughing at the old forms of social pietism and offering himself as psychologist, sociologist and poet-cum-journalist of the day.
Shakespeare himself is listed as one of the actors in Everyman in His Humour. In 1598 he was at a high point in the first phase of his career as a dramatist, and was about to move into his central period of dramatic achievement in both tragedy and comedy. From Richard II to King Lear, from 1598 to 1606, Shakespeare was identifying with and penetrating the inner workings of the human spirit. Jonson, however, in these same years would be losing touch with the freshness of his first success and more and more becoming a stand-off, censorious critic of his times and his fellow dramatists. In his next play Everyman Out of His Humour (1600) we see the critic in Jonson beginning to displace the dramatist.

Jonson’s social notoriety also followed him in these years, being jailed for his part in slaying a fellow actor in a duel and while in jail converting to Roman Catholicism.
Jonson became embroiled in public controversy in these years in what is known as ‘The Wars of the Theatres’ where ancient Roman subjects were used as a medium for personal abuse and wrangling among fellow dramatists. Yet in Sejanus (1603) Jonson recovered to a certain degree offering a powerful presentation of Roman villainy that could be translated into contemporary terms, robustly analysing the Renaissance and European worship of power as if he were an English Machiavelli. The play failed and Jonson in the preface of the published text of Sejanus acknowledged his work as a disaster on stage. He observed that the audience reacted more trenchantly to it than did the Roman citizens to Sejanus himself. (They tore Sejanus to pieces). Here, it is intriguing to note that Shakespeare is listed as a principal actor in Jonson’s Sejanus, and it may have been the one time Shakespeare was booed off the English stage. The irony was compounded further when comparisons were publically made between Sejanus and Shakespeare’s Othello, closely appearing at much the same time with the same actors, clearly to Shakespeare’s credit and Jonson’s discredit.
In spite of these ups and downs, however, Shakespeare and Jonson must have survived in their relationship since the Humour plays are known to have been presented in 1604 at the Christmas entertainments of the Court of James I. It is as if Shakespeare’s actors had seen what was good in Jonson’s work in spite of its difference from Shakespeare’s work and were ready in 1605 when the opportunity to present Volpone came along. Jonson, himself, in Timber or Discoveries being observations on Men and Manners, gives a valuable, and lively, account of one exchange he had with the actors. They were boasting about Shakespeare’s gift of fluency. Jonson objected, only to cause a sharp reaction among the actors.
I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted.
It is worth noting the boldness, candour and self confidence in Jonson in this moment of critical opinion. He passed judgment often on his fellow poets and dramatists – Spenser, Donne, Daniel were among them – in this same critical but equally judicious way. Here, however, it led him to go on with praise of Shakespeare that stands out like a beacon. Jonson continues in Timber:
And to justify mine own candour, for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.
A phrase such as ‘on this side Idolatry’ has slipped into the English language as both proverbial and paradoxical to suggest, if possible, an ultimate in qualified praise. Here it is offered with the warm-hearted wit of an admiring equal. Jonson goes on in an open and personal way to comment on Shakespeare:
He was, indeed, honest and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped. ‘Sufflaminandus erat’ as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too!
Within the room offered by these judicious, if somewhat distancing remarks, there is opportunity to sense Jonson’s robust presence and temper. His remarks strike a modern note and tone, not merely historical. Yet it may not be easy to recognize them as remarks by one contemporary writer on another contemporary. They are lifted up out of the morass of antiquarian eulogy to present with judgment and praise a fellow writer in terms that later centuries would be glad to assume and share.
Nowhere is this gift of Jonson providing later tradition with language for the praise of Shakespeare more clear than in the eulogy he penned for the first Folio of Shakespeare’s Works in 1623. Jonson had twenty or more years behind him when he came to make his most celebrated statement on Shakespeare. He clearly wished to make a statement worthy of the great mass of Shakespeare’s works that Hemmings and Condell had collected. Yet he was self conscious and diffident as he approached the writing. The opening sixteen lines read awkwardly for the modern reader, with Jonson showing an awareness of the many false steps he could take in praising Shakespeare. It is a negative gambit yet one that in the poem’s ninety lines creates a kind of ballast for when the poem’s praise is released with magnificent wind in its sails. So it is in this way that Jonson begins his eulogy; and then bursts out:
I therefore will begin. Soul of the age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise;
Such remarkable exclamations burst into orbit from a ground of ordinariness, historically speaking, in English eulogies. They carry with them an original feel for Zeitgeist, capturing and ennobling the spirit of the times. They express themselves in the language of the theatre: applause, drama, delight, stagecraft. It is a huge and sudden claim Jonson makes for Shakespeare, its hugeness controlled by the focus and judgement in the phrasing.
Then follows ten lines of comparison with both earlier and contemporary English writers; it is literary history in the making, seemingly objective and offering judgements yet at the same time strikingly original on Jonson’s part. (Jonson’s early sense of English literary history is a mark of his originality.) At the same time as he skirmishes with reputations he throws off a definitive judgement of Shakespeare in simple words and almost in proverbial form:
Thou art a monument without a tomb
And art alive still while thy book doth live
He, then, carries on with an ancient joke drawn from Roman ignorance of the Greek language; and proceeds to apply it to Shakespeare:
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek
It allows Jonson a segue into classical comparisons where Shakespeare is compared with Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Virgil, extravagant praise mixing with jostling humour at Shakespeare’s expense from a friend and comrade. Jonson’s classical knowledge easily handles references to: ‘tart Aristophanes, Neat Terence, Witty Plautus’ where qualities are mentioned only to be associated with, and then surpassed by, Shakespeare. It is on this big stage of Western cultural history that Jonson sees Shakespeare’s achievement.
From this height Jonson has given himself room to descend, which he does in an equally remarkable, if challenging, way through awareness of the art of writing:
Yet must I not give Nature all; thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter Nature be,
His art does give the fashion; and that he
Who casts to write a living line must sweat
{Such as thine are} and strike the second heat
Upon the muse’s anvil; turn the same,
And himself with it, that he thinks to frame.
Or for the laurel he may gain or scorn;
For a good poet’s made as well as born.
Recalling Jonson’s exchange with the actors about Shakespeare’s fluency, we must suspect Jonson of projecting his own situation into this last way of praising Shakespeare. The passage seems to be a clarion call for neoclassicism in poetry. The heroic couplet that Dryden and Pope would later refine is here being announced in Jonson’s original style. There is an openness, a roughness, in the context and reference of the words. The ten syllable line and rhyming couplets announce a preferred closed style, yet one that plays a secondary role to the meaning being offered.
Continuing the above quotation:

And such wert thou! Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned and true filed lines,
In each of which he seems to shake a lance
As brandished in the eyes of ignorance.
Within the tautness of these couplets Jonson is showing off the many facets of Shakespeare’s presence of an artist. Nevertheless, Jonson is keeping his own voice both alive and distinct in the praise he offers.
Jonson having exhausted his limits of praise in literary terms moves towards the end of his poem with social awareness of Shakespeare’s background and the fame he won in English eyes, including royalty:
Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!
Queen and King are deftly acknowledged in this way yet all to Shakespeare’s fame. The tone is generous, even indulgent, finally allowing Jonson to rise in his closing lines both to extravagant celebration while noting that the English theatre following Shakespeare’s death had slipped into a period of decline. Jonson never lost his realism while celebrating Shakespeare’s rise to a transcendent position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s