“[A]ll the world’s a play” (and that just might be the problem).

I suppose I owe a bit of an explanation.

When we met (non-materially) a fortnight or so ago, I was fending off a microbial assault. Despite my (obviously heroic) attempts to keep up my usual duties of reading, archiving, and championing all things British, I am sorry to admit (tho’ you probably already realised this) that the microbes bested me. Indeed, I spent most of the week-point-five following my initial article in a state of hostile impatience as I waited for the two (2!) infections in my right ear to meet their untimely end. This was rather painful work, and even in those moments where I may have been alert enough to sit upright at my desk I did not think it wise to record any of my thoughts (they would doubtless have been cantankerous).

In time I regained my hearing and good humour, and decided I was well enough to venture outside my house again. I think it was less than half an hour before I was in a car accident. Since then, I’ve been shut inside my home with the doors locked and the blinds drawn. [i]

Of course, this has given me time to complete the second chapter of my thesis which (I think I may have mentioned earlier) is a comparison of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the second of Jonson’s “late” plays, The New Inn.

The New Inn is a fascinating text to read because it, more than Jonson’s other Caroline plays, takes the subject of theatre as its focus. Here’s is Jonson’s “Argument” to the play: [ii]

The Lord Frampul, a noble gentleman, well educated, and bred a scholar in Oxford, was married young, to a virtuous gentlewoman, Sylla’s daughter of the south, whose worth, though he truly enjoyed, he could never rightly value; but as many green husbands (given over to their extravagent delights and peccant humours of their own,) occasioned in his overloving wife so deep a melancholy, by his leaving her in the time of her lying-in of her second daughter, she having brought him only two daughters, Frances and Laetitia: and (out of her hurt fancy) interpreting that to be a cause of her husband’s coldness of affection, her not being blest with a son, took resolution with herself, after her month’s time, and thanksgiving rightly in the church, to quit her home, with a vow never to return, till by reducing her lord, she could bring a wished happiness to the family.

He in the meantime returning, and hearing of this departure of his lady, began, though over-late, to resent the injury he had done her: and out of his cock-brain’d resolution, entered into as solemn a quest of her. Since when, neither of them had been heard of. But the eldest daughter, Frances, by the title of Lady Frampul, enjoyed the estate, her sister being lost young, and is the sole relict of her family. Here begins our comedy. (426)

If that sounds a bit extravagant, I think it is meant to be. The upsetting of the patriarchal state that Lord Frampul’s initial departure causes, however, gives Jonson the motive to create a matching “festive” space where inverted social and gender roles, costumes, and miracles are allowed, and even necessary, for restoring the social order within the play.

For Jonson, this festive space is the space of the Inn of the play’s title (known as “The Light Heart,” which is also the subtitle of the play). Most festive spaces are found in a vaguely-placed country house (as Olivia’s home in Twelfth Night, or Portia’s Belmont in The Merchant of Venice), or in a forest or pastoral setting (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, respectively); these spaces are physically and metaphorically outside of city laws and economies. Jonson’s “festive” space is, oddly, clearly located in Barnet, a city in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and so is not wholly detached from the main commercial centre of England; moreover, the inn itself is, like all inns, a business; most of its profit (and most of the humour of the play) is generated by wayfarers travelling to and from the nearby city. Finally, unlike the dream world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the festivities in Jonson’s Inn take the form of a mock court,* a space dominated by patriarchal rule.

All of these factors which refuse to allow the “festive” space of the inn to wholly exist are, I think, part of the play’s parodying of the festive and romantic conventions of many of Shakespeare’s comedies, in order to demonstrate how naively optimistic restorative endings like those in Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and even The Merchant of Venice are.

Indeed, the speeches made defending Platonic love, valour, and stoicism within the “Court of Love” established in the play world are undermined by Lord Lovell (who defends love and valour) chasing the servants of the inn in an absurd attempt to fight with them immediately prior to the gathering at court, and by his immediate plunge into melancholy and despair (From what a happiness hath that one word / Thrown me into the gulph of misery!” 4.3) once the Court ends, and his access to his beloved Lady Frampul is (temporarily) cut off. It is further undermined by the “flies”* in the cellar below who, as the court is in session, revel and share stories of their thieving, gambling, whoring, and other debauchery (significantly, these are the same flies who gain control of the inn at the play’s end). Even within the “festive” space of the inn then, the restoration of order does not seem to last: yet the reader is to believe that the excessive reunion of an entire family at the play’s conclusion (some of whom — Lord Frampul, his wife, and his daughter “Frank” — have been living within the same house for at least seven years without recognising each other) will hold. [iii]

Which is not to say either that Shakespeare’s comedies themselves are lacking in a self-awareness that challenges both literary and social conventions [iv], nor even that Jonson’s play is a direct attack on Shakespeare alone. Considering Jonson’s attempts in his court masques (as well as his earlier public stage plays) to use theatre as a means of edifying his audience in civil virtue, such a pessimistic presentation of theatre suggests the poet’s scepticism of his own poetics.

If theatre fails at its ability to control and educate the male citizens in its audience, then it proves equally as incapable of controlling its female citizens. Worse, because the theatricality of life hides the truth of one’s gender and status, the males both within and without the play world find themselves in situations where, as with the Lord Beaufort who has married a boy [v], they are forced to concede their masculinity.

To quote myself:

More generally, in a city comedy where male characters compete with and attempt to cheat each other, the only way to survive humiliation and to escape cuckoldry, is to make certain that one is aware of what every other character is doing at all times: thus Dauphine will never be forced to admit his effeminsation as Morose, Daw, and La Foole do, because he alone of the males possesses full knowledge of the other characters in the play (including Epicoene’s gender). Similarly, Sebastian Wengrave can best Sir Alex because he understands his father’s fears and desires better than his father understands his son’s motives. Volpone, until the final scene of that play, remains the omniscient (and therefore omnipotent) orchestrating figure of the other witless (wittols?) of the play.

In Jonson’s The New Inn, then, nearly everyone on stage and off finds themselves in a state of metaphorical cuckoldry. Even Lord Beaufort, though he is not as humiliated as Morose, cannot claim to truly know anything: he is saved from his deserved emasculation through sheer luck. As the uncovering of the “female” beneath Frank’s costume demonstrates, the layers of theatricality which compose both the play world of The New Inn and the real world to which Jonson compares it, make true knowledge of anything impossible. (20)

Not to maliciously omit any discussion of Shakespeare, but after spending the last four days editing and re-editing (and re-re- editing) these 20 pages, this is about as much as I wish to write about chapter two. It’s time to start serious work on the third of Jonson’s Caroline plays, The Magnetic Lady (which I’ll be comparing to Jonson’s earlier humours comedy, Cynthia’s Revels.

As a closing note, however, this Wednesday, 11 June, is Ben’s birthday. In honour of the occasion, I’ll be writing Ben articles all this week. I encourage you to make a fuss in whatever manner you feel befits the occasion!

End Notes:

[i] the blinds drawn. Occasionally I also weep softly.

[ii] Argument to the play. This Argument was added to the printed text along with an address “To the Reader” after the play failed on opening night, an event which has suggested to critics that either Jonson was simply no good at writing festive or romantic comedies, or that the audience had difficulty reading the parodic features of the play (I place my own argument in that school of interpretation while simultaneously admitting that the play, because of its several complex layers of performativity, is probably more easily followed when read than watched. Then again, early modern audiences would have been accustomed to following rapidly-delivered narratives than the modern spectator).

[iii] will hold. Here I am using sarcasm. Obviously I don’t think we are to believe in the end at all. I’m in fairly good company on this belief, too, as will become clear when I release my partial bibliography for this chapter.

[iv] social conventions. Indeed, though I do not discuss it here, this is precisely what I argued As You Like It does.

[v] married a boy. Or so the characters and the audience believe: “Frank,” whom the other characters dress as a woman in order to play a prank on the young Lord B., turns out to be the Lord Frampul’s long-lost daughter, who has been living with him dressed as a boy all these years.

Works Cited:

Jonson, Ben. The New Inn, in The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson. Ed. Felix Schelling. Vol. 2. London, New York: JM Dent & Sons, Dutton, 1963. 426-504.

Me! “‘[D]issembling lady mistress[es]’: Parodic Performances in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Jonson’s The New Inn. Obviously Unpublished. (June, 2008). 1-21.

8 June 2008

Glossary of Terms:

Mock court. n. (lit.). Mock Courts (and courts of love) are also a convention of (particularly Shakespearean) romances, a genre that shares characteristics with the festive comedy. As You Like It is, in some ways, more characteristic of an Arcadian romance than the festive genre.

Flies. n.pl. (obs.). In early modern plays, the “fly” is the parasitic and sycophantic figure who works with (but usually attempts to betray) his conniving master (for example, Mosca, in Jonson’s Volpone) or who works against a more witless character. May also referred to as a “parasite,” “moth,” and “worm.”


One thought on ““[A]ll the world’s a play” (and that just might be the problem).

  1. Pingback: Things for which Gaurav Is Useful: Edition 7. « The Blotted Line

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