A. D. Cousins and Alison V. Scott, eds.  Ben Jonson and the Politics of Genre.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.  230pp. ISBN: 9780521513784.

Bernadette Andrea
 University of Texas, San Antonio

Bernadette Andrea, "Review of A. D. Cousins and Alison V. Scott, eds. Ben Jonson and the Politics of Genre. ". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 9. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revcous.htm

  1. This collection features a series of fine essays on Ben Jonson, covering his poetry, masques, plays, and prose.  Despite the promise of the title to engage “the politics of genre”, however, the essays do not sustain a rigorous investigation into either term.  The introduction by A. D. Cousins and Alison V. Scott references the Marxist-oriented theory of form articulated by Bakhtin/Medvedev; scattered footnotes in the essays cite traditional scholars of Renaissance genres such as Rosalie L. Colie, Alastair Fowler, and Barbara Lewalski.  Otherwise, genre is limited to the diversity of Jonsonian works that the essays address. The focus on politics—for the most part, equated with monarchical power and its adjuncts, patronage and plots—is similarly descriptive.   The collection thus contrasts in both respects with the theoretically astute “historical formalism” elaborated by Stephen A. Cohen in Shakespeare and Historical Formalism (2007) and his earlier articles.  It is surprising to see absolutely no dialogue with this emergent critical paradigm, which seeks to recover the formalist method implicit in Stephen Greenblatt’s 1982 manifesto for a “new historicism.”  This gap seems particularly egregious as Cousins and Scott in their introduction announce that the collection’s perspective “takes us beyond entrenched new historicist critique” (7).  Yet, this historicist critique, as epitomized by Jonathan Goldberg’s and Stephen Orgel’s groundbreaking studies on Jacobean literature in general and on Jonson in particular from the 1970s and 1980s, is no longer “new” or entrenched. Another polemic against it seems redundant.

  2. Barring this lack of correspondence between the collection’s opening claims and the ensuing essays, it presents meticulous readings of Jonson’s multifaceted oeuvre.  Cousins adjudicates the notions of “constancy, understanding, and kingship” that inform Jonson’s Epigrams (14), showing how Jonson projects ideal(ized) political prototypes in his praise of the earl of Pembroke and of King James himself.  Potentially utopian, as in unattainable, this ideal depends on the prototypical reader that Jonson constructs and then instructs.  Scott continues Cousins’ plumbing of classical sources in her analysis of Jonsonian masques and “the politics of decorum,” or seemliness, to which she adds kairos, or timeliness (43).  This essay rehearses Martin Butler’s influential critique of Orgel’s and Goldberg’s monarchical subversion/containment model.  Cousins adds a dialectical synthesis of the new historicists and their critics, concluding that the Jonsonian masque is “constant and evolving, fixed and flexible in its meanings at the same time” (64).  Robert C. Evans attends to Jonson’s country house poems, revisiting the oft-studied “To Penshurst” and dwelling on the neglected “To Sir Robert Wroth.”  He likewise traces a history of criticism through the mid-twentieth century celebration of the poems as statements of right living to the subsequent emphasis, starting with Raymond Williams in the 1970s, on the effacement of exploited labor therein.  Evans forwards a historicist refutation of the readings inspired by Williams, making much of the specificity of “rents in kind” in early seventeenth-century England (77).  Acknowledging the importance of “the contexts in which critics choose to interpret” (78), he finally agrees with earlier critics that Jonson’s political (hence, his socio-economic) vision is “fundamentally conservative,” if skeptical (87).

  3. John Roe focuses on Jonson’s epistolary verse to address the poet’s careful study of Machiavelli’s The Prince and his ambiguous relationships with female patrons.  Marea Mitchell, comparing Jonson and a would-be patron, the accomplished writer Mary Wroth, offers a gendered analysis.  Richard Dutton, tracing his engagement with Jonson’s Volpone over several decades, connects the play to John Donne’s “Metempsychosis.”  Tom Cain returns to Jonson’s engagement with Machiavelli, with an emphasis on the latter’s Discourses.  Cain’s essay is particularly compelling in its attention to Jonson’s “lost” early tragedies and the playwright’s consequent (and possible self-) fashioning as a master of satiric comedy.  Here, as in Dutton’s essay, Jonson’s Catholic interlude is decisive for his method and matter.  The collection concludes with a short but intriguing essay by Eugene D. Hill, which seeks to recover Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries from its dismissal as a commonplace book to a meaningful place in his canon.  Like most of the essays in the collection, it traces classical allusions through the conditions of their reception by Jonson, which in this case runs through Isaac Casaubon.  As a whole, then, these essays offer valuable explications of Jonson’s canonical and neglected works, even if they insufficiently theorize the “politics of genre.”


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).