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ELH 71.4 (2004) 1065-1096
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Ben Jonson's Closet Opened
I. Prologue: "You . . . May Like Men"
My title, "Liking Men" alludes to the last two lines of the verse prologue with which Jonson prefaced Every Man in His Humor when he revised it for the prestigious publication event of the folio collection of his works to date in 1616. The prologue to Every Man In must be one of the most cited and least understood of Jonson's poems. Critics pay tribute, by quoting the speech, to the bracing rhythms of its announcement that something entirely new is going to start happening in English drama, but they hardly seem, in subsequent analyses, to appreciate either the long-term dramatic effects, or the wider cultural ramifications of the novelty it announces. Jonson, it is said, has with this prologue to this play introduced a new realism to English drama, through a parodic rejection of older dramatic styles.1 My argument here is that Jonson's cultural influence and creative power deserve greater credit. His formal innovation announced in the 1616 prologue both created a completely new and exceptionally durable style of urban bachelor fiction and, simultaneously, founded a no less culturally influential style of masculine intimacy. The new style of fiction, "overwhelmingly the dominant one until recent years" in English theater, is signaled by its "real-time" opening with the leisured morning activities of London gentlemen, and has endured in the English comic tradition from Restoration comedy to Noel Coward.2 The new style of masculine intimacy which became inseparable (as Eve Sedgwick has shown us) from later developments in these urbane fictions of leisured bachelorhood is what I hope to describe in this essay. I shall, in short, be attempting to analyze Every Man in His Humor as contributing crucially to the transformation of cultural attitudes towards male same-sex desire which Alan Bray demonstrated as having taken place in the course of the seventeenth century, and which Sedgwick has mapped out across various post-Renaissance literary genres as producing "intense male [End Page 1065] homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory, and the most prohibited of social bonds."3
In the prologue to the revised text of Every Man In, Jonson distinguishes the play that he presents as the "first fruits" of his dramatic career from the offerings of the more popular Shakespearean tradition, in which playwrights disregarded neoclassical poetics, happily ignoring the principle of unity of time. He declares that he has not "so loved the stage" as to follow the example of his contemporaries, who
. . . make a child, now swaddled to proceed
Man, and then shoot up in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars,
And in the tiring-house bring wounds to scars.4
The often-heard complaint of earlier humanist authors against the chronicle drama's violations of temporal probability is here given a peculiarly Jonsonian inflection in the reference to "three rusty swords" and the quick-changes of "wounds to scars" backstage. Jonson, unlike Shakespeare, persistently draws attention to the "inert materiality" and "creaking contrivances" of theater.5 Here, of course, the demystification of these contrivances works to invalidate any techniques of illusion except for those of linguistic currency and contemporaneity. Jonson's play, unlike those chronicle histories of Shakespeare, will seem real because it offers images of "deeds, and language, such as men do use" in contemporary life, enlivened by examples of the unmanly commission of "popular errors":
I mean such errors as you'll all confess
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which, when you heartily do, there's hope left then
You that have so grac'd monsters may like men.
The errors to be staged in Jonson's play for the delectation of the audience, then, are aspects of those plays they have elsewhere applauded or "grac'd." These will be on display as "monsters," foils...