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The Comic Contract

  • Nicholas Grene

Abstract

The comedian who is, personally or politically, a staunch upholder of the principle of law and order, yet in his comedies seems to celebrate the forces of anarchy and licence – the paradox is so familiar to us that it scarcely registers as a paradox. No one is likely to be startled by the gap between Aristophanes’ social conservatism and the exploded image of society which his plays present. Central to ‘festive comedy’ is the period of allowed misrule which, like the holiday or feast-day of which it is an image, serves only to strengthen the normal social fabric. Ben Jonson, however, has such a formidable reputation as doctrinaire moralist that it is still possible to be puzzled by his festive comedy, Bartholomew Fair, where he appears to abdicate from the position o f high authority which he occupied in earlier plays. Critics have interpreted this abdication in different ways. Some, already mentioned in the Introduction, have traced a gradual mellowing through the years away from the heavily didactic ‘comical satires’ towards a more genial and permissive comedy o f which Bartholomew Fair is the final achievement. Jonas Barish, for example, concludes his persuasive analysis: ‘One might suggest, finally, that with this play, in which reformers are reformed by the fools, Jonson confesses his own frailty and his own flesh and blood.’ 1 Other critics, however, will not admit that Jonson the moralist has abdicated, but argue that he has simply gone underground. Although there is no explicit figure of authority, no Jonson surrogate in the play with whom we are to identify, the point of view may be no less satiric or judicial. 2 Indeed, if it is seen in this light, it may be construed, not as Jonson’s most genial and light-hearted, but as one of his darkest and most pessimistic comedies, for in it no character, no action, redeems the picture of humanity as a tangle o f animal appetites rather than a community of social or spiritual beings.

Keywords

Comic Contract Social Conservatism Final Achievement Hope Theatre Marriage Licence 
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Copyright information

© Nicholas Grene 1980

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  • Nicholas Grene

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