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Richard Dutton, Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Richard Dutton, Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-521-87954-5. 178 pp. 19 b/w ills., £52.00 ($93.00)

Reviewed by Sean McEvoy

[1]  Ben Jonson was not a man to go drinking with. Apart from the dangerous quantities involved (‘drink’, reported Drummond, ‘is one of the elements in which he liveth’), supping with Jonson could presage disaster, it seems. The story of Shakespeare’s final night out in April 1616 with Jonson and Michael Drayton is almost certainly apocryphal, but there is no doubt that early in the Michaelmas Term of 1605 Jonson’s drinking companions at William Patrick’s house in the Strand included Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter. Following the events at Westminster on 5 November 1605, Catesby was shot dead ‘resisting arrest’ on November 8. His cousin Thomas Winter was hanged, drawn and quartered on 31 January 1606.

[2]  It has puzzled biographers that Jonson should have been socializing with the very men whom the Privy Council asked him to help track down in the days following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. According to Drummond, Jonson was a Catholic in 1605. Robert Cecil, who was taking the opportunity to manipulate anti-Catholic feelings to his own advantage, headed the Privy Council. Richard Dutton’s book is not concerned with speculating about Jonson’s personal involvement in the plot and its aftermath. Rather, it sets out a very persuasive case that Jonson’s attitude to the events of the winter of 1605-6 are an important, if not central subtext to his most popular comedy, Volpone, which was first performed in March 1606. In particular, Dutton sees Volpone as Jonson’s act of poetic resistance to his own patron, Robert Cecil. To his detractors, Cecil had much in common with the comedy’s Venetian protagonist. Cecil was, in Dutton’s words, ‘an aristocrat of dubious breeding, who made money by fraud and questionable commerce’ (115). In the case of the Gunpowder Plot he was also suspected, in the words of Jonson’s Avocatore, to have been ‘the chiefest minister, if not plotter, / In all these lewd impostures’ (V.12.108-9: references to Volpone are from Ian Donaldson (ed.) The Oxford Authors: Ben Jonson (Oxford University Press, 1985)). It was and still is widely asserted that even if Cecil and his agents did not initiate the conspiracy, then it was at least penetrated and encouraged by them.

[3]  There is a sense, then, in which Volpone was Cecil; but a sense in which Volpone was Jonson, too. Central to Dutton’s case is that the dedicatory poems and Epistle to the Reader published in the 1607 quarto of Volpone celebrate Jonson’s skill in mocking and outwitting the powerful of the city. Unlike in the cases of The Isle of Dogs, Sejanus or Eastward Ho! however, this time Jonson gets away with it. Dutton’s book is not at attempt to map the characters and action of the play onto historical personages and events in a simplistic way, as can be legitimately done with John Day’s deliberate provoking of anti-Cecil ‘application’, Isle of Gulls (1606). Volpone, writes Dutton, ‘is not ad hominem satire. It is the dissection of a phenomenon, a study of evil in action in all its ramifications’ (65). Dutton amply demonstrates the play’s dissection of a living paradigm of acquisitive, amoral machiavellianism, and elucidates Volpone’s subtle but undeniable associations with Cecil. Even so, I am not convinced that the play’s moral schema, such as it is, presents ‘evil’ quite so starkly.

[4]  Yet Dutton is surely right to claim that because the play goes beyond specific satire ‘it has outlived the moment that brought it all together in Jonson’s brain in the way that Day’s Isle of Gulls has not’, and that ‘the more we understand the circumstances of that supreme moment of creation, the better we can understand and appreciate its achievement’ (65). Dutton suggests that it took this crisis in Jonson’s life to summon the muse who inspired the marvellous Volpone. John Donne recognised the brilliance of this comedy when he wrote in his dedicatory poem to the 1607 quarto ‘Priscis, ingenium facit, laborque / Te parem’ (‘genius and effort put you on a par with the ancients’, in Dutton’s translation).

[5]  Dutton begins with Jonson’s use of the Dedicatory Epistle in the quarto, where the poet claims innocence from any malign constructions which others may put on his words: once the state has authorised publication of his works, a limit has been set to what others are permitted to find in them. Jonson deliberately quotes from the letters asserting his personal uprightness which he wrote to Cecil when successfully bidding to obtain release from prison after the Eastward Ho! fiasco in 1605. When claiming the protection – covertly here, the complicity – of the highest authorities he is also asserting his right as a poet to speak for himself. Citing the humanist dictum which proclaims ‘the impossibility of any man being the good poet without first being a good man’ (ll.19-20), Jonson claims the state’s authority in support of the virtuous subject to underwrite his own voice, but he also invokes the ancient duty of the poet to speak whatever his muse directs him to express.

[6]  The commendatory verses which accompany the quarto register the comedy’s political context and intentions. Edmund Bolton’s poem explicitly connects Volpone with Sejanus, a play denounced by the Earl of Northampton for its ‘Popery’ and which also employed a very detailed reconstruction of the culture of a foreign city for contemporary political purposes – or so it was construed. Furthermore, Donne’s Latin panegyric in the prefatory material will prompt the reader to recall Donne’s scarcely covert attack upon Cecil in stanza 7 of his poem ‘Metempsychosis’ when he or she comes to Mosca’s satirical routine about the transmigration of the soul in Act One of Volpone.

[7]  In keeping with the same oblique method of ‘application’, Dutton does not assert that Sir Politic Would-be is a depiction of Cecil. In fact, his character probably alludes to the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton and the adventurer Sir Anthony Sherley. But Sir Pol’s function in the play is cleverer than mere caricature. The role of the espionage-obsessed Englishman abroad ‘more or less openly alludes to the post-Gunpowder-Plot paranoia in England’ (65). The absurdity of Sir Pol’s behaviour ensures that his speeches escape the censor, but the target of his satire must have been plain to the audience. And yet Sir Pol’s advice to Peregrine on his choice of company, upon being economical with the truth, and upon avoiding any statement of opinion which might be used against him (IV.1.12-25) is perfect advice both in the world of the play and, as Dutton remarks, for those sitting at William Patrick’s table in London in 1605 (68).

[8]  Dutton makes an acute formal point when he points out that the function of the Sir Pol ‘bye-plot’ is to act as an instructive distraction from the main plot, ‘tantalizing us to look for deep plots … when the deepest of plots is in fact going on all around them’ (72). In the same way the Gunpowder Plot is an intriguing story in itself, but a distraction from the wider web of intrigue spun by Cecil, his spies and agents provocateurs.

[9]  Because the book’s focus is on the 1607 quarto as a document, there is little attention to the experience of the play in performance, beyond some reference to some suggestive moments in recent productions. This is a shame. In performance the play works to establish a series of conspiracies between different characters and the audience, in a series of concentric circles of dramatic ironies. Until the end of Act Four Mosca and Volpone are at the centre together, implicating the audience in the various plots through seductive and witty rhetoric employed in asides and soliloquies. Corbaccio’s and Corvino’s plots, which they believe will win Volpone’s gold, have in fact been prompted by their enemies to secure their destruction. In this way Volpone resembles the Catholic view of Cecil in November 1605, but the audience are actively induced to enjoy his actions. It is perhaps possible to see the Gunpowder Plotters to be gulls as foolish as Corbaccio and Voltore.

[10]  When Mosca turns on his over-reaching master, the audience tend to feel compromised. Virtue in the play, such as it is, resides in the masochistic Celia and the priggish Bonario, figures who, as Dutton says, seem to belong in another play of more conventional genre. Audiences are often left puzzled at their own reactions. They have been taken in by the energy and wit of Volpone and Mosca. They often find themselves having little sympathy for virtue, and feeling unaccountable sympathy for Volpone and Mosca as they are ‘mulcted’ with excessive punishment.

[11]  Dutton’s idea of scandalous conspiracy (Fawkes) as a distraction from the real criminal (Cecil) would apply very well to the play if and when an audience regretted their enjoyment of Volpone’s actions, came to see the wickedness of the controlling intelligence, and rejoiced in justice being done at the end of the play. But this is not always the case. Jonson’s justification of his ‘catastrophe’ is a provocation to the anti-theatricalists in as much as it provides a just but unsatisfactory ending. In the Canadian audience’s booing of Bonario’s rescue of Celia in Tyrone Guthrie’s 1964 production we can see an extreme version of this reaction, but the performance history of the text does not record a consistent sense that it is ‘evil’ which is ultimately vanquished. Dutton indeed suggests that there is something of Jonson in the Fox, and that he had an ambivalent relationship with the man who had begun to give him lucrative court commissions.

[12]  Not enough critical attention has been paid to the tradition of beast fables being employed as political comment. Dutton shows how Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale and North’s translation of Anton Francesco Doni’s Moral Philosophy may be regarded as influences upon the play’s writing and reception. Dutton also reads Jonson’s detailed creation of his Venetian setting as an attempt to deflect those who sought to see London in Venice, as he did when meticulously listing the classical sources of the events of Sejanus in the 1605 quarto. But he also shows how Jonson’s evocation of the political, religious and intellectual liberties of Venice ‘resonate by the contrast that they represent to Jacobean London’ (104). Jonson is least authentic in his depiction of the Venetian legal process, but this is where he is able to satirise the ‘kind of bench of magistrates which Jonson himself faced while he was writing the play’ (106) when accused of recusancy.

[13]  Jonson also prudently omits any allusion in Volpone to Venice’s own recent Spanish-inspired gunpowder plot, as reported by Coryat. The power of Venetian politics to ‘resonate’ dangerously in England when portrayed on stage continued for many years. The French-provoked plot against the Republic in 1618 became the basis of Otway’s 1682 tragedy Venice Preserv’d. The original production received royal approval as powerful anti-Whig propaganda during the Exclusion Crisis, but, much later, Sheridan’s 1793 Drury Lane production was closed down when it became implicated in anti-monarchical rioting, culminating in the stoning of George III’s coach on the way to the state opening of Parliament. Venice was London on stage for a long time, and Dutton shows how in Volpone Jonson knew how to exploit that analogy without taking it into dangerous territory.

[14]  The play’s repeated motif of diabolical possession not only demonstrates how the pursuit of wealth is self-destructive, writes Dutton. In its final courtroom scene Corvino’s feigned possession serves to parody Harsnett’s 1604 Declaration of Ingenious Popish Impostures. Dutton says that Jonson saw Harsnett’s book as another attempt by the state church to tell him what he should and should not believe.

[15]  Professor Dutton’s reconstruction of what most engaged Jonson intellectually, emotionally and politically at the watershed moment in his career as a dramatist is never less than fascinating. It is always most persuasive. Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot is yet more proof that Jonson’s great plays were neither the self-conscious slumming de haut en bas of an anti-theatricalist, nor aloof exercises in the ‘timeless’ classical style. They were deliberately executed events designed to have an impact in the real political world, and written by a master-craftsman in the living, political art form of the theatre.

Varndean College, Brighton, December 2009

Juanita Feros Ruys (ed.), What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods (Brepols, 2008)

Juanita Feros Ruys (ed.), What Nature Does Not Teach: Didactic Literature in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-2-503-52596-9. xii+527 pp. Hbk. EUR 90.00.

Reviewed by Lawrence M. Clopper

[1]  The title of the book derives from an interchange between Seneca and another philosopher who had argued that precepts are useless. In defense of practical teaching Seneca responded that ‘advice-giving is of the greatest importance because Nature does not teach what ought to be done in every specific circumstance’ and, given the vagaries of human life, ‘a little prodding of the memory by the application of advice can be most beneficial: advice is a kind of exhortation.’

[2]  This collection of essays provides analyses of a broad range of texts that treat what Nature does not teach and raises questions abut the genre: ‘what is didactic literature … how does it function, did it function as intended, and how are the didactic voice and didactic persona fashioned?’ (3). The contributors’ opinions suggest they think all texts from the medieval and early period are didactic. For this volume ‘a text can be considered didactic if it was created, transmitted, or received as a text designed to teach, instruct, advise, edify, inculcate morals, or modify and regulate behaviour’ (5).

[3]  The volume is divided into sections to respond to fundamental questions about what didactic texts are, to whom they were addressed, what their effect was, and so forth. I note each of the sections and provide comments on essays within each section.

I. ‘Constructing Didactic Intent and Persona.’

[4]  Steven J. Williams, ‘The Pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets as a Didactic Text.’ Williams uses the purported letter from Aristotle to Alexander to examine the basic premises upon which the volume and its inquiry stands: what is a didactic text, how do we know it is a didactic text, how is it used, what is the didactic message, and so forth. The essay is particularly useful in demonstrating how the questions in accessus ad auctores can be used by modern readers to interrogate a medieval text; as such, it examines the fundamental concerns of the volume as a whole.

[5]  This section also contains Kathleen Olive, ‘Preaching and Teaching: The Codex Rustici as Confused Pilgrimage Tale’ and Louise D’Arcens, ‘ “Nee en Ytale”: Christine de Pizan’s Migrant Didactic Voice.’

II. ‘Children and Families.’

[6]  Juanita Feros Ruys, ‘Didactic ‘I’s and the Voice of Experience in Advice from Medieval and Early-Modern Parents to Their Children.’ Ruys characterizes the ‘I’ of early didactic texts as authoritarian rather then arising from the adviser’s experience, a voice that collected wisdom from the auctores, traditional precept, and example (chiefly biblical). She proposes that a shift from authority to experience ‘is part of a larger story of an epistemological revolution that took place in the course of the Middle Ages.’ (129). She considers texts written by a number of fathers and mothers to their children: Dhuoda, Abelard (his Carmen for his son), St. Louis (advice in two texts for his son and for his daughter), Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry, Anne of France, and James VI of Scotland (I of England). This chronological series of texts suggests the move from auctoritas to experience.  At the end of the essay Ruys raises the questions of why there was a ‘curious reluctance’ among early modern women ‘to embrace fully the notion of experience as an authorizing didactic strategy’ whereas male writers did.  Ruys suggests several reasons for this disparity:  in private letters to children women use experience more frequently; in speaking publicly, they may have adapted traditional male strategies as authorizing voices. In addition there may have been concerns from publishers that women’s advice be couched in more masculine terms. In her  conclusion Ruys notes that ‘teaching by experience … is not ‘natural’ but social’ and as a pedagogical mode it appears slowly. Gradually such  instruction comes to authorize parenthood as a didactic locus that allows parents to teach from their own experience.

[7] T his section also contains Maria Nenarokova, ‘Vladimir Monomakh’s Instruction: An Old Russian Pedagogic Treatise’ and Catherine England, ‘ “The world must be peopled”: Children and Their Context in Renaissance Florence.’

III. ‘Women, Teaching, Gender.’

[8]  Alexandra Barratt, ‘English Translations of Didactic Literature for Women to 1550.’ Barratt arranges her texts by category but the assemblage as a whole has a historical trajectory similar to that traced by Ruys. The earliest translations are commentaries on the Benedictine Rule in which a male commentary is redirected to women (10th c.), though later ones are written with women in mind (13th c.). There were biblical translations such as Rolle’s Psalter for Margaret Kirkeby, a recluse; devotional texts that ‘range from the most basically catechetical to the sublimely contemplative’ (the Diologo of St Catherine translated as the Orcherd of Syon, and texts by Henry Suso and David of Augsberg). There were the saints’ lives of John Capgrave and others, the Lady Margaret Beaufort’s contribution to Caxton’s Imitatio Christi, and The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, the earliest secular text to be translated.  Barratt concludes by observing that not only did these translations serve a ‘niche market’ but a ‘captive audience.’ The male authors retained their superiority by referring to their audiences as sisters and daughters who requested the translation, the implication being that the translator has superior and authoritative knowledge. She describes this situation as a ‘gender power game’ in which men acculturate women to their appropriate roles. Barratt concludes that ‘translation for women evolves but undergoes no dramatic transformation as the Middle Ages morphs into the early modern period.’

[9]  This section also contains Stavroula Constantinou, ‘Women Teachers in Early Byzantine Hagiography,’ Albrecht Classen, ‘Thomasin von Zerclaere’s Der Welsche Gast and Hugo von Trimberg’s Der Renner: Two Middle High German Didactic Writers Focus on Gender Relations,’ Julie Hotchin, ‘Guidance for Men Who Minister to Women in the Liber de reformatione monasterorium of Johannes Busch,’ and Ursula Potter, ‘Elizabethan Drama and The Instruction of a Christian Woman by Juan Luis Vives.’

IV: ‘Literacy, Piety, Heresy, Control.’

[10]  Anne M. Scott, ‘ “For lewed men y yndyr toke on englyssh tonge to make this boke”: Handlyng Synne and English Didactic Writing for the Laity.’ Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne is an adaptation of William of Waddington’s Manuel des pechiez but differs from its source by being directed, according to the Prologue, to the laity who can read English or understand what is read to them thereby forming a textual community that is assumed to have sufficient understanding of faith that Mannyng can engage it in theological and moral issues. Waddington’s text is addressed to the clergy who may use the material in sermons to instruct their parishioners in the essential teachings of the church according to the syllabi of Lateran IV and Archbishop John Pecham. Scott argues that although Mannyng states at the beginning that his targeted audience is the laity, there are other indications in the text of his interest in addressing the clergy as well. His instruction on theological and doctrinal issues includes sections on baptism, Limbo, whether Jews can be saved, the difference between baptism and confirmation, the forbidden degrees of spiritual relationships and, most important, the doctrine of the Real Presence. Mannyng introduced thirteen tales not in his source, nine of which are unique to Handlyng Synne. These tales are marked by brevity, an anecdotal tone and lively dialogue. They are placed in English locations and focus on local types of English people in order to make them more immediate to his audience.

[11]  Philippa Bright, ‘Anglo-Latin Collections of the Gesta Romanorum and Their Role in the Cure of Souls.’ Bright examines the Anglo-Latin Gesta against the continental versions.  She notes a number of differences between the two traditions: the Anglo-Latin versions, for example, strive for greater verisimilitude by the use of familiar names and places, by providing reasons for events and actions and by incorporating a greater degree of dialogue among the principal figures. The changes in these versions, but also their manuscript contexts, suggest several purposes and audiences for the collections. The greater number appears intended to assist preachers and clerics in the cure of souls and the education of the laity in theological matters. Other versions appear in codices for devotional reading and a few seem intended for court circles where they may have been read as histories.

[12]  This section also contains John O. Ward, ‘Lawrence of Amalfi and the Boundary between the Oral and the Written in Eleventh-Century Europe,’ and Jason Taliadoros, ‘Master Vacarius, Speroni, and Heresy: Law and Theology as Didactic Literature in the Twelfth Century.’

[13]  Section V, ‘The Classical Tradition and Early-Modern Didactic,’ contains essays by Frances Muecke and Robert Forgacs, ‘ “Dulces discet ab arte sonos”: The Latin Didactic Poem on Music of Philomathes (Vienna, 1512),’ Anthony Miller, ‘Vindicating Vulcan: Renaissance Manuals of Mining and Metallurgy,’ Emma Gee, ‘Astronomy and Philosophical Orientation in Classical and Renaissance Didatic Poetry,’ and Yasmin Haskell, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Tommaso Ceva’s Use and Abuse of Lucretius in the Philosophia novo-antiqua (Milan, 1704).’

[14]  In her Preface Ruys notes the initial response of a colleague invited to participate in the project who wanted to be convinced that the symposium would be ‘more interesting than it sounds.’ The essays in this volume demonstrate that ‘didactic literature’ should not be thought of as dry and dull but often lively and entertaining as such texts would need to be if they were to be efficacious.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Indiana University,  December 2009