Character and masculinity in Ben Jonson's plays

Date of Completion

January 1999


Theater|Literature, English




There is no sustained study of Jonson's attitudes toward masculinity and by extension, femininity. I hope to show that his conception of gender is much more flexible and complex than most critics have assumed. Although much work on Jonson's plays views them as expressions of overly vigorous patriarchy or even misogyny, I strive to avoid reducing early modern or Renaissance masculinity to a monolithic category whose members all participate equally in oppressing femininity. Instead, my dissertation focusses on the way in which Jonson establishes himself aesthetically and morally as a “man's poet,” a phrase he invokes in Timber, or Discoveries (1640) to oppose specious versifiers and “playwrights.” While his earlier plays sometimes represent women in stereotypically ambivalent or irresolute roles, the later works, beginning with Epicoene (1609), emphasize a certain basic manly respect for femininity. The male satiric butts in such plays as The Devil is an Ass (1626) and The New Inn (1629) are misogynists even by seventeenth-century standards, and if some female characters in these plays are satirized, others are treated in a relatively fair and consistent manner. My study therefore also elaborates a strand anti-reductive of criticism exemplified in the writings of Richard S. Peterson, Thomas M. Greene, and others. Moreover, my project explores two aspects of Jonson's aesthetics that have been neglected until now: his use of the classical theory of signs, and his deployment of alchemical imagery to portray spiritual transformation. ^