The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.
The dramatic as well as the other works of Ben Jonson are so numerous that we must content ourselves with a very cursory survey of them. They are of various degrees of merit, ranging from an excellence not surpassed by any contemporary excepting Shakespeare, to the lowest point of laborious mediocrity. Two of them are tragedies, The Fall of Sejanus and The Conspiracy of Catiline. The subjects of both these plays are borrowed from the Roman historians, and the dialogue and action in both may be regarded as a mosaic of striking and brilliant extracts from the Latin literature, reproduced by Jonson with such a consummate force and vigor that we may call him a Roman author who composed in English. Nothing can exceed the minute accuracy with which all the details of the Roman manners, ceremonies, religion, and sentiments are reproduced; and yet the effect of the whole is singularly stiff and unpleasing, partly perhaps from the absence of pathos and tenderness which characterizes Jonson's mind, and partly from the unmanageable nature of the subjects, the hero in both cases being so odious that no art can secure for his fate the sympathy of the reader. Many of the scenes, however, particularly those of a declamatory character, as the trial of Silius and Cremutius Cordus before the abject Senate, the appearance of Tiberius, and the magnificent oration in which Petreius describes the defeat and death of Catiline, are of extraordinary power and grandeur. Of comedies, properly so called, Jonson composed fifteen, the best of which are incontestably Every Man in his Humor, Volpone, Epicene, or the Silent Woman, and The Alchemist. The plots or intrigues of Jonson are far superior to those of the generality of his contemporaries: he always constructed them himself, and with great care and skill. Those of Volpone and The Silent Woman for example, though some of the incidents are extravagant, are admirable for the constructive skill they display, and for the art with which each detail is made to contribute to the catastrophe. The general effect, however, of Jonson's plays, though abundantly satisfactory to the reason, is hard and defective to the taste. The character of his mind was eminently analytic; he dissected the vices, the follies, and the affectations of society, and presented them to the reader rather like anatomical preparations than like men and women. His observation was extensive and acute; but his mind loved to dwell rather upon the eccentricities and monstrosities of human nature than upon those universal features with which all can sympathize, as all possess them. His mind was singularly deficient in what is called humanity; his point of view is invariably that of the satirist, and thus, as he fixed his attention chiefly upon what was abnormal, many of his most elaborately-drawn portraits are a sort of dry, harsh, abstruse caricatures of absurdities which were peculiar to the manners and society of that day, and appear to us as strange and quaint as the pictures of our ancestors in their stiff and fantastic dresses. The satiric tendency of Jonson's mind, too, induced him to take his materials, both for intrigue and character, from odious or repulsive sources; thus the subject of two of his finest pieces, Volpone and The Alchemist, turns entirely upon a series of ingenious cheats and rascalities; all the persons, without exception, being either scoundrels or their dupes. Nevertheless, in spite of these peculiarities, the knowledge of character displayed by Jonson is so vast, the force and vigor of expression are so unbounded, he has poured forth into his dialogue such a wonderful wealth of illustration drawn from men as well as books, that his comedies form a study eminently substantial. In some of them, as in Poetaster, Bartholomew Fair, and The Tale of Tub, Jonson has attacked particular persons and parties, as Dekker in the first, the Puritans in the second, and Inigo Jones in the third; but these pieces can have but little interest for the modern reader. The tone of morality which prevails throughout Jonson's works is high and manly, and he is particularly remarkable for the lofty standard he invariably claims for the social value of the poet, the dramatist, and the satirist. Though he has too often devoted his great powers to the delineation of those oddities and absurdities which were then called humors, and which may be defined as natural follies and weaknesses exaggerated by affectation, he has traced more than one truly comic personage, the interest of which must be permanent; thus his admirable type of coward braggadocio in Bobadill will always deserve to occupy a place in the great gallery of human folly. The want of tenderness and delicacy which I have ascribed to Jonson will be especially perceived in the harsh and unamiable characters which he has given to his female persons. Without stamping him as a woman-hater, it may be said that there is hardly one female character in all his dramas which is represented in a graceful or attractive light, while a great many of them are absolutely repulsive from their coarseness and their vices.
It is singular that while Jonson in his plays should be distinguished for that hardness and dryness which I have endeavored to point out, this same poet, in another large and beautiful category of his works, should be remarkable for the elegance and refinement of his invention and style. In the Masques and Court Entertainments which he composed for the amusement of the king and the great nobles, as well as in the charming fragment of a pastoral drama entitled The Sad Shepherd, Jonson appears quite another man. Everything that the richest and most delicate invention could supply, aided by extensive, elegant, and recondite reading, is lavished upon these courtly compliments, the gracefulness of which almost makes us forget their adulation and servility. This servility, it should be remarked, was the fashion of the times; and was carried quite as far towards the pedantic and imbecile James as it had been towards his great predecessor, Elizabeth. Of such masques and entertainments, Jonson composed about thirty-five, many of which exhibit a richness and playfulness of invention which have never been surpassed. These productions were, of course, generally short, and depended in a great measure for their effect upon the scenes, machinery, costumes, dances, and songs, with which they were thickly interspersed. The magnificence sometimes displayed in these spectacles was extraordinary, and forms a striking contrast with the beggarly mise en scène of the regular theatres of those days. Among the most beautiful of these masques we may mention Paris Anniversary, The Masque of Oberon, and The Masque of Queens. In the dialogue of these slight pieces, as well as in the lyrics which are frequently introduced, we see how graceful and melodious could become the genius of this great poet, though generally attuned to the severer notes of the satiric muse. Besides his dramatic works Jonson left a very large quantity of literary remains in prose and verse. The former portion contains many curious and valuable notes made by Jonson on books and men, among which are particularly interesting the references to Shakespeare and Bacon; and the latter consists chiefly of epigrams written in the manner of Martial, and sometimes containing interesting notices of contemporary persons and things. All these are pregnant with wit, fancy, and solid learning, and confirm the idea which we derive from Jonson's dramas of the power, richness, and variety of his genius.
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