Jonson's on-stage audiences: spectaret populum ludis attentius ipsis
The Ben Jonson Journal: Literary Contexts in the Age of Elizabeth, James, and Charles, 10, .
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Though Jonson derived the epigraph for the title-page of Bartholomew Fair from Horace’s Epistles,1 the Latin phrase “spectaret populum ludis attentius ipsis” can be usefully linked to the plain English of Penniboy Canter’s sardonic commentary, especially where his remarks reveal the dramatic effect of Madrigal’s song on his listeners in the encomium of Pecunia in The Staple of News: Look, look, how all their eyes Dance i’their heads—observe—scatter’d with lust! At sight o’their brave idol. (4.2.130–26)2 Together these two quotations give us some ground to suppose that Jonson was conscious that the dramatic device of on-stage audiences was a rich resource. His practice shows an extensive use of it throughout his career as a playwright, from Every Man Out of His Humour to A Tale of a Tub (which I take to be his last play). These two particular passages are interesting because the first occurs outside the action, manifestly a theoretical formulation derived from one of Jonson’s acknowledged mentors, while the second is spoken by a character within the action of a play, and therefore reflects not only the objects of his thoughts, but also his attitude toward them, and, beyond that, the author’s view of the character himself. This gives us underlying principles for Jonson’s methodology for on-stage audiences, as it suggests that their use can present both a theoretical exposition, ex cathedra, so to speak, and also a dramatic device which has the overriding advantage of being potentially multi-focal. But we should beware of making these practices mutually exclusive, not least because Jonson provides extensive variations in the status and function of such on-stage listeners and observers. A study of these episodes may give us an insight into the theatricality of Jonson’s work and the peculiar and attractive strength of his dramatic methods. But, to put it in proportion, it is only one of the many resources which Jonson had at his disposal and these must necessarily lie outside the scope of this essay.
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