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(7) Jacobean Literature

Ben Jonson (1572 - 1637)

Life and Career

- the first English professional writer to invest that role with dignity and respectability

- collected his plays and poems under the title Works (1616), the same title King James I gave to his political treatises published in the same year, and so laid claim to a higher literary status than his contemporaries did

- many of his contemporaries were not interested in publishing their works, as e.g. J. Donne they wrote for small coterie audiences, or as e.g. W. Shakespeare wrote for theatre companies which preferred not to let go of the scripts

- in his early life faces many difficulties: killed a fellow actor in a duel and escaped the gallows only by pleading benefit of clergy (a medieval privilege allowing felons who could read and write Latin to be tried by a more lenient ecclesiastical court), also was repeatedly charged for his plays (e.g. for 'popery and treason' found in Sejanus)

- with the accession of James I established himself at the court with his masques and gathered about himself a group of admiring younger men, the 'Sons of Ben', including e.g. Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and others

- himself was supported by several patrons, including Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Walter Ralegh, and members of the Sidney and Herbert families


- tried many poetic genres: epitaph and epigram, love and funeral elegy, verse satire and verse epistle, song and ode

- in poetry and in drama looked back to classical Roman precedents, from the poets Horace and Martial derived generic models as well as an ideal vision of the artist and society

> Epigrammes (1616):

- adapts the compact epigram perfected in Latin by Juvenal and Horace into a rhymed English form

- contains pithy addresses to his muse, to King James, to prominent noblemen and noblewomen, to literary friends, allies, and enemies

- includes several epigrams in praise of his patroness Lady Mary Wroth

> The Forrest (1616):

- includes a Horatian epistle addressed to Sir Robert Worth, Lady Mary's husband, which contrasts the vices, sports, and entertainments of the city and the court with the alternative pleasures of country life

> "To Penshurst" (1616):

- inaugurates the small genre of the country-house poem in England

- celebrates the country estate of Sir Robert Sidney, Mary Wroth's father, and offers an ideal image of a social order in which a virtuous patriarchal governor offers ready hospitality to poets and kings alike

- dwells on the idea of the open-handed generosity, easy elegance, and unaffected cultivation, which he sees as a link between a modern aristocracy and the patrician patrons of the ancient Roman poets


- in 1603 with the accession of James I and Queen Anne the court masque started to flourish as a major form of entertainment, praise, and political idealization of the Stuart court as the embodiment of all perfections

- masques combined songs, speech, richly ornamented costumes, shifting scene panels depicting elaborate architecture and landscapes, and intricate machines in which gods and goddesses descented from heaven

- the speaking parts were taken by professionals, but the dancers were members of the court, including women

- in 1605 Jonson received the commission to organize the Twelfth night entertainments, consequently produced a series of twenty-four masques in collaboration with the architect and scene designer Inigo Jones, and established himself as the chief writer of court masques for the following more than two decades

> The Masque of Blackness (1605):

- asserts the cultural superiority of the English over non-European peoples and celebrates the patriarchal power of James as the 'Sun King' of Britain who can turn black skin to white

- contains also a subversive current in that the promised transformation of the ladies' skin is never seen, plus there is a lengthy praise of black beauty delivered by a Niger


- criticized the vogue for tragi-comical mixed drama and the bombastic tragedies of 1590s, as T. Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592) and Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest tragedy Titus Andronicus (c. 1587, published 1594)

- emphasized that comedy was considered by the Greeks to be equal in dignity to tragedy, preferred to represent a shared and deficient humanity rather than to elevate and isolate the tragic hero, and was careful in preserving the three Greek unities in his own drama

- his earlier plays ridicule the absurdities, anomalies, and inconsistencies typified as 'humours', his later plays deal more directly with power and manipulation

- his comedies possess an extravagance of characterization coupled with an extraordinary neatness of plotting

> Every Man in His Humour (1598, revised 1616):

- inaugurates the comedy of humours, which ridicules the ruling eccentricities of the characters then thought to be caused by physiological imbalance

- the first version was acted out in a Florentine setting with Italian-sounding characters, the revised version takes place in London and features English characters

> Volpone (performed 1606, published 1607):

- satirizes human greed in the Venice setting, but targets at London as a place of commerce as well as corruption

- protests the inhumanity not just of greedy people but of greedy laws, i.e. laws made by the greedy to protect the acquisitions of the greedy

- draws on the classical satirist Lucian who provides the theme of a rich old man playing with the money-grubbing scoundrels who hope to inherit his wealth

> Epicene, or the Silent Woman (1610, published 1616):

- centres on the obsession of the misanthropic character Morose with silence

- Morose marries a silent woman in order to spite his nephew, but the wife turns out to be a boy dressed as a girl, and the play concludes with the necessary divorce and the financial justification of the disinherited nephew

> The Alchemist (1610, published 1612):

- the play focuses on egocentricity, which is reinforced by the dividing of the characters from one another by their distinctive voices, idiolects, or professional jargon

- features the professional trickster Subtle who exploits a wide range of London City citizens, most of them tricksters alike, before he disappears in the conclusion to find his next victims somewhere in larger London

> Bartholomew Fair (1614, published 1631):

- represents the new sub-genre of drama, city comedy, which draws satirically on the life of London and Londoners

- set in London's once great August Fair, portrayed as a carnivalesque city beyond the City, which draws those who attempt to restrain it into its very reversals, surprises, and role changes

Roman Tragedies

- abound in learned reference to Latin historians, orators, and poets

- draw parallels between Roman corruption and the instability of the modern state

> Sejanus (1603, printed 105): follows the fates of Emperor Tiberius and his low-born favourite Sejanus through whom his master rules, sees equal danger in the unnatural advance of a commoner and in the autocratic government

> Catiline (1611): presents an analogy between the Catiline conspiracy (63 BC) and the Gunpowder Plot (1605)

John Webster (c. 1578 - c. 1634)

- his two tragedies are set in the Roman Catholic Italy and follow the common Jacobean stereotype of Italy as a place of sophisticated and morbid corruption, but both are also based on recent true occurrences in the Italian courts

- both feature bold and brave female protagonists who refuse to submit to male patriarchs and choose their life partners for love rather than for reason

- Webster borrows devices, effects, themes, and metaphors from his fellow English dramatists, but manages to place his borrowings in strikingly novel and distinctive contexts

> The White Devil (c. 1608 - 12, printed 1612):

- a woman is tried for supposed adultery and murder and is convicted by the court of corrupt magistrates

- she keeps her moral integrity and stands as a lonely pattern of virtues in an otherwise dark and immoral world

> The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613 - 14, printed 1623):

- a noble ruler of Malfi marries secretly her steward against the command of her brothers that she remain a widow

- her brothers, a duke and a cardinal, determine to destroy their sister, her husband, and their children, led by the dark motives of greed for her fortune, overweening pride in their noble blood, and incestuous desire

- the play weds sublime poetry and Gothic horror in the macabre mental and physical torments to which the Duchess is subjected by her brothers, in the lunatic ravings of the duke after he strangles her, and in the conclusion in which the stage is littered with the corpses of all the principal characters

John Fletcher (1579 - 1625)

- produced most of his works in collaboration

- influenced by the prose pastorals of Philip Sidney and his Italian models

- combines intrigue and romance, the amorous and the perilous, the bucolic and the lyrical

- focuses on tragi-comedies following the formula of a happy denouement implying that even in an imperfect world virtue could be perfectly rewarded

> The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608):

- his early Hellenic pastoral

> The Maid's Tragedy (c. 1610, published 1619):

- a tragedy in collaboration with Francis Beaumont

- shows the entangled relationships of a married couple in which the wife is a king's mistress and the husband leaves behind a mistress of his own

- concludes with the wife's murder of the king and her own suicide, with the abandoned mistress's dying in a duel with the husband which she provoked in disguise for a man, and with the husband's suicide beside her corpse

> Philaster, or Love lies a-bleeding (c. 1609, published 1620):

- a tragi-comedy in collaboration with Francis Beaumont

- shows injustices happily reversed, disasters averted, and heirs restored to their rights

> A King and No King (1611, published 1619):

- a tragi-comedy in collaboration with Francis Beaumont

- resolves the king's incestuous passion for his sister and his plans for murder, rape, and suicide by the timely revelation that the king is neither a king nor a brother

> The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613, published 1634):

- in collaboration with William Shakespeare

- retells G. Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" with its knightly rivalries, vexed relationships, and sudden reversals

Francis Beaumont (1584 - 1616)

> The Maid's Tragedy: a tragedy in collaboration with John Fletcher

> Philaster, or Love lies a-bleeding and A King and No King: tragi-comedies in collaboration with John Fletcher

> The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1607, published 1613):

- his own burlesque

- set at the Blackfriars Theatre in which a performance of a genteel play is interrupted by an unruly merchant citizen and his wife who demand a play more to their middle-brow taste

- attempts to reconcile chivalry and trade to confirm to the demand of the audience for plays drawing on the contemporary mercantile London life

Thomas Middleton (1580 -1627)

- his London comedies explores the new mercantile value systems which he sees as corrupting urban society

- his ingenious comic protagonists suggest that quick wit is the best defence against arbitrary oppression

- started writing comedies, later turned to tragedies, including a collaboration with William Rowley (?1585 - 1626)

> A Mad World, My Masters (c. 1605 - 7, published 1608):

- a city comedy

> A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605, published 1608):

- a comedy in which the young protagonist outwits two elderly gentlemen, one of them his uncle from whom he regains his lost inheritance, from the other he wins a bride

> A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611):

- a comedy featuring a bourgeois family which seeks to secure its new position in society by marrying off their daughter to a wealthy but morally corrupt aristocrat and their son to a supposedly rich widow

- the play exposes pretensions, false estimates, and idle expectations before it arrives to its happy denouement in which both the daughter and the son escape the planned marriages to be united with partners of their own choice

> The Revenger's Tragedy (published 1607):

- a tragedy set in an unpleasant Italian court which is clearly associated with the corruptions of Jacobean England

- uses irony akin to Ben Jonson's, like Jonson's Volpone also chooses Italianate versions as names for the type-figures of earlier English morality plays (the revenger is called Vindice, his wronged brother's name is translated as Chaste, the villains are Lecherous, Ambitious, Vain, etc.)

- the play's discourse is built around frank statements of villainy, cynical assertions of self-justification, and quasi-proverbial maxims

> Women Beware Women (c. 1621, published 1657):

- a tragedy with two interwoven plots in which two women shortly enjoy the exercise of sexual, financial, and political power in a sordid patriarchal society before they are driven to their downfall

> The Changeling (1622, published 1652):

- a tragedy in collaboration with William Rowley

- a woman attempts to escape from an undesired marriage by hiring a man to murder her fiancé, her plan is marred by the murder's desiring her virginity as a price, but the woman realizes that her hatred and physical repulsion towards the murderer have strangely transformed into love and attraction

George Chapman (?1559 - 1634)

> Bussy D'Ambois (c. 1604, printed 1607):

- based on the dangerous career of a protégé of the brother of Henry III of France in the nasty French court

- the protagonist Bussy is a misfit in the corrupt courtly world in which he moves

- he ends up mortally wounded by the chief of his many enemies, on which he props himself up on his sword and proclaims himself a Roman statue, already a monument to his future fame

> The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (c. 1610, printed 1613):

- a sequel to the former play, in which Bussy's angry ghost urges his brother to avenge him, but the brother finds himself unable to live in the dark intrigues of the French court and kills himself

- the conclusion suggests that Bussy may be revenged, but the ultimate triumph belongs to the corrupt society

> The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (c. 1607, printed 1608):

- in contrast to the preceding plays the downfall of the protagonist is caused by his supreme self-confidence

- the protagonist intrigues against the order imposed by the king, but is revealed and condemned to death

> Iliad and Odyssey (1616): his highly influential translations of Homer's epics

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    David Livingstone.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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