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Outlines of English and American Literature
Ben Jonson
by Long, William J.


The greatest figure among these dramatists was Jonson,--"O rare Ben Jonson" as his epitaph describes him, "O rough Ben Jonson" as he was known to the playwrights with whom he waged literary warfare. His first notable play, Every Man in His Humour, satirizing the fads or humors of London, was acted by Shakespeare's company, and Shakespeare played one of the parts. Then Jonson fell out with his fellow actors, and wrote The Poetaster (acted by a rival company) to ridicule them and their work. Shakespeare was silent, but the cudgels were taken up by Marston and Dekker, the latter of whom wrote, among other and better plays, Satiromastix, which was played by Shakespeare's company as a counter attack on Jonson.

The value of Jonson's plays is that they give us vivid pictures of Elizabethan society, its speech, fashions, amusements, such as no other dramatist has drawn. Shakespeare pictures men and women as they might be in any age; but Jonson is content to picture the men and women of London as they appeared superficially in the year 1600. His chief comedies, which satirize the shams of his age, are: Volpone, or the Fox, a merciless exposure of greed and avarice; The Alchemist, a study of quackery as it was practiced in Elizabethan days; Bartholomew Fair, a riot of folly; and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, which would now be called a roaring farce. His chief tragedies are Sejanus and Catiline.

In later life Jonson was appointed poet laureate, and wrote many masques, such as the Masque of Beauty and the unfinished Sad Shepherd. These and a few lyrics, such as the "Triumph of Charis" and the song beginning, "Drink to me only with thine eyes," are the pleasantest of Jonson's works. At the end he abandoned the drama, as Shakespeare had done, and lashed it as severely as any Puritan in the ode beginning, "Come leave the loathėd stage."

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