Posts Tagged ‘Ben Jonson’

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

The Alchemist at the RSC

May 29, 2016

Ben Jonson‘s The Alchemist is a wonderful play to read – full of deception, abuse, wit, fast-paced, hectic, non-stop action; I was looking forward to seeing it in performance. We saw the first preview, which is the first time it’s played before a live audience, and so were warned to expect some rough edges. And there were some; the whole performance had me thinking more deeply about the kind of play it is and how a twenty-first century audience can respond to a seventeenth-century social satire.

Herein lies the problem, it seemed to me: it’s a genre we aren’t familiar with, and cannot really liken to anything we are familiar with: it’s not farce, it’s not pantomime, it’s not sitcom, though there are elements of all of these. It’s hilarious – when the audience gets the jokes – and that isn’t always.

The plot is pretty complex and convoluted, basically involving a trio of confidence tricksters fooling all the other characters most of the time, but also fighting amongst themselves; at the end their schemes are brought to a sudden stop and all is revealed, but no-one is really punished. The tricksters are let off (no doubt to have another go another day), and the conned put up with their losses rather than be publicly exposed for the fools they have been…

The first half of the performance was fast-paced, and this was a problem, perhaps with the genre: there was no variation is pace or pitch or tone, which became monotonous and a little tiring. The second half was better in that there was a sense of its gradually building up to a crescendo (actually a real explosion!). The actors were all really good, energetically playing their stereotypical characters to great effect.

Although when reading the play I was aware of the cardboard nature of Jonson’s characters – there’s very little development, and no real need or opportunity for the audience to sympathise, or indeed dislike them – this does also affect one’s response to performance, where the thinness of the characters is going to be much more evident when they are onstage in front of us. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable romp, which will surely be slicker and better and funnier after a few performances. And it was my second play of the day, so I was a bit tired, and probably less appreciative than I’d be another day…

Ben Jonson: The Alchemist

February 4, 2016

51fFZPA+7GL._AA160_Shakespeare and Ben Jonson knew each other; their plays were in performance at the same time in early seventeenth century London, and yet how different they are! You could not see the one writing like the other at all.

I’m doing some more pre-reading for my Shakespeare week in May, and hadn’t read The Alchemist since my university days. Thinking about Jonson, I realise I’m only familiar with his comedies – Volpone I taught for a number of years, and I also vaguely remember studying Bartholomew Fair – and haven’t read any of his other plays. He appears to capture the street life, the low-life, the unsavoury on-the-make characters of the London scene in great detail and really convincingly. And the names of his characters!

While his master is out of London avoiding the plague, Jeremy the butler (alias Face, alias Lungs), lets out the house to an alchemist, Subtle; they have a female accomplice named Doll, and all three set out to cheat as many people in as many different ways as possible. Our heroes are fast talkers and quick thinkers: the pace of the play is hectic and there are always several different plots up in the air and colliding with each other… They don’t speak the lofty, poetic language of Shakespeare’s characters, but speak the actual language of the streets, with lashings of swearing, insulting and abuse – I love it! – and so imaginative and colourful it is, too. There’s also the fancy jargon and abstruse terminology of alchemy and its processes to hoodwink the credulous and unwary – Sir Epicure Mammon in particular (he has shedloads of money and wants even more). Everyone succumbs to the temptations of instant wealth, even the purest of Puritans pretend that, of course, the ill-gotten gains will go to a godly end.

The action is dizzyingly fast, increasingly crazy and really funny too: I know I’ll be laughing my head off when I see it in performance. There is no honour involved – it’s like Volpone: everyone is out for what they can get in an incredibly rapacious world (no change there, then), and as we move towards the denouement, deception and double-cross rear their head, as everyone is out to save themselves and come out of the situation as best they can. They all try to brazen things out at the end, but it’s Face/Jeremy who does best because he lives in the house and manages to hoodwink his master with a wealthy widow…

But, interestingly, no-one is on the receiving end of moral censure at the close of the play: those who were gulled lose out and are cross about it and bluster a bit, but the overall feeling is ‘oh well, good try, maybe I’ll have better luck next time’. And the crooks get away with what they can… again, the more I think about it, the more it all seems quite familiar.

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