Sunday, January 15, 2006

Volpone and The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

Everyone of course knows that Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare. Some have it that Shakespeare died after having gone on a drinking binge with Ben Jonson. Perhaps Jonson’s most famous words with regards to the bard are the following:

And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripidies, and Sophocles to us…

We also know that Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He escaped the gallows (if memory serves me right) by ‘pleading the cloth’. What this meant was they could not hang you if you were of the clergy. Jonson was not of the clergy, but because he could read, he could claim the same, and did. It is also believed that he killed another man in a hand to hand fight whilst soldiering.

Despite his plays being often hailed as masterpieces, especially Volpone, for some reason or other we never come across his name that much. He comes across more as an aquired taste, someone often talked about but little read. In all the books I have read about literature where his name pops up, but he never seems to be discussed in any substantial way. I wonder why this is?

I read Volpone for the first time probably about 12 years ago. Reading it again it comes across as quite cold and calculating. While Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote lovable villians and rogues, Volpone seems a real misanthrope, someone who exhalts in how bad humanity is, and becomes corrupted himself in the process. I think what I’m trying to say here is that his plays are too moralistic. Too didactic. There’s not enough playfulness in them. Instead we get a litany of mean tricks and grasping money grubbers who all get their comeuppance.

In Marlowe’s great black comedy The Jew of Malta, you can’t help but love Barabas as he goes about outraging everyone. Despite yourself, you secretly identify with the wealthy Jew and exult in his destructiveness.

I found even less joy in The Alchemist. I enjoyed parts, then my concentration would switch off, and I’d come back to the play. It has the same type of rogue’s gallery, con men and a con woman trying to gull vain victims who only want to line their pockets or further themselves socially. Yet there’s something strangely inhuman about his characters, something decidedly one dimensional.

Maybe this is why he’s not as eagerly read as Shakespeare or Marlowe. That’s just my guess though.

I’m sure I’ll give Jonson’s plays another whirl in the future. Dickens loved Jonson after all, and went to lengths to get some of his favourite Jonson plays staged.

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