In 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson became the first English dramatist to publish a collected edition of his own plays. No doubt The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, a folio volume of more than a thousand pages, brought a sharp satisfaction to its author. The indignities of an earlier career as a bricklayer could scarcely have been more roundly redeemed. Only the malice of a contemporary wit,
Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurke
What others call a play, you call a worke.
hints at their shadowy, shaming persistence. By the 20th century, any whiff of pretentiousness had long since vanished. T.S. Eliot’s respect for Jonson’s constructive skills almost succeeds in presenting his drama as all works and no play. Despite the claims made for his expertise in manipulating plot, what holds Jonson’s best material together, according to Eliot, is something rarer and more durable, ‘a unity of inspiration that radiates into plot and personages alike’. His poetry may be ‘of the surface’, but its complex achievements make it far from superficial. After all, ‘poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study’ and the immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind. No calls of unconscious to unconscious, no subterranean swarms of inarticulate feelings operate there. Instead, ‘whereas in Shakespeare the effect is due to the way in which the characters act upon one another, in Jonson it is given by the way in which the characters fit in with each other.’ Perhaps the bricklayer had the last laugh.
Eliot’s wary approval of Jonson’s ostentatious erudition makes the assessment offered in The Sacred Wood something of a landmark. His bafflement in the face of the evidence that Jonson’s contemporaries were able to produce works of genius without such a commitment, by reaching down into a deeper well of unlearned, orally-transmitted folklore, is no less significant. Disturbingly, to an East Coast Brahmin, Shakespeare, Donne, Webster, Tourneur (and sometimes Middleton) seem to have a depth, an extra dimension, which Jonson’s work lacks. ‘Their words have often a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires. Jonson’s most certainly have not.’
Insofar as Bruce Thomas Boehrer’s resourceful sifting of Jonson’s plays focuses on the network of tentacular roots animating their language, it might be seen as a salutary transatlantic redressing of an earlier American deformation. His concern to explore the furthest reaches of Jonson’s metaphors of writing as ingestion, digestion and excretion, might even be termed fundamental. It certainly hits pay-dirt. Early Modern ‘workes’ turn out to be subject to processes that mimic the functions of the intestines to the extent that the use by contemporary printers of their own urine as a moistening agent ensures that some ‘minute chemical residue’ of the digestive tract actually transfers onto the page. With printed paper commonly used as a lining for pastry tins – a fate Jonson predicted for some of his own verses – it meant that the food and literary chains were unavoidably intertwined. Given a childhood home in Hartshorn Lane, Westminster, later to become one of the major sewage canals in London, and a family dependent on a kitchen garden abutting the sewage ditch, it begins to seem sustainable – almost suppositional – that ‘inserted into the metaphorical anus of greater London, Jonson begins his life by eating self-consciously recycled excrement.’ As a subsequent upward mobility virtually turns his whole career into an ‘inverted figurative peristalsis’, it becomes difficult to resist the final ‘troping’ of both life and work as alimentary.
In this context, Jonson’s tetchy probing of the nature of convivial behaviour increases in significance. An aversion to mere chit-chat, savagely castigated in Epicoene, grows into a notion of appropriate table manners which finally yields the imperious Leges Convivales, a set of dining-club rules carved in marble over a chimney in the Old Devil Tavern at Temple Bar. Carefully teased out, these persuasively support Boehrer’s claim that the Jonsonian authorial voice speaks for a super-personal entity, able to achieve self-assertion only through a command of the public realm. For Jonson, the whole business of eating, table manners and table-talk functioned, like his plays, less as a means of interpersonal connection, than of self-fashioning and self-projection. Gluttony is for him what sex is for Foucault, both ‘an instrument and an effect of power’. His notorious girth, the result of overeating, becomes a proud statement both of his professional standing and of his writing style. He wolfs words, devouring the original semiotic systems in which they operate and publicly projecting into their place new structures of meaning within which he can control everyone and everything. This ‘interstitial poetics’ has its roots in a notion of language to which the sense of excreting into the public sphere the unseen and the unheard was always basic. The aptly named Discoveries issues its most famous injunction in exactly that spirit: ‘Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee.’
Such a view effectively undercuts the displacing, referential capacities of words, charging them with the direct revelation of individual personality. If language ‘most shewes’ the person who gives it voice, then speech contains the means, as Boehrer subtly argues, of achieving the goal reiterated in our century by Deleuze and Guattari: of thinking beyond the spatial limitations which conceive of bodily ‘interiority’ in terms of a specious ‘unitary self’ that supposedly houses it. By bringing into the open what normally remains internal and hidden, utterance transcends the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and confirms the connection between ‘utter’ and ‘outer’ as more than merely philological.
Seen in this light, even Jonson’s name starts to tell us something, particularly when the comparison is made with Shakespeare. Scandalously, by our standards, the Bard didn’t worry about regularising his own name by the imposition on it of a single permanent form. There are said to be four thousand ways of spelling it, of which his father used 16 and the poet at least five. Even in his will, Shakespeare’s signatures appear with two spellings, signaling a cheerful acquiescence in the linguistic ‘play’ characteristic of a pre-literate culture. Jonson on the other hand not only deliberately ‘fixed’ his name, but went on to personalise it by omitting the usual ‘h’. If language ‘most shewes a man’ then his insistence on the importance of his ‘workes’ possibly derives from a sense that to some degree they embody him. His own ‘best piece of poetrie’ was, he rendingly records, his first son, who bore the family name and died at the age of seven. Inevitably, the notion of writing as a kind of incarnation made for a strange attitude towards plagiarism, something which Jonson seems to have both practiced and condemned. It was as if the writings of others were legitimately available to him, since his commitment was more serious than theirs. While others ‘played’, he worked. As Boehrer says, this announces a new notion of professional authorship, of work which results in ‘workes’, and it helps to transform the entire landscape of Early Modern literary practice.
If Jonson’s professionalism encouraged him to see signification as a kind of moral eructation, it also led him to think of writing’s connection with the linked, if oppositely directed, process of digestion and excretion. The idea that the two orifices involved both have a right to be heard has long been familiar as a feature of Jonson’s anality and here Boehrer’s recourse to Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of bodily space seems needlessly complicating. When, at the beginning of The Alchemist, Subtle produces his own unsubtle fanfare with ‘I fart at thee,’ the conclusion that ‘the functions of mouth and anus deterritorialise one another’ seems otiose. In the event, the work of Bakhtin offers a more provocative basis for analysis and Boehrer’s charting of Jonson’s impulse towards the realms of Carnival, with its ritualized topsy-turviness, its symbolic reversal of everyday priorities, its consistent substitution of the region below the waist for that above, leads to a more rewarding purchase on the poems and plays. Carnivalesque emmerdement is a major feature of both, and in his poem ‘On the Famous Voyage’, an account of a boat journey up the notorious Fleet ditch, Jonson virtually writes what Boehrer aptly calls ‘the epic of a society trying to come to terms with its own sewage’.
This may be distasteful to a culture which still peers at the Early Modern period through Victorian spectacles. Nevertheless, it raises a central issue in respect of the role of the public theatres and their dramatists in a community over which ordure held such sway. London not only stank to high heaven as a result of its enormous problems of waste disposal, but the popular entertainments with which the theatres competed almost made a feature of confronting, involving and to some extent splattering their audience with blood, guts and general filth.
At one point in ‘On the Famous Voyage’, the poem graphically compares the feculent odours wafting around the expedition to the stench generated by ‘The meate-boate of Beares colledge, Paris-garden’ – a pong of some purport. Paris Garden was the famous bear-baiting arena which stood adjacent to the Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames and is a pungent reminder of the blood and dung-stained way of life in which Elizabethan drama had its roots. Our notion of a fundamental opposition between the theatre on the one hand and activities such as bear-baiting on the other derives from nothing in the essential nature of either. By and large, it is our own, modern idea of what a ‘play’ is that produces the notion of bear-baiting as its opposite: a horrific ‘sport’, with values completely opposed to those of the theatre. Our ordering of those activities, our notion that drama belongs in one category, because it involves the aesthetic subtleties of art, while bear-baiting belongs in another, opposite one, because it involves the savage crudities of physical violence, would certainly not have made sense to the average member of an Early Modern audience. In fact, the smell and the savagery, the spittle, blood, guts and faces that characterise the beargarden seem only to become most fully and fruitfully meaningful in terms of a different opposition whose other binary term seeks firmly to establish human behaviour as rational, calculable and rule-bound. The polarity operates clearly in an epigram coined by Sir John Davies in 1594:
Publius, student at the common law,
Oft leaves his books, and for his recreation,
To Paris Garden doth himself withdraw,
Where he is ravished with such delectation,
As down among the bears and dogs he goes;
Where, whilst he skipping cries, ‘to head! to head!’,
His satin doublet and his velvet hose
Are all with spittle from above bespread:
When he is like his father’s country hall,
Stinking with dogs and muted all with hawks;
And rightly on him too this filth doth fall,
Which for such filthy sports his books forsakes;
Leaving old Ployden, Dyer, Brooke alone
To see old Harry Hunks and Sacarson.
Here bear-baiting, represented by two of its most formidable animal stars, Harry Hunks and Sacarson, stands in clear and defining opposition to the formalized institution of the law, represented in abstract, academic mode by the written works of its most authoritative expositors, Ployden, Dyer and Co. The cultural logic involved is surely impeccable. Bear-baiting belongs to and evokes a sphere of concrete, unanalyzed custom, myth and folktale – of what might be termed ‘lore’ – to which a written, abstract, codified set of equivalencies and injunctions, a reified ‘law’, must inevitably be opposed.
Metaphorically, but no less powerfully, the order computed, endorsed and prescribed by that law and the sort of ‘colledge’ at which Publius studies it, stands in meaningful opposition to the ordure – the excremental ‘filth’ – which, indiscriminately falling on the truant student at the ‘Beares colledge’, signals the material imperatives of life at their most fundamental. The public theatre’s own involvement with the actual ‘spittle’ and ‘filth’ of unstructured material existence links it firmly in such a setting to bear-baiting. Both bear-house and play-house deal in the opposite of an abstract, academic law. As a kind of twin-campus ‘Beares colledge’, they are defined by that opposition and by the enormous counterpoising cultural role it thrusts on them. So, when the Hope theatre, the first dual-purpose construction, specifically designed to house both bear-baiting and play-making in the same building, opened in October 1614, it’s not surprising to find among its early offerings the first production of Jonson’s great carnivalesque celebration of lore and ordure in London, Bartholomew Fair.
As Boehrer points out, Bartholomew Fair presents the full gamut of Jonsonian ‘alimentary gestures’, from its sustained focus on eating and drinking – a pregnant woman’s longing for roast pork is a key element of the plot – to its preoccupation with excretion in all its forms. Here, urination, defecation, sweating, weeping, drooling and vomiting, wash incontinently across the stage. Jonson’s commitment to a ‘splattering’ mode was never more evident, with the play’s action, like the bear-baiting, relentlessly embracing and involving as well as virtually ‘bespreading’ the audience. Its climax, in which emesis almost overtakes mimesis, arrives with Mistress Overdo’s copious vomiting in the final scene. Much of the action centers on the booth of Ursula the pig-woman, her name and title combining bears with uncleanness and pollution. In fact, the stench of the baiting arena lends an unmistakable ambience to the whole piece, with reference pointedly made in the Induction to the Stage-keeper’s task of ‘gathering up the broken apples for the bears within’. Exactly the sort of filth and smells that afflicted the truant Publius pervade this arena, said to be ‘as dirty as Smithfield, and as stinking every whit’. It is an alignment which confirms the theatre – along with the great London Fair itself – as a component of those just discernible ordure-order oppositions from which a set of cultural meanings, almost automatically setting drama against the law, may readily be spun. So, a ponderous legality becomes the play’s first and lasting target as it opens with the laborious reading of a mock contract purporting to give details of the ‘Articles of agreement, indented between the spectators or hearers at the Hope on the Bankside in the county of Surrey on the one party’ and the play’s author on the other.
Jonson’s interest in digestion and excretion and their relationship to literary activity has attracted previous scholars, and Edmund Wilson’s essay of 1948, ‘Morose Ben Jonson’, is perhaps the best known example of what it can lead to. Anxious to pin the desperate label ‘anal neurotic’ on the poet, Wilson duly listed orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy, together with a fixation on symbolic substitutes for faeces, such as money, as major characteristics of the man and his work. His prim conclusion that ‘when he is dirty, he is, unlike Shakespeare, sometimes disgusting to such a degree that he makes one sympathetic with the Puritans in their efforts to clean up the theatre’ helped to construct Jonson as what Boehrer terms ‘one of the two great anal basket cases of English literary history’ – the other being Swift. What Wilson – and Eliot before him – failed to notice is that Jonson’s interest in bodily functions, his unrelenting pursuit of the links between the alimentary and the literary, his preoccupation with eating, evacuation, vomiting and the all-too-human stench that these disseminate are less shortcomings in need of explanation than dimensions of an art whose true contours we still fail accurately to discern. At the very least they measure the extent to which his writings, like those of Shakespeare, draw vital sustenance from ‘a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires’. At that level, where lore and ordure rule, they certainly smell like plays, not works.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.