Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy

Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy

William W.E. Slights
Series: Heritage
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 252
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt130jvr1
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  • Book Info
    Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy
    Book Description:

    Equally rejecting the position that Jonson was a renegade subverter of the arcana imperii and that he was a thorough-going court apologist, Slights finds that the playwright redraws the lines between private and public discourse for his own and subsequent ages.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-2352-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Texts
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    Secrecy touches our lives more than we generally like to admit. Most of our thoughts do not immediately get uttered. Some are simply forgotten, but others we purposely suppress. These are the secrets - perceptions, gossip, memories, dreams - that we keep back until time and audience are right. Some of these secrets contribute to a positive sense of self and to the harmonious continuation of our communities. Others create debilitating suspicions and uncertainties in self and society. All work by creating distinctions - between the knowable and the (at least temporarily) unknowable, between those who know and those who...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Secret Places in Renaissance Drama
    (pp. 15-31)

    In 1584 Reginald Scot published his contribution to the minor genre of discovery literature. What he discovered - that is, revealed - to the world was not the mysteries of remote places or the tricks of cardsharps, but the much-feared secrets of witchcraft. He gave over the entire fourth book of hisDiscoverie of Witchcraftto the sexual interventions of witches, including the story of a young man who, under a witch’s spell, was made ‘to leave his instruments of venerie behind him.’ The unfortunate young man had, then, to resort to a second witch

    for restitution thereof who brought...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Mystifying the Tyrant and Enforcing the Text: Impossible Combinations in Sejanus
    (pp. 32-56)

    The account in Tacitus of Sejanus’s fatal loss of favour during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius afforded Jonson a tragic narrative set in a once-vital culture that has taken to shrouding its noble traditions of governance in acts of tyrannical conspiracy. An elaborate maze of official secrets leads eventually to the climactic scene of revelation - the judgment of Sejanus and his dismemberment. While the pattern of concealment and revelation, of secret and discovery, that was to work with such powerful theatrical and satiric force in the great plays of Jonson’s middle period is established here, it is not...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Play of Conspiracies in Volpone
    (pp. 57-77)

    At the heart of the representation of self on the seventeenth-century English stage lies a secret, or rather, a series of secrets. We have seen that the self is conceived of in plays such asSejanusandThe Changelingas an area of knowledge to be carefully guarded and to be shared only at enormous risk. Secrecy is the last bastion of self-preservation for the imperial minion, Sejanus, plotting his coup against his mentor, just as it is for Beatrice-Joanna, moving through the deadly changes of her wedding dance. Images of self-realization, especially in tragedies of the period, feature isolation...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Private Lies, Public Notice: Epicoene and Theatrical Deception
    (pp. 78-104)

    Most modern commentators findEpicoenea slighter and less engaging play thanVolpone.Readers find its issues trivial, its characters un-attractive, and its social attitudes offensive. It is seldom performed.¹ It almost seems as though Jonson took the marginal, topical, frequently cut subplot of Peregrine swooping down on the tortoise fromVolponeand made it into the main action of his next play. The resulting ‘comoedyof affliction’ (Epicoene, II. vi. 37), a sometimes painful exercise in tormenting dim or anti-social characters, has found few champions. Dryden admired the play for its carefully crafted plot; Ray Heffner found richness in...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The New Face of Secrecy The Alchemist
    (pp. 105-129)

    Truewit’s mock undertaking to preserve the secrets of the gossips inner sanctum at the end ofEpicoeneshows Jonson once again reserving a prominent place for an attack on inside information gained by spying. While to some degree all theatre audiences are spies, eavesdropping on characters who are by convention unaware of their presence, Jonson doesn’t foreground this fact inEpicoene.He relies instead on the quasi-public gossip of the Collegiate Ladies and the city gallants to reveal the secrets of face-painting, contraception, and promiscuity that characterize the trivialized world of the play. He never, for example, takes us into...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Catiline’s Conspiracy and the Problem of Containment
    (pp. 130-144)

    Jean de Marconville’sTreatise of the Good and Evell Tounge(ca. 1592) relates the instructive tale of ‘littlePapyrius,’ who, according to the custom of inviting boys of up to seventeen years of age to attend the Roman senate to learn the ropes, had been present for a particularly sensitive debate and was sworn to secrecy about it. Later, being hard pressed by his mother to reveal the subject of the debate, he made up the story (‘practised a prettie politic’) that the proposal under discussion had been ‘that euery man should hereafter haue two wiues’ Early the next morning...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN State-Decipherers and Politique Picklockes: Interpretation as Self-Replication in Bartholomew Fair
    (pp. 145-170)

    BeforeBartholomew Fairgets under way, three playhouse employees wander on to the stage, discussing the play at hand. The way that Jonson teases his audience about the (im)possibility of interpretation in the course of this conversation can serve as a model of the problems that any conscientious reader of his plays must face. At first the stagehands offer criticism and then read out a series of ‘Articles’ prepared by the author, limiting the audience’s right to exercise its critical judgments on this particular play. This mock-legal contract assumes that none but the most ‘solemnly ridiculous’ interpreter in the audience...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 171-178)

    Nothing reveals so much about a culture as the secrets it keeps - or, rather, doesn’t keep. But it is never an easy matter to see what has been systematically hidden from view - the rarest medicinal herbs in tribal cultures, the madwomen in the attic, the nuclear wastes in our oceans. One of the most engrossing chapters in the history of World War II involves the use of early computers to generate and, subsequently, to crack Nazi Germany’s military codes. What was revealed in the process were not just the local strategies of an enormous army but some basic...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 179-212)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-226)
  16. Index
    (pp. 227-241)