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Home » , » Compare and contrast Shakespeare and Jonson as dramatists?
The serious Renaissance artist sought to illustrate moral wisdom, not scientific, or pseudo-scientific knowledge. He held a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. On this at least, Shakespeare and Jonson were agreed. In their treatment of character, however and their handling of plot, the two men were quite different. Shakespeare's plot, full of loose ends and unexplored possibilities, are peopled, by characters whose humanity is so complex that forecasting the course of the action is as uncertain a business as prediction is in real life. They must make choices and decisions as a result of which they and their society change during the course of the play. 

Life for a Shakespearean character is as full of perplexities, uncertainties, impossible dilemmas, exasperating contradictions, undeserved good luck and disaster, as it is for us. The life of a Jonsonian character, on the other hand, is remarkably predictable and uncomplicated, his fortune may change in the course of the play but he does not. There are no unsolved problems and we are not in the same way left questioning at the end. For, Volpone is a demonstration or exposition, not in any way exploration. Everything that is needed to show the effects of avarice, lust or credulity is assembled at the beginning, including the characters, who can live only within the play and are like components rather than ingredients. The wonder is that they are made to live, as they do, for the duration of the action, not that they lack the kind of independent and continuing life that Shakespeare's characters seem to have. T.S. Eliot has written: "Whereas in Shakespeare the effect is due to the way in which the characters act upon one another, in Jonson it is given by the way in which the characters fit in with each other; a very neat indication of the functions and limitations of Jonson's characters."

The nature of this characterisation is partly the result of Jonson's satiric intentions and his predominantly intellectual way of tackling his subject. His appeal is rarely to the emotions, and then only to a limited range, and therefore the kind od enjoyment he offers is different from what we find elsewhere. It is rarely that we can sympathise with any of his characters, though we may enjoy seeing them at work. This detachment is caused partly by the fact that ridicule is so often Jonson's weapon: if we are concentrating on the absurd figure avarice cuts we are unlikely to be wondering what it feels like.

Jonson differs much from Shakespeare in his abandonment of the romantic element of comedy. Romantic story was one of the main sources of sixteenth century drama and the same kind of material was important in Latin comedy too, though there it was more often a useful device to unravel complications than something to excite our feelings. English comedy, unlike the Latin, paid a good deal of attention to the heroine, gave romantic love an important place, and provided for the expression of feeling. In many cases, too, it sent its characters out to travel afar among wonders, monsters and enemies of Christendom, before returning to their homes with glory. Jonson, however, set story by the classical rules governing the representation of time and place and there is no mistaking the mockery with which he speaks of the kind of play in which a child could be born..., and grow up to a man in the first scene, before he went offstage ; and in the same play they appear as a squire, and made a Knight; and that knight travel between the acts, and do wonders in the Holy Land or elsewhere; kill Paynims, wild boars, dun cows, and other monsters; beget him a reputation and marry an emperor's daughter for his mistress: convert her father's country; and at last come home lame, and all-to-be laden with miracles. Furthermore, such a plot offered him little opportunity to use his intimate knowledge of London and its people, in the context of which he was best able to attack the general failings of mankind.

Shakespeare earned his pre-eminence in the main stream of the comedy of his time. With his different temperament and cast of mind and his stronger sense of the authority of classical notions of comedy, Jonson took a different line and worked alone. Madeleine Doran's general indication of the difference is a useful one to end with. She says: "The emphasis is on a different set a human motive--on the one hand, on poetic longings for love and adventure; on the other, on the grosser appetites for women, money, or power. The defining difference of tone is the difference between lyrical sentiment sympathetically expressed and critical satire."


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