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Outlines of English and American Literature|
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
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."