Ben Jonson's 'Dotages'

Ben Jonson's 'Dotages': A Reconsideration of the Late Plays

Larry S. Champion
Copyright Date: 1967
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Ben Jonson's 'Dotages'
    Book Description:

    Although there has been a general revival of interest in Ben Jonson's dramatic work in the past twenty years, little critical effort has been directed to his late plays -- dismissed by John Dryden as the "dotages" of an aging mind. Through a close reading ofThe Devil Is an Ass,The Staple of News,The New Inn, andThe Magnetic Ladyin light of Jonson's own theories of comedy, author Larry S. Champion demonstrates that they reveal the same precise construction and dramatic control found in his acclaimed masterpieces. Furthermore, these works reflect Jonson's continued emphasis upon realism and satiric attack, though they may not be equal in quality or dramatic effectiveness.

    The brief and undistinguished stage runs of the late plays are not an accurate gauge of their dramatic merit. Rather than indicating an enfeebled mind, these late plays reveal Jonson to be a continuing innovator -- adapting the forms of the pastoral, the romance, and the morality play to the purposes of comic satire. Previous critics have charged that Jonson was merely desirous of regaining public favor at the expense of his artistic integrity. The present study suggests, however, that Jonson in these plays was in reality burlesqueing the popular fad of exaggerated romantic comedy, which he considered a degradation of the dramatic art.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6240-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. I. In the Shadow of Success: Jonson’s ‘Dotages’
    (pp. 1-8)

    Ben Jonson was the acknowledged literary lord of the early seventeenth century. From the court entertainments for James and Charles to the dramas for the popular and private playhouses, from the poetomachian struggles with John Marston and Thomas Dekker at the turn of the century to those with Inigo Jones concerning the proper presentation of masques a quarter of a century later, his influence and irascibility were a part of the intellectual milieu of the day. Seventeen of his dramas survive, fifteen comedies and two tragedies, though contemporary references indicate some of his other works, especially those before 1598, have...

  5. II. The Theory Formulated: The Aims of the Comic Poet
    (pp. 9-21)

    The great majority of Renaissance dramatists never bothered to see their works through the press, let alone to attempt to explain their technique, the purpose of the artist, or a particular art form. Neither Marlowe nor Shakespeare, for instance, has left us a single comment concerning his concepts of tragedy and the function of the tragic poet. Consequently, critical theory about such concepts must be inferred from apposite remarks by characters within their fictional stage worlds, such as Hamlet’s famous quips that the players are “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time” and that the end of playing is...

  6. III. The Devil Is an Ass: Jonson’s Comic Morality
    (pp. 22-44)

    The text ofThe Devil Is an Ass, the first of Jonson’s publications which he did not personally supervise through the press, was printed in 1631 for inclusion in a second folio of the playwright’s work.¹ For some reason, now unexplained, in that year the printing of this volume (to complement the first folio of 1616) was carried no further thanBartholomew Fair, The Staple of News, andThe Devil Is an Ass. For another unexplained reason the play was placed afterThe Staple of News, which was composed later. Perhaps a miscalculation or an accident occurred in the print-shop,...

  7. IV. The Staple of News: Allegory of the Golden Mean
    (pp. 45-75)

    One of the most amusingly perplexing aspects ofThe Staple of Newsis the contradictory nature of previous critical remarks concerning the merits of the play. On the one hand, we read that this “last complete and finished masterpiece of Jonson’s genius”¹ is “a complex dramatic achievement”² reflecting extraordinary merit.³ On the other, the play is called little more than a concoction of dotage ingredients⁴ characterized by a “heathy dryness”⁵ and belabored by “a good deal that is merely boring”⁶ and “incredibly dull.”⁷ Critics of the latter sort frequently recall the nine-year hiatus betweenThe Devil Is an Ass(1616)...

  8. V. The New Inn: Abortive Court Satire
    (pp. 76-103)

    The New Inn, Jonson’s only play to appear in octavo form (1631), was not published in the Second Folio of 1640-1641, but it did appear in all subsequent editions.¹ The dating of the lone performance depends on Edmund Malone’s report of an entry in the lost Office Book of the Master of the Revels, stating that the play was licensed on January 19, 1629, by Sir Henry Herbert, and on the assumption that this was the day of the performance.² The single production was an utter fiasco, as affirmed by the later “Dedication to the Reader” and Jonson’s cryptic title...

  9. VI. The Magnetic Lady: The Close of His Circle
    (pp. 104-130)

    The Magnetic Ladyis an altogether fitting last play for Ben Jonson, for it reads like the final exertion of a dramatist who has stubbornly devoted himself to the higher aims of satiric comedy and who has seen his public only partially receptive at best. “Finding himselfe now neare the close, or shutting up of his Circle” (as the boy describes the author), he seems determined to reexamine the purposes of the art form, to survey his own efforts in that direction, and to restate his convictions before, like Prospero, he releases his magical powers, lays down his mantle, and...

  10. VII. Popular Taste & the Late Comedies: A Refusal to Compromise
    (pp. 131-140)

    Three basic conclusions may be drawn from a close study of the works of Jonson’s last twenty years. First, the aging poet stands firm in his support of satiric comedy despite the extravagant romantic trend of late Jacobean and Caroline drama. Second, he rigidly retains his neoclassical practices in the construction of plot. And, third, his work is artistically of a piece; the comic intent of the final plays is demonstrably consistent with that of his acclaimed masterpieces.

    To the end Jonson was struggling against the increasing popularity of what he considered a decadent form of the comic art. With...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 141-152)
  12. Index
    (pp. 153-156)