Page images
PDF
EPUB

witchcraft-superstition. The exposure of this superstition of demoniac possession in Act 5 is a much abridged parallel to the satire upon the belief in alchemy in The Alchemist. It is involved with satire upon the doctor's pretended powers of exorcism, and upon the popular belief in birds of omen. As the topic of the duello, and Jonson's satirical comments upon it, are discussed with some fulness in the notes (3. 3. 44; 3. 5. 21, 26), it is not necessary to deal with it further at this point. The satire upon the belief in demoniac possession and other allied objects of Jonson's humor and ridicule is also discussed in the notes (5. 5. 8). The vogue of dueling and the belief in witchcraft were both elaborately satirized in The Devil is an Ass; and are discussed in their historical relations in Johnson's edition of this play (Introduction, pp. liv-lviii, lxii-lxv).

II. SATIRE OF TYPES OR CLASSES

Before discussing the satire of types or classes, it may be well to classify the characters of the play. A survey of the group suggets the following division : (1) sympathetic characters; (2) humor-types not treated satirically; (3) minor characters; and (4) satirized characters. In addition to these four main groups may be mentioned a fifth, the personages of the chorus-Probee, Damplay, and Boy of the House—who discuss questions of critical and theatrical interest that have a bearing upon the play.

The one sympathetic person of the play is Compass. He is the chorus or ideal commentator ; his function is to expose and explain the follies of the other characters. Gifford remarks that he is the mouthpiece of Jonson; and there certainly are strong points of resemblance between this character and the dramatist himself. His ideas and sentiments are in harmony with those which Jonson expressed in the Underwoods and Discoveries, and enforced dramatically through the speeches of Crites and Horace. His mental characteristics are also those of Jonsonkeen observation, extensive knowledge, unerring insight into character, freedom from contemporary superstitions. Like the dramatist, he is a scholar, and has been a soldier. If one is looking for autobiographical material in Jonson's plays, he may well be considered together with Horace, Crites, and Macilente.

In the second group, the humor-types not treated satirically, belong Captain Ironside and the midwife, Chair. The captain is the typical soldier and man of action-independent, void of ceremony, intolerant of affectation and caprice. Although sudden and quick in quarrel, he is without deep grudge or resentment, and ready to do another a good turn. He is a hasty and successful wooer. The midwife is a type pretty thoroughly individualized. She is course and morally obtuse, but has the attractive qualities of good nature, and healthy optimism. The forcefulness of her personality is shown indirectly in the success with which she composes the quarrel between Polish and Keep.

In the third group, the minor characters or mere agents of the plot, belong Lady Loadstone, Placentia, Pleasance, Keep, Needle, and Item.

The satirized characters, or main group, include Palate, the clergyman; Rut, the physician; Silkworm, the courtier; Practice, the lawyer; Interest, the usurer; Bias, the intriguing politician; and Polish, whose character is sufficiently complex to require separate treatment. In satirizing these personages, Jonson is repeating work that he has done before. He is beyond doubt the greatest English satiric dramatist, and in his epigrams he took a high rank in satiric character-writing. The success of Jonson

as a satiric dramatist is probably due in large part to the happy union of the man and the time. He possessed a strong intellectual endowment and sturdy common sense. His temper was serious and self-conscious. From his study of classical literature he acquired a reverence for form and for the rational element, and a fund of critical precepts. And he began to write at a time when the vogue of Elizabethan romantic literature was beginning to pass. Shakespeare's later comedies, which were contemporary with Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor, were becoming increasingly serious in tone; and a few years later he gave up for a time the production of romantic comedy, and devoted himself to the highest form of realism, tragedy. The decade from 1600 to 1610 was the most serious period of the national drama. The literary fashions and social culture introduced from Italy, though bearing excellent fruit with Sidney, Marlowe, Greene, Shakespeare, and others, had developed on the social side into affectation, extravagance, and vice. The death of Elizabeth removed a great national unifying and uplifting force; and the corrupt court of James reduced to further disillusionment the idealistic temper of the preceding decade. The appeal of the drama at length became narrower, and the Puritan movement increasingly drew away the middle-class element from the theatres. The audience, it is probable, became composed mainly of the rabble and the courtiers; and when, in the following decade, the realistic drama was less in vogue, the coarse tragi-comedies of intrigue by Beaumont and Fletcher and their successors held the chief place on the stage. But Jonson, with the exception of the years when he was busy on the masques, persisted in the composition of realistic and satiric plays. While the majority of the dramatists were writing plays of adventure and intrigue with a foreign setting, he continued to satirize the follies of the time. The characters of The Magnetic Lady, then, are not new; they are the types found in Jonson's earlier plays, his epigrams, and the satires of the character-books—the courtier, the doctor, the prelate, the usurer, the lawyer.

It would be interesting to consider just how much social justification there was for Jonson's satire; to make allowance for the selection and emphasis of a negative and unsympathetic temper, and for the exaggeration due to the influence of the classics and the acceptance of the role of satirist. After reading Professor Ward's Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period, i one is inclined to believe that Jonson has overemphasized the objectionable features in the life of the times; but any attempt at an exact estimate is beyond the purpose of this work. Since Jonson was satirizing the life of the court and the capital, and the court, especially during the reign of James, was notoriously corrupt, the satire may be considered a fairly accurate transcript of facts, even if a large part of the nation was morally and socially sound.

Among the characters satirized, especial mention should be made of Polish. She and the midwife are the original creations of the play. In fact, Polish is portrayed as an individual character rather than a type. In one of Gifford's notes ? he makes the following observation: 'How little Jonson is known to the dramatic critics may be collected from the silence which they all observe respecting the character of Mrs. Polish, the most perfect representation of a gossiping “ toad-eater " that the English stage can boast. Supple, voluble, and abounding in anecdote, she wins her way to confidence, betrays her trust, insults the agents of her guilt in the madness of security, and when discovered, in spite of the readiness

i Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. 5, chap. 14. 2 W ks. 6. 110-II.

of her subterfuges, assumes the most frontless hardihood, and without a touch of penitence for her crime, gaily proceeds to anticipate the reward of her treachery.' Castelain ? calls Polish the one interesting character of the play. But there is, I think, another important trait of Polish's character which has escaped the notice of the critics, her Puritanism. This may be illustrated by quoting a few passages from her speeches :

And then the Persians were our Puritanes. (1. 5. 18)
She was both witty and zealous,
And lighted all the Tinder o' the truth,

As one said, of Religion, in our Parish. (1. 5. 33-5) When Chair, the midwife, composes the quarrel between Keepe and Polish, which the latter fears will result in the disclosure of her plot, she exclaims (4.7. 11): ‘Blest be the Peace maker.' Also, before this, when the nurse in anger threatens to divulge the secret, Polish exclaims :

Didst thou not sweare
To keep it secret ? and upon what booke ?

I do remember now, The Practice of Piety. (4. 4. 37) Almost as significant as evidences of the assumed religious character of Polish are the following: 1. 4. 34; 1. 4. 62; 2. 2. 2. This Puritanic strain in her character has probably been unnoticed because it is only one trait of several which are prominent. She is a toady, a 'stroaker,' a fawning flatterer. Her loquacity is irrepressible. Her personal ambition overrides all moral principle or respect for others. She has an active mind-is naturally clever. Moreover, she speaks the language and assumes the character of the devout Puritan of the time. Besides creating an individual character, then, Jonson is repeating his satire of the Puritans: Polish belongs in the list with Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome of The Alchemist,

1 Ben Jonson, p. 442.

« PreviousContinue »