Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics

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He is an ass and his readings consequently absurd; Quarlous is an opportunist and his readings are continually adjusted to suit circumstance and his own best advantage. From his privileged position as spectator Quarlous reads with cynical accuracy and so, when he comes to act himself in the guise of Troubleall, it is to gain the hand of a rich widow and to place both Grace and Overdo under a longstanding obligation to him. Jonson evolved this highly sophisticated use of the spatial dynamic of the stage for metatheatrical interrogations of his audiences from very simple beginnings.

Seated onstage with the wealthier members of the audience, they are conspicuous throughout the action, but in this instance the theatre audience can choose whether or not to watch them during the play proper. The idea of reading the performance is not therefore taken back into the world of the play as it is with Quarlous and Overdo and shown to have social and moral consequences. This integrating of the metatheatrical strategy into the stage action begins with Sejanus, where in many scenes the main plot involving Tiberius and his court is framed by a group of dissidents led by Arruntius who comment sardonically on what they and we are required to witness, evaluating character, deciding how to interpret ambiguities of word or deed and voicing a fierce political and moral disgust with the gross duplicities that pass as policy.

The dramaturgy deploys the visual dynamic of the stage to effect a searching examination into the nature of political power that is experiential rather than simply presented. The final scenes of Sejanus show Tiberius casting the remaining characters to play out roles in a scenario of his devising which he watches from a distance with evident relish at this display of his absolute power. In a less tyrannical mould this becomes the tactic of Volpone and Mosca and of the venture tripartite: in both plays the gullers act within the scenarios they create but the better to observe the success of their schemes.

They fuse in their own persons the functions of actor and spectator, which, as in the case of Quarlous, continually poses a challenge to the theatre audience about their own chosen function within the performance and their motive for preserving distance from events which are actually criminal while gaining entertainment in the process.

Ben Jonson's Theatrical Republics |

The visual dynamic in these episodes, drawing attention as it does to the predatory watchfulness of the trickster characters, heightens, renders self-conscious and so deeply problematises the whole experience of being a spectator for the audience. Long before the gaze became a theorised issue of considerable complexity, Jonson was devising the means to deconstruct for alert audiences the psychological processes involved in reading the visual systems of performance.

What he would appear to be denying audiences is the right to experience theatre as escapist and yet his devices for achieving that end are always wittily conceived. What are their motives in choosing to be so conspicuous? Fitzdottrel would witness a play that is designed to expose his own folly, greed and corruption and yet he would go there primarily to be seen and so feed his own egocentricity.

How much of what he watches will he understand? It is a merry conceit to bring home to audiences that for all its farcical exaggerations the play is about their own world and that how they choose to relate to the satire played out onstage is a reflection of how they relate to their society. Always Frances is the object of his attentions. When she finally addresses him later in the play 4. She requires and trusts him instead to be her friend.

In both these extended strategies Jonson is revealing why it is imperative to distinguish between looking at and seeing. The one is an operation of the eyes, the other calls for an integration of the whole self.

Subtly Jonson has taught us how to read the importance that the visual sustains within his dramaturgy. Many seem to exploit the sheer size of the Renaissance stage. Twice the discussions of Arruntius and his friends in the opening scene of Sejanus are interrupted by first Drusus, heir to the throne, with his attendants and then by Sejanus himself, accompanied by his circle of sycophants.

The two processions are markedly different in tone and enable Jonson to effect a rapid exposition of the current political situation under Tiberius.


One by one he visits the homes of the conspirators and on their appearance consigns them to death; the pattern of approach, the summons to the man within, his appearance, the reading of his sentence and his departure under guard to the execution being prepared for him is relentlessly repeated for Lentulus, Cethegus, Statilius and Gabinus.

The ritual enables us to view each of the condemned men in turn and note the tenor of their acceptance of death: Lentulus speaks of the irony of fate and chance; Cethegus abusively sneers at his judge; the remaining two attempt a stoic indifference. The public consequences of the rebellion and its suppression are demonstrated by the simple device of these contrasting passings over the stage.

A further example of a passing over the stage which gives the audience access by a powerful graphic image to the thematic preoccupations of the drama occurs in TheMagnetic Lady 3. The dialogue that accompanies the image of Placentia being carried over the stage focuses our attention on her frail condition as in a sweat and fainting. Even her supposed aunt, Lady Loadstone, is deluded into believing Placentia to have been maligned.

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A yet more sophisticated use of the device is to be found in Volpone 5. Mosca indeed passes over with ease at one point in the habit of a Clarissimo to add to their envy and chagrin. There is no escaping the realities of their condition: they are everywhere an object of trickery and exposed to scorn; and Volpone, playacting in yet another disguise, is there to triumph in their adversity. Volpone has lost touch with the moral discipline that controlled his discomfitting of the three suitors earlier in the play and soon he is himself to be publicly discomfitted.

Here Volpone can direct the action to his own ends, but it is the last time in the play that this will be possible. Once in the court he loses his mastery over the shaping of events, and largely because he has made the wrong choice of costume for his current impersonation: an officer of the court has no power in the presence of patricians; and there he has now to dash frantically from character to character in an effort to save himself. What is remarkable in such a list is the variety of thematic purposes such games with the significance of dress serve.

Costume becomes the site for a number of interrogations about identity. When Volpone finally reveals himself in the courtroom, for example, it is to show us the angry, impulsive, overly superior patrician who has been fitfully intimated behind his earlier impersonations. Overdo pretends to be mad Arthur and by the time of his disrobing has shown himself to be, if not mad, then ridiculous; Quarlous impersonates a mad man, Troubleall, and, under cover of an antic disposition, has devised a series of strategies which will trouble a number of individuals whom he has cunningly inveigled into his debt Overdo, Grace and through her, Winwife, Dame Purecraft and by implication her Puritan associates.

Ben Jonson's Theatrical Republics

Win and Mistress Overdo for all their superior, middle-class airs have with promises of fine clothes, the attentions of gallants and the pomp of a carriage been lured into decking themselves as whores; and in the speed of their undoing, we marvel at their vacuity. It is as if in these instances the stripping off of attire brings us to the core of a character we have till now only guessed at. Three of the plays deploy costume for more complex thematic ends that confront issues of gender and these merit more detailed study.

Wittipol in The Devil is an Ass dresses as the Spanish Lady the better to have access to Frances Fitzdottrel and to get the measure of her husband and his circle of cronies. He is infatuated by an image but knows no more of the reality that is the Spanish Lady than he seriously knows his own wife.

In the opening act of the play Fitzdottrel considered that he could best display his own manliness by the ostentatious wearing of a cloak at the public theatre; now he considers that a dress makes the disguised Wittipol the acme of womanhood. Costume and how its social or gender signification is read within the world of a play allow Jonson to investigate the nature of perception in considerable depth.

In Epicoene, for example, there are fifteen named characters, all of whom are onstage during the final scenes; six of them are identified as female and are dressed accordingly, yet such were the conventions of the theatre at the time that all fifteen actors present are in fact male; the female characters have been constructed within the tiring-house in terms of clothing, make-up, wigs and through the artistry of the performers in terms of posture, mannerisms, vocal timbre. The play begins with a trio of gallants discussing and in part scorning the elaborate processes involved when a woman makes up her face and dons her wig and the striking differences between this projected image of the self and the private reality.

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The men adopt a tone of superiority; but, since they set the standard in acceptable female beauty, their criticism and want of charity rebound back on them. That Mistress Otter falls upon her husband and overpowers him in the ensuing fight undermines all his pretensions to authority over her and exposes him for the liar, cad and cowardly ass that he is; she shames and unmans him totally.

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All the men are seen in time to fall far short of the urbanity which they pretend shapes their lives, values and responses. At the end of the play Dauphine suddenly uncases the most beautiful and gracious of the six women revealing Epicoene to be a boy meticulously disguised, and trained like an actor to play convincingly at being female. Dauphine has constructed a woman and passed her off successfully in polite society.

Most of them resist easy categorisation, since the Collegiates are seeking to adopt masculine freedoms and tones of authority while still cultivating a feminine appearance and charisma, and the men seem increasingly absurd and unmanly the more they try to embody set styles of masculinity. Embodying gender as traditionally defined imposes a strain on their lives; and there is a sense of shocked release when Epicoene proves to be neither the stereotype of the silent woman nor that of the shrill-voiced harridan but a boy who has effortlessly if with some art transgressed gender boundaries.

What should or so it is claimed be natural is shown in Epicoene to be clever pretence, a product of technical virtuosity, gifted playing, a living up to the conventional significations of a dress. Equally exciting and provocative is the deployment of costuming in The New Inn to level a satirical attack against class consciousness. On changing dresses with Frances to give herself the required appearance of superiority, Pru quietly assumes a remarkable authority, which as the sports commence, is seen to have less to do with power over others than shrewd insight into both their natures and their ambitions in life.

In every way she lives up to the status implicit in her dress. Or would it be more accurate to see the dress as an outward manifestation of her inner worth? That question is soon answered with the arrival at the inn of the gorgeous costume originally intended for Pru to revel in as Queen. It is worn by Pinacia, wife of the tailor who made it, who is pretending to be the grand lady to help her husband dressed out as a footman act out his sexual fantasy of copulating with his wealthy, titled clients.

They are following a ritual they have evidently indulged in frequently before. Pinacia is the antithesis of Pru: she cannot convincingly play the role of lady, only a mannered caricature of what is required. That she commands no authority is evidenced by the speed with which she and her husband become an object of derision for the servants and a party of roistering drinkers who catch sight of them.

Pinacia is stripped of her garb, which Pru assumes to look even more resplendently a queen. She draws his gaze but to excite his understanding and sympathy, as she demonstrates such qualities herself through her conduct within the court of love, which is the form Pru insists the revels should take. He watches the movement of her mind and in admiration proposes marriage, valuing not her status but her inner worth and intelligence. Again Jonson invites the audience to perceive the psychological motivation underlying this aspect of his plotting by offering a parallel which also focuses on female attire and the male gaze.

Beaufort is trapped by his own superficiality; he knows nothing of the woman to whom he finds himself wed. In doing so, Jonson presents in Pru a radical challenge to contemporary class distinctions and the assumptions about worth that accompanied them.

The New Inn is a highly subversive play and one site of its interrogation of social attitudes is the male gaze and the patriarchal mind-set that generally but not invariably directed it. Given such a complex concern to determine the social and psychological ramifications of varying modes of perception, it does Jonson a disservice to argue like Gurr that his plays lack a developed visual dimension, that they are verbal constructs principally aimed at listeners.

One could justifiably argue that the plays offer audiences exciting lessons in seeing. Notes 1 I have not included the fragments or the masques in this count, nor both versions of Every Man in his Humour. Nobody can complain of eyestarvation now.

Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics
Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics

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