Three Comedies, by Ben Jonson

I read Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair.

Ben Jonson’s comedies seem to me more or less a different genre to Shakespeare’s: they have very little in common. In fact, the split between them reminds me very much of the split between Old and New Comedy in Greek theatre. The New Comedy is very much a basic love story: two people, a boy and a girl, fall in love, there is some obstruction to their love, which is overcome – your typical romantic comedy; whereas the Old Comedy tends to be based on a specific comic (often absurd) idea.

But Shakespeare is perhaps closer to New Comedy than Jonson is to Old. In fact, Jonson’s plays are more like another genre familiar to us: the con (The Sting, The Spanish Prisoner etc.), people being duped by tricksters, for back then, just like today, people seemed to have an obsession with the mechanics of criminality. So Volpone is a man who pretends he is wealthy and on the point of dying, to con people into giving him money in hope of recouping a vast legacy; The Alchemist promises all nature of things to people derived from his black arts; whilst in Bartholomew Fair, perhaps everything is a con – this is the world of raw capitalism, where there are no trading standards – and if people aren’t trying to con you, then they’re trying to pick your pocket.

The criminal, in all these cases, is someone held up to be admired; we are on his side; the dupes deserve to be duped. This being a comedy, there cannot be a tragic ending; but this also being moral, the criminal cannot succeed either: – so the criminal finally fails … but he gets away.

I preferred The Alchemist to the other two: it has an amusing variety of cons, and satisfyingly builds complication onto complication.

Bartholomew Fair is, frankly, a bit of an oddity. Later than the other two, it bears no resemblance to any other Jacobean play I’ve read. It’s less of a play, in fact, more of a pageant. There’s barely a plot: a group of characters go down to Bartholomew Fair to eat a pig, and while there they have a look around at all the other curious sights the fair has to offer. (Bartholomew Fair was a sort of market, finally banned in the c19th for its notoriety and offence against public morals). It’s hard-going, to be honest; but at times quite amusing: the “vapours” competition, where each man is bound to disagree violently to whatever the previous man has said, is funny; and rather like Bottom et al’s rendition of Pyramis and Thisbe, there’s an absurd puppet theatre version of the tale of Hero and Leander. One wonders if it could ever be effectively staged again. The introduction mentions a staging in the 1960s, which in its opinion failed because it was acted as farce (that it was “acted”), when – and this is quite true I think – it needs to be acted as realism. Because this is realism as it would be known in c19th: there are no noble characters in it at all; it is the poor, using their wits as means of survival; it has an obsession with detail, with the low-life, the picaresque.

Anyway, an interesting world, the world of the Jonson comedy. I might look out some more.

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7 thoughts on “Three Comedies, by Ben Jonson

  1. These are so good – you really caught them. I love “Bartholomew Fair,” a complete freak, although “The Alchemist” is really better, I know that.

    I do not want to say that I remember them all so well, but I have read all of Jonson’s plays. “The Silent Woman” is close to “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” in quality, and is set up exactly the same way. Otherwise only the Roman tragedies were a waste of time, even though some of those later Jonson plays are awfully inconsistent and ragged.

  2. I will try to find The Silent Woman then. May be a struggle of course, because I don’t often see much Jonson lying about in bookshops.

    I’ve read Catiline before, and actually seen a production of Sejanus – so I thankfully have no need to explore his tragedies.

    A bit of Shakespeare next, and then I think Webster, along with Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy somewhere in the middle.

  3. I can’t agree the tragedies are a waste of time, Amateur Reader. Catiline is a bit ragged, but interesting, while Sejanus is one of the best non-Shakespearean English tragedies I’ve read: bleak, incisive and sometimes horribly funny. The RSC production a few years back was excellent (was that the one you saw, Obooki?). I do love Jonson – as a poet as well, not just as a playwright.

    Might I recommend Massinger as a neglected dramatist with much to said for him? I’ve not read his comedies, for which he’s best known, but The Roman Actor and Believe As You List are both very good tragedies.

  4. I guess it was that one; it was in Stratford anyway, though, as with literature, my ability to forget plays I’ve seen – and even whether I enjoyed them – is quite comprehensive.

    I read a Massinger play once at university, when I was having an obscure Jacobean playwright week. No idea now which one it was.

  5. Captain, I will take your word for it and assume that I read them badly.

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