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BEN JONSON (1574-1637)

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 235-7.

IN the group of playwrights immediately surrounding Shakespeare, who with him were perhaps accustomed to gather in the Mermaid Tavern, were Ben Jonson, Webster, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Marston, and Dekker. Among these Jonson was easily the first, both in the quality of his genius and the amount of his work. He was a man of enormous learning, poet laureate, a soldier in Flanders, an actor, and hack writer for Henslowe. He appeared first as a playwright in the late years of the sixteenth century, at the moment when Shakespeare and the romantic comedies were at the height of their popularity. To some extent he was obliged to conform to the prevailing taste; but his natural inclination was toward the classic and regular style rather than toward the romantic; and his "humour" was satirical rather than sentimental.

Jonson's plays fall roughly into three groups: the realistic comedies, the tragedies, and the masques. As a contribution to drama the realistic comedies are most important. Even in his 'prentice work, the two plays The Case is Altered and The Tale of a Tub, it is evident that he was influenced more by classic models than by contemporary fashion. The Case Is Altered is based upon two plays of Plautus and the old familiar theme of the abduction of infants. The action is completed in one place and covers but a single day. Jonson's importance, however, is not owing to this return to the classical form, but to his keenness in portraying contemporaneous types. He took from the Plautine plays some of the most successful stock characters such as Miles Gloriosus (whom he named Captain Bobadil), the spendthrift son, the jealous husband, and so transformed them that they stand forth revived and recreated, as true comic figures belonging to Elizabethan London.

The play Every Man in His Humour (1598) inaugurated the school of realistic comedy, unlike anything which had hitherto appeared on the English stage. It deals not with the passions, but with the follies, the "humours" of mankind. The scene is laid in London, and different sorts of city characters are pictured to the life. The play was the sensation of the hour, and was enacted before the queen by the company to which Shakespeare belonged, and in which he at one time acted.

Jonson was brilliant, but apparently neither genial nor lovable -- indeed he had the reputation of being pompous and arrogant. Though manly and honorable, he seems to have been lacking in sympathy. As a dramatist, he was resourceful in the creation of character and in the invention of comic situations. While for the most part he confined himself to laughing at the more obvious, surface absurdities of society, yet his wit was so keen and his humor so robust as to make a lasting impression upon English drama. He influenced nearly all the writers of the seventeenth century, and his peculiar type of play has persisted on the English speaking stage to the present time.