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thumb. The peril he then ran seems to have made a deep impression on his conscience; for when he quitted Newgate he had changed his religion, having been converted to Catholicism by a priest. Three years later he recanted Popery, and rejoined the Church of England. On this occasion, in order to demonstrate his sincerity, he took the sacrament, and signalised his zeal by draining the communion cup of all the wine which it contained. The anecdote is from his own life; and instead of being any evidence of a ribald disposition, we must take it as he meant it, to indicate a firm conviction. Anyhow he died faithful to Protestantism, and there is nothing to show that his changes of religion were influenced, as Dryden's may have been, by a sense of interest. Indeed, he suffered in 1603 for his Papistical opinions, just as his father under Mary had suffered for the Protestant cause, and his reconversion brought him no special advancement.
The duel with Gabriel Spencer caused a breach between Jonson and his employer, Henslow. This, which at the moment may have seemed to him a disaster, was the occasion of his first eminent success as playwright. Shakespeare, who belonged to the acting company which then divided London with Henslow's, accepted a comedy from Jonson's pen, and put it on the stage. The play was Every Man in his Humour. Here Jonson displayed his own peculiar manner for the first time. The prologue sounds a note of defiance to romantic playwrights, repeating the tone of Sidney's attack on them in his Defence of Poetry. Romance, adapted
to the stage by Marlowe's predecessors, by Marlowe himself, and by Shakespeare, now in the morning of his glory, neglected classical rules of art. To time and space the romantic muse had proved herself indifferent. Upon the narrow room of a wooden theatre in the suburbs, with somewhat less than three hours for "the traffic of the stage," she represented the lives of heroes from their cradle to the grave, and the catastrophes of empires under the "drums and tramplings of three conquests." Romantic poets calmly ignored the unities of Aristotelian tradition. For them a story translated into action was the main point; and the conditions of the English theatres, devoid of scenery, dependent upon vivid movement in the players for effect, and on keen imaginative sympathies in the audience for approval, assisted them to such a point that the magnificent artistic licences of Pericles and A Winter's Tale were rendered possible. Against all this Jonson, the Westminster scholar, the bluff rebellious personage who had killed his two men in single combat, and who felt pugnaciously inclined to challenge all the world, rebelled. He declared himself for unity of action, unity of time, unity of place, and unity of subject. He produced a masterpiece which preserved these decencies of art, and which borrowed something from the Latin classics. At the same time he took pains to prove that the follies of the town might be acutely seized and vividly presented in accordance with the stricter rules of drama, and that comedy might be made to serve a moral purpose by
delineating foibles common to humanity. Every Man in his Humour was the highly original work which demonstrated his divergence from the style in vogue and the soundness of his method. It was to the credit of Shakespeare that he recognised its merit, had it acted, and took part himself in the performance.
This comedy had a great success. It started Jonson upon a cycle of plays, in which he strove to delineate the humours of society, or, in other words, to portray the peculiarities of character which make men and women laughable. Humour he conceived to be something dependent upon the physical constitution of the individual, which provokes a habit, constitutes a ruling foible, and diverts the action of its subject into courses which move mirth. In seizing these ruling follies by observation of the motley London crowd, he was eminently happy. His comedies form an inexhaustible Hogarthian picture-gallery of sixteenthcentury oddities. But he was too profound a student of human nature to stop here. He knew the point at which eccentricity shades off into vice, and discerned the subtle links whereby crime is connected with moral weakness. Therefore, in the noblest of his plays, dominant passions tower above the undergrowth of humours. Lust, hunger for gold, jealousy, brutal egotism, vulgar ambition, control and sway the multiform kaleidoscope of minor aberrations brought before our notice in bewildering profusion. It was granted to him by nature in no small measure to preserve right
relations between the criminal, the vicious, the passionate, and the merely foolish; so that a steady study of his work is equal to a lesson in ethics. Each figment of his brain assumes its proper distance and perspective; each is endowed with specific vitality. As in a bas-relief, the larger persons of his art stand prominently forward, the lesser retreat into the background; but all alike are firmly outlined, unmistakable in individuality. This robust power of characterisation and of maintaining the gradations of dramatic interest is Jonson's highest quality. But it has a corresponding defect. There is no atmosphere, nothing unexpected, nothing unforeseen, no overshadowing mystery of fate, no delicate revealing of complexities of character, in his stupendous craftsmanship. The romantic poets, whom he despised, created human beings more realistically natural in their mingled good and evil, than these vigorously conceived and Titanically projected creatures of his understanding. Though we retire from his theatre, overwhelmed by the man's prodigious inventive and delineative force, we feel that we have been, after all, at a marionette show, where the puppets are moved by wires.
The satiric impulse was strong in Jonson. He felt called upon to lash the errors and the vices of his age; and he boasted that he took Horace for his model. Yet he had neither the irony nor the urbanity of the Augustan poet. His blows fell as hard upon the backs of people he chastised, as his translations from smooth Latin verse fall harsh b
upon our modern ears. Three comedies, composed between 1598 and 1600-Every Man out of his Humour, The Case is Altered, and Cynthia's Revels -roused society against him. Whole classes, like the courtiers, the play-goers, the actors, bad poets, and fashionable fribblers, felt themselves attacked. Being men of flesh and blood, some of them turned in the dust, and stung Jonson. He was lampooned in verses and caricatured upon the stage. To bear these reprisals calmly, though he had provoked them, was not in his nature. And in 1601 he summoned all his strength to give the foes, whose wrath he had aroused, a thorough drubbing. For this purpose he selected two assailants-Tom Dekker, with whom he had previously worked upon a romantic tragedy, and John Marston, who afterwards professed himself his pupil and admirer. They were to be nailed up, like wild-cats on a keeper's back-door, to warn the common fry of scribblers that Ben Jonson was Apollo's darling. The outcome of this literary squabble was a rare and singular production of his pen, called The Poetaster. The scene of the play is laid in Rome at the time of Augustus, but the main characters are persons of Jonson's day presented under thin disguises. Much of its gall and venom has doubtless grown stale; but enough of curious quaintness and fine invention remains to furnish forth quotations which may still be read with pleasure. Instead of crushing his antagonists by this "comical satire," as he would have called it, The Poetaster only brought down