Jonson: Plays

November 26, 2019

Volpone, or The Fox
The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
(Random House, 1938) [1606, 1610]
225 p.

With these two plays I launch a modestly scaled reading project in early(ish) modern drama which begins in Shakespeare’s London and will eventually spread to cover England, France, and perhaps Spain up to roughly 1800.

Jonson was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and the two were, I am told, rivals to some extent. (“Volpone” actually premiered in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London.) I wanted to read a few of his plays in part because I am interested in getting to know Jonson for his own sake, but also, I admit, as a roundabout way of getting to know Shakespeare better, by seeing how his own style and approach differed from those of a close contemporary.

These two plays were written when Jonson was in middle age, already an accomplished playwright and poet. Both are classified as comedies, although the comedy on offer is far removed from the happy whimsy of plays like “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; a closer Shakespearean analogue might be “Measure for Measure”, inasmuch as the comedy is often dark and admixed with serious dramatic material.

In a certain sense, “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are the same play — which surprised me. In both, a scheming pair, master and servant, attempt to con a variety of gullible parties in a bid to enrich themselves, and in both they are eventually discovered and undone.

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, have amassed immense wealth, and use the promise of a future bequest to lure sycophants into giving them more and greater gifts. They accept bribes and are not above a cunning extortion. Mosca, in the traditional role (traceable all the way back to Plautus, whose influence on these Jonsonian comedies is striking) of smooth and crafty servant, is a wonderful creation, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago for the depravity of his imagination, shamelessness of his impostures, and creativity of his conniving; he is the character whom I think I will best remember from these plays.

In “The Alchemist” the artful pair are Subtle, a pretended alchemist, and Face, his confidence man. Dangling the conventional alchemical promise of transmutation into gold before their clients, they too amass gifts and goods on credit. They seem much less intelligent than their counterparts in the earlier play, having (for instance, and as far as I could tell) no clear escape plan from the web of contradictory promises they make to all and sundry. As in “Volpone”, Jonson mercilessly skewers the grasping greed of his characters, none more memorably than Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon on whose hypocrisy and narrow moralism Jonson plays with a cackling delight that feels personal. (Jonson had converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, although he returned to the Church of England at around the time “The Alchemist” was first staged.) All of Subtle’s subtle subterfuges come to nought, however, when the master of the house returns unexpectedly from foreign lands.

Coleridge apparently praised this play for having what he considered to be one of the most perfect plots in all literature, but I thought it was ripping off Plautus’ “The Haunted House”.

*

Comparisons to Shakespeare are inevitable, since he is our pole star for the drama of this period. I have already said that I found Jonson notable darker and more malicious than Shakespeare. There is a difference in the language too; they both wrote in iambic pentameter, but Jonson feels more cramped, lacking the airy spaciousness and aphoristic wealth of Shakespeare’s verse. I also found Jonson’s verse, on the whole, more difficult; one of those Shakespearean scenes of lower-class characters (think of Falstaff at play) in which the jargon and repartee are so quick and opaque that we’re puzzled to death gives an exaggerated but decent idea of how Jonson’s plays read. I was fortunate to find a filmed performance of “Volpone” from London’s Greenwich Theatre, which I watched as I read the play, and this improved by enjoyment and understanding of the play immensely.

Jonson doesn’t rely on soliloquy as Shakespeare does (at least not in these plays), but he does rely on the play-concluding address to the audience that is familiar from Shakespeare:

VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play, is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,
He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,
For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

This must have been a convention of the theatre at the time.

*

I have enjoyed this brief sojourn with Jonson, and might consider reading another or two of his plays in the future, should they come recommended.

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