On the first page of Ben Jonson and Envy, Lynn S. Meskill mentions a nineteenth-century essay by William Gifford titled, in part, “Proofs of Ben Jonson’s Malignity.” This rather appealingly tendentious phrase turns out to be less hostile than it sounds—to Jonson, anyway. As Gifford points out, the said “Proofs” are all from “Commentators on Shakespeare” who are attempting to bolster the latter’s reputation. (In other words, the attribution of envy to Jonson is itself invested in the zero-sum logic of envy; it sees esteem as a strictly limited commodity.) At any rate, the “myth of envy” of Shakespeare, Meskill suggests, has kept scholars from a careful consideration of the allusions to envy that permeate Jonson’s body of work. Her book is a welcome exception.
Ben Jonson and Envy also departs from previous critics’ focus on Jonson’s responses to his literary predecessors and literary contemporaries, instead examining Jonson’s representation of his audience. Meskill argues that Jonson figures that audience as envious, and furthermore, that he sees readers’ and spectators’ vision as “naturally depraved, so that they see obliquely and thus necessarily distort, pervert and deform the meaning of the text” (5). Jonson represents reading as “ocular malevolence” (22); the audience is not the source of immortality but “the source of oblivion” (8). Because of this, Jonson’s texts feature a “rhetoric of discontinuity” and interruptions. Envy, paradoxically, generates text as Jonson defends himself against the audience and the envious responses he imagines that audience making.
In her introduction and her second chapter, “The Anatomy of Envy,” Meskill provides a cultural history of envy, touching on ancient Greece and Rome, sociology, the history of the book, economics, and Shakespeare studies, along with a brief but diverting section on the distinction between jealousy and envy. Among other things, she notes that Renaissance representations of envy treat it as a considerably more powerful emotion than later represenations do, despite current evil-eye beliefs and their assumption that envy comes in various forms (The evil eye is sometimes feared when something is asked about, looked at closely, or praised.) Discussing the links between envy and the traditions that attribute dangerous powers to the eyes, Meskill establishes Jonson’s frequently noted references to “looking” and “spying” as part of a concern with the reception of his writing (11). It is this anxiety that informs Jonson’s repetition of the phrase “my Shakespeare,” she suggests—the evil eye requires a defensive talisman, so Jonson wards off envy-inspired criticism by making Shakespeare into “his own personal amulet” (39).
Meskill’s third chapter, “Defacement: Anxiety and the Jonsonian Imagination,” discusses how early modern authors sometimes represented their writing as vulnerable to being misapprehended and even “deformed,” physically or intellectually, by envious readers (78). For Jonson, even ignorance is a type of envy, Meskill writes. However, she also notes that Jonson figures envy as having much in common with aemulatio, and that he thereby uses imagined envy as a stimulus for dialogic creativity. In this chapter, which contains a particularly good reading of the paratextual material in The Masque of Blackness, Meskill reads Jonson’s various rhetorical discontinuities, his texts “pockmarked by footnotes, citations from authorities, asides, digressions, sudden explanations, defences and justifications” as efforts to deface his text before it becomes prey to envy.
Both Chapter 4, “Sanctuary: Jonson’s Prophylactic Strategy,” and Chapter 5, “Monument: Turning the Text to Stone,” examine Jonsonian tactics for fending off readerly defacement. In “Defacement” Meskill remarks that a potential hedge against envy is the presence of a “powerful protector” (108), but as her fourth chapter observes, that protector is not necessarily a contemporary aristocratic patron; it may be a tissue of classical allusions (the “aegis of antiquity” ), a chorus, a “pre-critiqu[ing]” figure such as The Alchemist’s Surly or Sejanus’s Arruntius or Bartholomew Fair’s Adam Overdo (128), or an “effigy of a monster” (132). Sometimes the monster is Jonson himself. Ben Jonson and Envy also makes the argument, and a convincing one, that another form of temporary and virtuous refuge for Jonson is the explicit suppression of his own pleasure in writing. What Jonson sees as Shakespeare’s lack of repressive self-editing (“would he had blotted a thousand [lines]”) isn’t necessarily envious. Instead, Meskill suggests, it’s a complaint that Shakespeare doesn’t sufficiently defend himself against envy.
“Monument” extends Meskill’s Chapter 5 argument by explaining how Jonson’s fear of ephemerality, along with his perceived need to protect his writing against covetous resentment, leads to a certain monumentalization of his writing. In the elegy “On My First Sonne,” for instance, the father sees his own creation as enviable—because that creation is in the permanent sanctuary of the grave, inviolable. Finding temporary sanctuary insufficient, Jonson sometimes turns his work to metaphorical stone, this chapter contends. His constant citation of writers from antiquity renders his text a “petrified” memorial, a gorgon-image meant to petrify the hostile reader in turn. Meskill’s final chapter, “Being Posthumous” (all the chapters are memorably titled) examines a post-monumental Jonson. The Staple of Newes was the first play Jonson wrote after the publication of his 1616 Folio, and one that, as Meskill puts it, is Jonson’s effort to write “in the shadow of his own sepulchre” (41). She reads Jonson’s later work as “self-cannibalizing”; he has already “enfolioed himself [ . . . ] as a dead classical author” and must cite his Folio texts in defense against his earlier and potentially envious self (187-88).
Sometimes clarity comes at the expense of concision in Ben Jonson and Envy. A few points are made twice in the introduction and twice more in individual chapters, although a reader who approached the book without the potentially invidious gaze of a reviewer might find the repetition helpful. Another quibble is that not every topic in Ben Jonson and Envy is as closely related to envy as it might be. Jonson’s broader authorial self-consciousness feels like the book’s real subject, especially in the later chapters. It’s easy to understand why Meskill wanted to link her arguments to the topic of envy, though—she has a great deal to contribute about the cultural history of this emotion. The book’s insights into envy’s workings are fascinating. A brief aside proposes that the grotesque figures in early modern book margins may function as apotropaic charms against hostile readings; another suggests that the claim of bastardy could be as much a means of avoiding envy as a confession of genuine shame; a particularly memorable footnote offers the idea that the common confusion of the words “jealousy” and “envy” comes from embarrassment—Meskill wonders whether envy is so shameful we’d prefer not to identify it accurately. (Ben Jonson and Envy was published three years before Barack Obama, in an otherwise quite reasonable speech, made the startling claim that “Nobody envies rich people.”) Early modern writers didn’t seem to find the acknowledgment of envy so unthinkable, though, so what changed? This question is beyond the scope of Ben Jonson and Envy, but one of Meskill’s strengths as a critic is her ability to provoke thought about widely varied subjects, from small textual details to larger issues of history and psychology.
One may wonder whether Jonson’s assumption of envy on the part of his audience is projection, a topic that Meskill addresses briefly in her introduction. Why might Jonson envy the reader? Perhaps because he likes to read, and while he’s writing, he can’t. Or because readers are less vulnerable than writers—a situation the prickly Jonson tries his best to remedy. Meskill’s readers, however, will find much more to reward them than to wound them in Ben Jonson and Envy, which offers fresh and convincing readings of Jonson’s work along with insights into the histories of emotion and of literacy. This book is highly recommended both for specialists in Jonson and for scholars with more general interests.
Obama, Barack. House Democratic Issues Conference. Cambridge, MD. 27 January 2012. Speech.
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