JONSON'S COMIC CIRCLE: THE THEATRICALITY OF THE COMICAL SATIRES
In the comical satires--Every Man Out of His Humor, Cynthia's Revels, and Poetaster--Ben Jonson transforms the familiar theatrum mundi metaphor into a critical commentary on the relationship between social life and literature. The plays reveal that social life draws upon literature, especially drama, to structure everyday behavior. Social life is as much a product of literature, Jonson tells us, as literature is an imitation of social life. Jonson stages this mirror relation by (1) bringing to the surface of each plays its dramatic ontology and (2) portraying a dramatic world in which characters imitate other characters acting as types and models. Literary mimesis is both the theme and the form of the comical satires. The satirized characters of Jonson's plays are constant imitators of current cant and fashion, the language and custom that are authorized by popular plays, courtesy books, and manuals of rhetoric. The comical satires further reveal a theatrical structure by the frequent appearance of plays within the play, performances, rehearsals, games, and masques. Jonson's comic characters are unable to transcend the ethos of their literary culture. Since the satirized characters' chief aim in life is to become a perfect imitation of a fictional ideal, the characters are in a state of constant change and transformation. This mimetic motivation explains the presence of key metaphors (alchemy, homosexual transformation, and food, including cannibalism) which illustrate the impossible goal of the satirized characters: to change without really changing. They desire to consume the outside world into themselves or, as a compromise, to break down all distinctions between individuality and the rest of creation, to become at one with the all. The self-conscious theatricality of the comical satires calls attention to the imitative and illusory nature of human behavior.
TERRANCE RAY DUNFORD,
"JONSON'S COMIC CIRCLE: THE THEATRICALITY OF THE COMICAL SATIRES"
(January 1, 1980).
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