… Perpetuus Asinus: Bad Service and the Primacy of the Will

  • David Evett


That masters want obedient servants goes almost without saying. That images of disobedience distress masters, while images of obedience please them, is a necessary corollary. Mark Thornton Burnett and Thomas Moisan and others have amply demonstrated how early modern English drama repeatedly exploits magisterial anxieties by raising and then allaying them. The Alchemist is perhaps the definitive instance: for almost all of a long play, a servant, Jeremy Face, exploits his absent masters resources for his own economic and sexual ends, apparently without fear of retribution; he degrades the house by inviting a rogue and a prostitute to live there with him, and by using it as the base for an assortment of fraudulent enterprises. His behavior exhibits all the traditional servant vices except indolence. Jonson’s comedy suits recent critics’ materialist insistence on money and power. But that insistence largely confines the inquiry to social and political issues. I hope to show, however, that the issue of good and bad service had and still has spiritual and psychological dimensions that materialist analysis so represses as to blot and distort our understanding, if not of Jonson, then of Shakespeare, and perhaps of ourselves.


White Piece Definitive Instance Faithful Service Ineffectual Move Faithful Supporter 
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© David Evett 2005

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  • David Evett

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