“Ben Jonson made it”: The god of the theatre in the comedy of humours

Having recently completed the third chapter of my thesis, I thought I’d write my usual synopsis. Chapter three was the most difficult portion of the thesis to write. Much of what I had originally wanted to discuss in The Magnetic Lady I found I had already covered in my discussions on The Staple of News and The New Inn. Most of what was new and relevant to the humours genre[i] entailed a detailed discussion of the characters’ names (especially in Cynthia’s Revels, where plot is scarce to be found). An examination of names, however, threatens to become little more than a list of observations (“Oh, and Anaides means impudent, so he’s choleric!”).

In a play where the characters are named for the humoural composition which directs all their behaviour, though, names are critical: often, the name seems more important than the body beneath the name. In a humours play the body itself seems little more than a slate on which a name/behaviour/vice can be inscribed. Thus (on Prof. Martin’s recommendation) I began to consider the relationship between words and bodies in Jonson’s theatre through Jackie Derrida’s “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation”. Here then, is both an excerpt and synoptic analysis of the essay:

The stage is theological for as long as it is dominated by speech, by a will to speech, by the layout of a primary logos which does not belong to the theatrical site and governs it from a distance. The stage is theological for as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or the meaning of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors, enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the “creator.” Interpretive slaves who faithfully execute the providential designs of the “master.” Who moreover – and this is the ironic rule of the representative structure which organizes all these relationships – creates nothing, has only the illusion of having created, because he only transcribes and makes available for reading a text whose nature is necessarily representative; and this representative text maintains with what is called the “real” […] an imitative and reproductive relationship. Finally, the theological stage comports a passive, seated public, a public of spectators, of consumers, of “enjoyers” – as Nietzsche and Artaud both say – attending a production that lacks true volume or depth, a production that is level, offered to their voyeuristic scrutiny. (In the theater of cruelty, pure visibility is not exposed to voyeurism.) (235)

The theatre of cruelty, because it places no limits on the stage space, no line demarcating stage and audience, “permeate[s]” (237) the viewer, allowing him or her to experience the action on stage not as an act, but as life itself; the theatre of cruelty creates a space the viewer can actively inhabit. As a result, the theatre of cruelty forces its viewer to forget that the space it inhabits is theatrical.

The theological theatre, conversely, is one which divests bodies of their capability to be seen or to move as bodies; they are representatives of a textual idea belonging to the author/god who creates the play. In the theological theatre it is impossible for the viewer to transcend the superficial representative barrier of signs for which the bodies (and objects) on stage stand; it is impossible for the audience to lose itself in the gestures of the bodies on stage, to become, in Nietzschian terms, a Dionysian participant in the action on stage.

The theological theatre transforms bodies into words (words which are themselves representatives of larger conceits). The theological theatre also draws attention to its own limits, seeming to make those limits (between audience and stage, actor and thing acted) transparent, (“diaphanous,” 240), and in this gesture of transparency, distracts the viewer from the superficiality and lack of will involved in the theological stage (on the part of the spectator, though not the poet-god). [2]

Derrida (and Artaud) believe that western theatre has always been theological, but Jonson’s, with his insistent references to himself as a character both within and without his stage world (reading an expository poem of one of the characters in The Magnetic Lady, the scholar Compass tells us that “Ben Jonson made it”), with his references to other plays (his nigh-direct parody of Jacques’s “All the world’s a stage” speech in The New Inn, his direct and indirect references to Terence and Plautus in Cynthia’s Revels and The Magnetic Lady), with his emphasis on his characters’ names, and his direct appeals to, and mocking imitations of, his audience create a stage world that is highly theological, where Jonson, the poet-god of the stage, creates a textualised world where bodies themselves merely reflect higher ideas of the poet-god, and where the audience, is allowed to “see” the limits of the stage in order to prevent it from inhabiting the bodies on stage; instead, we are to “read” the meanings which the bodies represent.

In the context of the theological theatre, the transvestite boy actor can be excused by claiming that he only represents the idea of the female gender, while his “actual” male gender remains intact (an idea Jonson emphasises in Cynthia’s Revels by displaying the children from the acting company in a mock argument before the play starts: one of the children, when attacked during his attempts to deliver the play’s argument, announces “I’d cry a rape, but that you are children!” (151). Noting the immature sexual bodies of his two attackers, the child rejects the possibility of rape as a viable charge. The child actors expose themselves as children, neither men nor women, nor real courtiers: the audience should not mistake them for real men, women, or courtiers at any point throughout the play.

In The Magnetic Lady, Jonson employs the theological stage for more than simply negating the notion of performative gender, however; in drawing comparisons between the poet who creates and directs humourous characters on stage, and God, who creates the humours that make up real bodies outside the stage, Jonson is able to hypothesise a world in which women are banned for active social and economic roles. Given the “essentially” (unalterable and divinely-given) weaker humoural composition of their bodies [iii], which impede their ability to think and behave rationally, women should remain in hidden birthing rooms (where much of the female contributions to the plot occur) and in the “tiring houses” (4.2.554) of the theatre. As if to illustrate this principle, Placentia, the female whose body (her marriage and pregnancy) is the central question of the entire play, appears in only five scenes, and speaks only nine lines in the entire play. If they must be out in public, women’s bodies and voices should be kept under the governance of males. The results when women do participate as active members of the economy are confusion in the male community and violence in the female ones (as a fight between Placentia’s female guardians demonstrates in Act 4).

Of course, if female humoural imbalances are unalterable, so too are the humoural compositions of the male fools within the play. Jonson is, as always, in a bit of a predicament…

End Notes:

[i] humours genre. Drama where the characters are named after the composition of the four basic bodily fluids (or humours) in their blood. The four humours are sanguine (made of hot and wet properties), choler (hot and dry), black bile (cold and dry), and phlegm (cold and wet). The sanguine individual is courageous, amorous, witty and lively. The choleric is violent, ambitious, and cruel. Black bile causes melancholy, and is usually found in pining lovers, scholars, old men, and misers. Finally, the phlegmatic individual is slothful, slow-witted, corpulent and cowardly. Women are also often phlegmatic, but humours medicine is also inconsistent towards women, as Gail Kern Paster notes in her wonderful Humouring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 2004), females are often found to be without humour.

The early modern humours drama was developed and popularised by Jonson himself in his first two comedies Every Man In His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour; the humours drama, and the medical theory on which it is based, were originally developed in classical Greek and Rome.

[ii] The theatre of cruelty […] poet-god. I enjoy writing about my work, but am still going to be cropping much of this chapter summary directly from my chapter three. Including all this summary/analysis of Derrida’s work.

[iii] weaker humoural composition. Females in Gallenic medicine were assumed to be “cold and wet,” which should imply a phlegmatic humour, though there do not seem to be any consistent or logical rules to the physchphysiology of females, whose general humoural imbalance seems to have been thought the cause of their unstable natures (Paster, 80). Helen King observes that women “have an entirely different texture of flesh from men, being wet soft and spongy. This means they accumulate blood” (39). Women should be a hotter composition than men; their lack of external sexual organs, inability to produce semen (King, 32) and production of breast milk (“the female is too cold completely to concoct and disperse all the food she takes in, Flemming, 307), though, suggest a lack of heat; this theory is contradicted, again, however, when considering the womb: both Aristotle and Hippocrates conceive the womb as “an oven” (King, 33).

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation.” Writing and Difference. Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 1978. 232-250.

Flemming, Rebecca. Medicine and the Making of the Roman Woman: Gender, Nature, and Authority from Celsus to Galen . Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Jonson, Ben. Cynthia’s Revels. Ben Jonson’s Plays. Ed. Felix Schelling. Vol. 1 London: JM Dent, 1915. 149-232.

Jonson, Ben. The Magnetic Lady. Ben Jonson’s Plays. Ed. Felix Schelling. Vol. 2. London: JM Dent, 1963. 505-572.

King, Helen. Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London, New York: Routledge, 1998.

Me! “Ben Jonson made it: The god of the theatre in the comedy of humours.” Obviously Unpublished. July 2008. 1-27.

Paster, Gail Kern. Humouring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 2004.

13 July 2008 ~ St. Catharines.


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