I’ve just reread several plays by Ben Jonson after a gap of many years. The Alchemist, in particular, seems to me an almost miraculous feat of poetic and theatrical orchestration in an utterly unShakespearian way. In it, three conspirators – Subtle, the eponymous alchemist, Face, a butler pretending to be a military captain, and Doll Common, a prostitute –  deceive a succession of characters from different walks of life. All three conspirators themselves assume different roles and styles of speech to play on their victims’ fantasies.

What I remember from my first reading of it, lying on a bed in Pietermaritzburg in the gap between school and university, with sunlight pouring through thin curtains, is rapturous excitement at some of the speeches by Sir Epicure Mammon, the grandest of the victims. What I’ve loved since, and loved again on this reading, is not individual speeches so much as the way interweaving plot strands drive a wildly funny counterpoint between different characters’ speech styles and obsessions. Everything happens at explosive speed. Shock succeeds shock as emergency after emergency arises for the plotters and as one character’s obsession ludicrously succeeds another’s. Even the relationship between the plotters themselves swerves sharply as each pursues his or her own interests. The play opens with a violent quarrel between them, but rivalry gives way to collusive glee before exploding into fresh rivalry:

[Sub.]   Has he bit? Has he bit?
Face.                                     And swallow’d too, my Subtle.
………….I ha’ giv’n him line, and now he plays, i’faith.
Sub.     And shall we twitch him?
Face.                                           ………….Thorough both the gills.
………….A wench is rare bait, with which a man
………….No sooner’s taken, but he straight firks mad.
Sub.     Doll, my lord What’s’hums sister, you must now
………….Bear yourself statelich.
Doll.                                             O, let me alone.
………….I’ll not forget my race, I warrant you.

On the surface, all this movement is thrillingly chaotic. In fact, though, its explosively centrifugal energies get their power from the perfect control with which Jonson orchestrates everything, from the interweaving of plot strands and the timing of exits and entrances to the detail of each character’s style of speech and the way it interacts with the speeches round it. I think we take a simultaneous pleasure in both the immediate sensation of chaotic unpredictability and our perception of underlying control.

Great skill goes into the writing of individual speeches. I mentioned Mammon’s. Here’s the start of one:

Mam.   I will have all my beds, blown up; not stuff’d;
………….Down is too hard. And then, mine oval room,
………….Fill’d with such pictures, as Tiberius took
………….From Elephantis, and dull Aretine
………….But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses,
………….Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
………….And multiply the figures, as I walk
………….Naked between my succubae.

‘Glasses’ are mirrors, an apparently enduring feature of pornographic mises-en-scène. It’s not the imagery itself that makes this unforgettable, though, it’s the voluptuous way Mammon’s speech seems to fondle his fantasies as they unfold. And what fantasies! Especially in this speech, they’re remarkably narcissistic. This isn’t just a matter of a powerfully consuming egotism that makes everything in the speech revolve around his will, his actions and his possessions.  The way things come to a climax with the image of his own nakedness, not the nakedness of his succubae, almost makes one gasp. The fantasy women surrounding him aren’t seen as objects of desire, aren’t in fact seen at all, they’re mere notional appendages of his own boundless freedom and opulence.

Contrast the self-introductory speech of Abel Drugger, the tobacco shop keeper:

Sub.     Your business, Abel?
Dru.                                         This, and ’t please your worship,
………….I am a young beginner, and am building
………….Of a new shop, and ’t like your worship; just
………….At corner of a street. (Here’s the plot on ’t.)
…………And I would know, by art, sir, of your worship,
………….Which way I should make my door, by necromancy,
………….And, where my shelves. And which should be for boxes.
………….And which for pots.

The worlds of Mammon’s extravagantly exotic fantasies and Drugger’s pedestrian ones couldn’t be more different. The contrast between them is an imaginative delight in itself. From a technical point of view, though, Jonson’s brilliance shows still more in the contrast between the syntax and movement of their speeches. Mammon’s unfolds with gathered power, its momentum unbroken even as it lingers voluptuously over individual details. The aspiring but humble Drugger’s is all gasping eagerness, hesitancy and awkward afterthoughts. Each of the conspirators’ victims brings a distinct world with him in this way. Their collision produces  both imaginative richness and comic zest.

What’s unShakespearian is how completely the effect depends on the momentum of the whole play. Brilliant though they are, the individual speeches are of quite limited interest in themselves. A long or longish speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays is an ambiguous little drama in itself, rippling with cross-currents and sub-textual suggestions that make it positively demand to be read in different ways. The very different strength of Jonson’s involves a definiteness and clarity of purpose that closes down Shakespearian uncertainty.




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