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G. CRITICAL ESTIMATE
In attempting a critical estimate of The Magnetic Lady, the first step might profitably be a classification. The drama in general one may divide rather abstractly into that which emphasizes plot, action, or events: that which stresses the delineation of character; and that which subordinates these elements to dialogue. The drama which is concerned primarily with characterization may represent its characters through events, or through dialogue, or through both. But as all significant dramatic literature has to do largely with problems of characterization, we may consider exclusively these two classes – that which represents character mainly through action, and that which represents it chiefly through speech.
Of these two classes, The Magnetic Lady belongs decidedly to the second. Anything in the nature of theatrical sensation is suppressed, or is related by narrative. Thus in Act 3, the quarrels and disorders of the dinner are merely related; the fainting of Placentia and of Sir Moth Interest take place off the stage ; and in Act 5, scene 10, the incident of the usurer's falling into the well is also narrated. The whole of Act 1 is taken up with exposition; the only suggestion of a forward movement of events being the report that Placentia is ill.
The Magnitic Lady, then, may be classified as a comedy of which the subject matter is contemporary life; the purpose, moral; and the method followed the representation of character through speech. But while the species of comedy which portrays character through dialogue is recognized as a legitimate one, a too great tendency toward monologue and description of character is outside the scope of drama. In this respect, The Magnetic Lady is somewhat at fault. Three of the cleverest passages of the play-Interest's long argument for
the virtue of wealth (Act 2, scene 6), Compass' speeches dissuading Silkworm from a duel (Act 3, scene 3), and the discussion of valor (Act 3, scene 5)-are in the form of monologues or of long speeches by one personage, interspersed with the comments of others. So, too, the characterization, especially in Act I, is in the form of description. Compass' speeches in this act are largely a series of character-sketches. He portrays the parson, the doctor, the soldier, the courtier, the lawyer, the usurer, and the politician. After the first act, when the action is under way, and there is interplay of character upon character and upon the central situation, the speeches are more properly dramatic. As a whole, however, the play is on the border between declamatory description of character and dramatic characterization.
The characters as portrayed I have already considered. As a group they are the Jonsonian types, each person set forth with great distinctness of detail and clearness of outline. Excepting a few of Jonson's earlier creations -Bobadill, Volpone, Mosca, Subtle, Tucca, and Sir Epicure Mammon—I cannot see but that these are about as successful as the majority of the personages of his earlier plays. Polish is complex enough to be considered an individual ; and the midwife, Chair, is a type depicted with unusual vividness.
But the play cannot be properly appreciated without
full comprehension of its wit and humor. And this element is the one which has so far received the least amount of critical notice. Fashions in social pleasantry and badinage are, of all expressions of intellectual life, probably, the most transitory. Types of character are universal, and actions are readily comprehensible, so that Shakespeare's tragedies still retain much of their former appeal; but the euphuism of Lyly, the wit of Touchstone, and the smart social conversation of Congreve's Way of the World and Love for Love, are now mainly of historical interest. Punning, another form of wit which was very popular in the time of Jonson, is now considered beneath the interest of cultivated people. This element of intellectual byplay in The Magnetic Lady, though often coarse and trivial enough when judged by the standard of present taste, must have furnished an element of theatrical appeal to a Jacobean audience, and probably accounts in part for the not altogether unfavorable reception of the play. But not only have fashions in witty conversation gone out of vogue, but the language has also changed. A survey of the obsolete and archaic meanings in the glossary will explain why a large part of the witty observations are not apparent at the first reading. And Jonson's immense vocabulary, his habit of punning, and his general verbal ingenuity, make him more obscure to us than are his other contemporaries. For illustrations of wit, punning, and intentional ambiguity, reference should be made to the explanatory notes.
Yet the present rather low estimate of the play, although probably in part the result of the remoteness of the life represented, and the obscurity caused by the changes of language, is partly also due to inherent defects. The changes in manners and customs, in the whole outer civilization, which make against the present interest of the play, operate, of course, as effectively against the other plays of Jonson. But the lack of concentration upon one central satiric motive, such as is found in Volpone and The Alchemist, makes impossible any such summation of dramatic impression as is found in those plays. Then the vitality and intensity of style, mood, and handling that are found in the earlier masterpieces are not to be expected in the work of a bedridden poet. Perhaps, too, the fact that The Magnetic Lady is one of the latest of Jonson's works, and was preceded by plays of much higher quality, has caused few schola rs to put the time and study on the play which are necessary to a more favorable estimate. Certain of the characteristic qualities of Elizabethan drama-charm, idealism, and poetic atmosphere—are not found in this play; but their absence is due to the nature of the type in which Jonson chose to work; it no more makes against the excellence of a play in its kind than the absence of realism and satire makes militates the literary value of a romance.
In summary, the play has its defects and its qualities. In its use of monologues and long speeches, and its substitution of description for representation of character, it is dramatically defective; but its clearness and consistency of character-portrayal, its wit, humor, satire, and sound morality may be considered as positive qualities. And these considerations should be carefully weighed before the play is dismissed as merely one of Jonson's ‘dotages.'