Plays by Ben Jonson

Bartholmew Fair

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jonson’s exuberant comedy uses the carnival energy of Bartholmew Fair, an actual fair held in a disreputable suburb of London, to dramatize, satirize and celebrate the appetites and comic frailties of the human body.

The depiction of the Fair, teeming with sleazy but energetic life, is one of the great creations of English drama. There are crowds listening to a ballad-singer while a cutpurse plies his trade; sellers of toys and gingerbread raking in customers; drunken quarrels, arrests, and beatings. The climax is a puppet show in which a classic love story is reduced to raucous obscenity. At the centre is the gigantic pig-seller Ursla, whose tent, full of smoke, flame and frying carcasses, also doubles as a privy and a brothel.

There are also a number of respectable (and not so respectable) Londoners drawn to the Fair. Those who come to judge it end up in trouble. Those who come to enjoy it, and get something out of it, do not always get what they expect. Jonson’s gift for elaborate plotting draws all of his vivid characters together in a complex, beautifully structured mercantile cacophony.

Bartholmew Fair is said to have been first performed in 1613 at the Hope playhouse.

The Devil is an Ass

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass is a Jacobean comedy first performed in 1616 by the King's Men and first published in 1631.

The play opens in Hell, with a junior demon called Pug persuading his master Satan to let him spend a day in London doing the Devil's work of tempting men to evil. Satan thinks Pug isn't up to the job; the world has grown so sophisticated in its vices, especially in the moral cesspool of London, that a simple devil like Pug will be severely out of his depth. Pug pleads his case, however, and Satan sends him into the world, specifically to plague an eccentric and foolish gentleman named Fabian Fitzdottrel. Taking over the body of a recently hanged thief, Pug persuades Fitzdottrel to take him on as a servant. The squire doesn't believe that Pug is a devil, despite Pug's insistence that he is, but is happy that he asks no wages. Meanwhile, Fitzdottrel is the target of various conmen, who befriend him hoping to take advantage of his eccentric foolishness and to seduce his beautiful young wife. Pug, in looking for opportunities for villainy, is beaten, manipulated, and generally abused, and ends up in Newgate Prison, from where he is rescued by Satan, triumphant in his prediction that London was more than Pug could handle. Fitzdottrel, discovering that Pug was a devil after all, abandons his new friends, exposing them as the conmen they really are.

This edition of the text, edited by Peter Happé and introduced by Simon Trussler, was published in 1995 by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series.

Eastward Ho!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A collaboration between Jonson, Chapman and Marston, Eastward Ho! is a masterpiece of city comedy. Unique among the ‘coterie’ city comedies written for boy players, Eastward Ho! gives all classes a full satiric treatment simultaneously didactic, ironic, and triumphantly comic.

Touchstone is an upright London citizen, a goldsmith. He has one modest and one ambitious daughter, and one righteous and one disreputable apprentice. He marries his respectable daughter to his respectable apprentice, but his wilful daughter is determined to become a lady and marries herself off to a lord of doubtful finances, while his other mercurial apprentice casts aside his indentures in order to climb the social ladder. A series of chaotic accidents ensures that virtue is rewarded, and ruthlessness comes to grief – receiving a drenching in the muddy Thames.

Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars playhouse in 1605. The play may well have been provoked by Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho!, produced by Paul’s Boys in 1604; Eastward Ho! parodies the earlier play’s form.

Epicoene or The Silent Woman

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jonson’s buzzing satire on gender and language enjoyed enormous prestige for more than a century after its first performance. The central figure is Morose, who hates noise yet lives in the centre of London, and who, because of his decision to marry a woman only because he is duped into believing she is silent, exposes himself to a fantastic cacophony of voices, male, female and – epicene.

The title signals Jonson’s satiric and complex concern with gender and performance: the play interrogates sexual decorum and the performance of gender, asking how men and women should behave both as fit examples of their sexes and to one another. The characters – knights, barbers, female collegiate and tricksters – present a cross-section of wrong answers, enabling Jonson to create riotous entertainment out of lack, loss and disharmony. Jonson is fascinated by the denigration of language into empty chatter or furious abuse: it is teeming with idiomatic vitality.

Epicoene was first performed in 1609 or 1610 by a children’s company. This text is based on the only authoritative text, from the 1616 folio Works.

video Volpone

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

Volpone has long been a popular choice as a set text for students. Written by Ben Jonson, it was first produced in 1606 and billed as a comedy, although it also includes elements of tragedy and even animal fable (Volpone is Italian for 'fox'). In essence, it's a dark satire on greed and lust, and remains Jonson's most performed work.
The action takes place in seventeenth-century Venice, over the course of one day. The chief characters are Volpone, a rich libertine and conman, and Mosca, his self-seeking servant. They cause chaos with an audacious fraud designed to part the city's wealthiest from their fortunes. The tale twists and turns, as all the characters attempt to deceive each other, until the whole scheme finally collapses, with disastrous consequences for Volpone.
A great choice for students and theatre lovers
There are themes galore to explore in Volpone, a key reason for its popularity in schools and colleges. One of the most important is the power of stagecraft - Volpone doesn't merely lie, but turns his deception into a whole production, complete with make-up, wardrobe and props. This is therefore truly a play to be seen, not just read.
In addition, it's an excellent play to study alongside Shakespeare. Jonson and Shakespeare were contemporaries, although their approach to drama was quite different.
Of course, whether you're a teacher, student or simply a theatre lover, Volpone, is, quite simply, great fun - its messages clearly resonating today.
Not surprisingly, Volpone is Jonson's most performed work. As the inscription over his Westminster Abbey grave states: 'O Rare Ben Johnson' (sic) – and this play is indeed a rare treat to study and watch.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Richard Bremmer, Mark Hadfield, Conrad Westmaas, Harvey Virdi, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Maxwell Hutcheon, Tim Steed, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Peter Bankolé, Brigid Zengeni

Volpone or the Fox

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Volpone is the sharpest, funniest play about money and morals in the seventeenth century – a play still wickedly relevant four centuries later. Jonson’s comedy depicts selfishness thinly veiled by sanctimonious speeches, lust and possessiveness poorly disguised as love and marriage, and cynical legalism passing itself off as pure justice – as well as examining snobbery, class warfare, and greed.

Volpone is partly a rewriting of beast fable, with the cunning ‘fox’ Volpone pulling the strings at its centre. He is a Venetian gentleman, who pretends to be dying in order two dupe three men into making him extravagant presents of plate, money, gems – and in one case, a beautiful daughter. Assisted by his wily servant Mosca, the two tricksters keep a dozen conventional plots spinning in the minds of their dupes, and when their amazing juggling act finally unravels, there are yet more twists – and an even deeper cynicism – to Jonson’s skilful satire.

Volpone was first performed by the King’s Men at the Globe in 1606, and was printed in quarto in 1607.

Picture of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an English dramatist and poet, whose reputation amongst playwrights of the period is only second only to Shakespeare's. Although Jonson found little success as an actor, his reputation as a dramatist was firmly established in 1598 with Every Man in his Humour. This sucess was followed by Every Man out of his Humour and the classically influenced satire Cynthia's Revels. Jonson wrote all of the major comedies upon which his reputation is now based during the period 1605 to 1614.