Robert's Reviews > Five Plays

Five Plays by Ben Jonson
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Sep 09, 2008

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bookshelves: drama
Read from April 20, 2013 to November 05, 2014

I'll review each of these separately as I read them (or get around to it) rather than waiting until I've finished all five and probably re-blog the post each time I add to it.

Every Man in his Humour

I ended up reading this twice because of inattention early on which led to me losing the plot entirely... There's a certain amount of wit and playfulness in the language of this early comedy from Jonson and an Elizabethan favourite of stage comedy, characters in disguise and identity confusion but it's not all that funny on the page. Plainly some inventive visual/physical comedy would be required to make it work in the theatre but even then I can't rate it as anything other than a match for one of Shakespeare's weakest comedic efforts.

Sejanus, His Fall

Tragedy in the vein of Richard III or Tamburlaine the Great i.e. the protagonist is an evil git from the outset and you know it's going to end badly for him from page 1. I found this play tedious. The language was unexciting, as was the plot and I didn't feel that it offered any great insight into the mind or motivations of Sejanus either. Thus far I'd rate everyElizabethean or Jacobean playwright I've come across as better than Jonson - but these are early plays and perhaps his most famous work, Volpone, is next up. I'm hoping for better there.


Ah ha! This is why Jonson has a decent reputation! Volpone is a rich bloke in Venice and on his deathbed - except he's faking it, whilst various acquaintances try to ingratiate themselves with expensive gifts in the hope of being named as beneficiary in Volpone's will. Volpone is aided in his scheme by his "parasite", Mosca, who deftly manipulates all around him...and that's how things stand at the beginning of this deft comedy which explores morality, trickery and motivation through increasingly complex shenanigans and unexpected twists of plot that lead me a merry chase.

The writing is much better here than in either of the predecessors in this volume in just about any way I look at it. Interesting, even gripping by the end, plotting - I really wanted to know how the admittedly guessable resolution would actually be achieved. Effective comedy throughout (Sejanus isn't a comedy, however) much of which could be greatly enhanced on stage in an inventive production. Better characterisation and something I really liked, clever manipulation of my sympathies.

Examining some of these in more detail:

The plotting of this play takes an abrupt turn away from the predictable and gets increasingly complicated in a manner that reminds me of the Restoration Comedy of folks like Richard Brinsley Sheriden that was to come later. It's concern with cuckoldry brought to mind Moliere who also wasn't yet born when Volpone was first performed but, oddly, it also foreshadows Jacobean Revenge Tragedy in it's climax and resolution.

Initially, I was sympathetic towards Volpone, surrounded as he is by insincere flatterers, intent only on trying to benefit from his death. His trick of feigning terminal illness seemed fairly just. As the play progresses, though, Volpone is revealed as someone who revels in trickery for its own sake and as a method of obtaining whatever he wants, regardless of its morality (or lack there-of) and sympathy shifts to a couple of innocents caught up in the general scheming and perfidy of all and sundry. A neat trick by the author, in a play full of tricks, I thought.

This is the earliest use of Dickensian character naming that I can recall off-hand, though it's done in Latin: for example, Volpone (Fox) and Voltore (Vulture). The persons of the play are largely caricatures rather than really rounded people but that suits Jonson's purposes, I think, and makes them more interesting than everybody in both the earlier plays in this volume.

There's a lot of wit on display but as the names of the characters exemplify, much of it is quite erudite - and not just in the way that topical jokes that are four hundred years old are obscure or the way that puns can become unrecognisable without help because of changes in the language over the same length of time. No, Jonson makes jokes about people quoting and mis-quoting Classical Greek and Roman poets and philosophers and such like that must have been obscure to most of a contemporary audience.

Elizabethan theatre was very similar to current Hollywood; it would have rapidly gone bankrupt if it had not appealed to a mass audience from all strata of society - and back then very few had any education to speak of, let alone a grasp of the Classics good enough to know when a character is mis-quoting or mis-attributing a quote. One of the differences between plays then and films now is that authors tried much harder to appeal to everybody with every work. No separate art-houses and multiplexes then, though there were royal command performances sometimes. This makes me wonder whether Shkespeare's "Small Latin and less Greeke" as Jonson claimed, was not a factor in his greater popularity; jokes that have to be explained just aren't funny and hardly anybody was going to get all these references to Pythagoras and co.

So, perhaps less readily accessible than Shakespeare and not nearly as spectacular in his use of imagery and poetry but still this goes to the top of my favourites list of plays from the period, not by the Bard himself - and better than Will's worst efforts by some distance.

The Alchemist

This plays shares a number of themes - trickery, deception, greed - with Volpone. Unfortunately it lacks the wit and humour and was a dull slog for the first three Acts. The obscure alchemical and other references made it a particular chore. It, also like Volpone, had Dickensian character names, which has me beginning to wonder why they aren't referred to as "Jonsonian" names, since he wrote two centuries prior...this time the names are English, not Latin, however.

The action and plotting is very slow initially but (as with many five Act comedies) picks up a great deal in Acts IV and V and the alchemical jargon is dropped as the schemers' plans begin to unravel. There is still very little humour, however - some irony in the plotting is the sum total. I think even in production this would be a bit of a struggle to sit through until after the interval between Acts III and IV.

Volpone remains the stand-out work so-far, with only Bartholomew Fair to go.

Bartholomew Fair

Typically Jonsonian (at least as defined by the plays in this volume) in its focus on more "ordinary" members of society rather than the high-born, royal or historically famous characters that frequent most of Shakespeare's output (even of comedies). Also the Dickensian character names and the type of trickery and deception also seen in Volpone and The Alchemist, although for the most part the shenanigans here are much more light-hearted, less malicious and with the kind of wave-a-magic-wand last couple of scenes plot resolution you get in, say, As You Like It. And people in disguises! This era of theatre was obsessed with folks dressing up and pretending to be other folks, as far as I can tell.

It's obvious that this play would gain an enormous amount from production as much of the "plot", which is a huge pile of silliness upon silliness, calls for considerable physical action, though not of the "alarums and excursions" kind often called for by Shakespeare but off the page, Volpone is easily my favourite out of the five plays in this volume - and probably Jonson's most famous work, too.

I'm not in a massive hurry to read more Jonson. I'd rather finish up the complete works of Shakespeare and read more by their other contemporaries and near contemporaries but if I did go back to Jonson, I think I'd look for things from the latter half of his career as the later plays in this volume are clearly superior to the earliest two. This obvious improvement with age and practice is evident in Shakespeare, too, I think. I'd pay to watch any of the latter three in this collection, go out of my way to see Volpone, which is the only one that comes close to being on a level with a good Shakespeare comedy.
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Reading Progress

04/22/2013 page 21
3.0% "Every Man in his Humour. My first Ben Jonson foray. So far, various humours on display but little sign of a plot. Punning wit a la Shakespeare."
04/28/2013 page 26
4.0% "No sign of a plot in Act 1."
05/06/2013 page 57
9.0% "I lost the plot somewhere...may have to start again."
06/01/2013 page 97
15.0% ""Every Man in his Humour." Had to read it twice to make sense of it! Obviously something that requires some mental focus..."
06/23/2013 page 100
16.0% "Sejanus his Fall"
08/19/2013 page 164
26.0% "Sejanus is EBIL!"
08/21/2013 page 169
27.0% "Machinations."
08/29/2013 page 178
28.0% "Everybody and his aunt arrested!"
09/28/2013 page 196
31.0% "Not so very good."
10/02/2013 page 200
32.0% "Hurry up and get your come-uppance!"
10/22/2014 page 532
85.0% "Act II has the kind of meandering bantering I would associate with a Shakespeare comedy, especially as the plot advances only somewhat."
10/25/2014 page 551
88.0% "Shenanigans."
10/27/2014 page 564
90.0% "What's all this silliness brewing up to?"
11/01/2014 page 597
95.0% "This play's gone completely bonkers and we're running out of time to sort everything out."
11/05/2014 marked as: read
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