Jonson's and Shakespeare's "Comedy of Affliction"
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This dissertation explores the relevance of recent studies of Aristotle’s comic theory to the central dramatists of early modern England, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Applications of the Poetics to Renaissance English drama tend to treat Aristotle’s theory historically, as a set of concepts mediated to England by continental redactions. But these often conflated the Poetics’ focus on literary form with the Renaissance’s predominant interest in literature’s rhetorical effect, reducing Aristotle’s genuinely speculative theory to a series of often pedantic literary prescriptions. Recent scholarship has both undone these misinterpretations and developed the comic theory latent in the Poetics. Ironically, these studies make Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s comedy look much more Aristotelian than do Renaissance ones. So rather than taking the Poetics simply as a possible source for each dramatist, I read it primarily as a literary theory that, when reinvigorated by modern scholarship, can explain structures and effects arrived at practically by these dramatists. Three recent hypotheses are especially pertinent to Jonson and Shakespeare: that comic hoaxes aim to expose comic error, which is for Aristotle a deviation from the mean of virtue; that “righteous indignation” is the comic emotion equivalent to the “pity and fear” of tragedy; and that catharsis is a clarification, rather than purgation, of reason and emotion. In light of these, I offer detailed readings of four plays that demonstrate these authors’ comic range: from Jonson’s satirical Every Man Out of His Humour to the almost farcical Epicoene, and from Shakespeare’s romantic Much Ado About Nothing to the tragicomic Measure for Measure. These plays demonstrate a variety of ways in which catharsis, the end of drama, results directly from the comic hoax and involves both the audience’s and characters’ experience of indignation and their comprehension of its relationship to the emotions of envy and pity. In each case, Aristotle’s incisive but flexible theoretical framework enables an explanation of the emotional pain present in the these “comedies of affliction” and reveals remarkable similarities between dramatists usually described as direct opposites.