Themes in Ben Johnsons Plays

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Benjamin Johnson, more known as Ben Johnson, was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and was one of the most learned men in Elizabethan times. He was born in London in 1572 and lost his father just a month before his birth. He was no stranger to strategy as soon after his father’s death, her mother was forced to marry a bricklayer. But interestingly, despite his tragic beginning of life, it was for his humor and comedy that he would be known (“Ben Johnson”, n.d.).

Johnson was educated in the Westminster school and contemporary great classical scholar William Camden was his mentor. Camden recognized Jonson’s exceptional literary gifts and took the young man under his tutelage. Later, Camden proved to be right about Johnson as he received several honorary degrees from London universities, despite he never received any university education (Baskerville, 1934, pp. 827-830).

Johnson’s reputation was established as a writer of comedy. He was famous for his satirical plays. He was friends with his contemporary great English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare even acted in one of his plays called ‘Every Man in His Humor’. Johnson used to live a bohemian life and he was once almost sentenced to death after he had killed a Spanish actor in a duel. Most of his great plays are written after this incident of his life. His greatest works are ‘Volpone’, ‘The Alchemist’, and ‘Bartholomew Fair’ which were written and acted between 1605 and 1615. After that period, the life of Johnson started to decline but he kept writing comedy after comedy. Even when he died, he was still working with another comedy titled ‘The Sad Shepherd’ (“Benjamin Johnson”, n.d.).

Themes of Johnson’s Plays

‘Volpone’, ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘Epicoene, or The silent woman’ – these three are the three plays that are taken consideration here to discuss the theme of Johnson’s play. The first two are major works of Johnson where the later one is relatively a minor one.

The play Volpone states the story of a con artist named Volpone who lives in Venice and has made some good fortune. He then aims to increase his wealth even further by fooling three other Venice merchants and along the way sleep with one of the merchant’s wife. Volpone has a parasite named Mosca who too has his greed for Volpone’s wealth. At the end it appears that all their plans to fool each other goes futile and all of the characters were punished for their misdeeds and fraud.

Epicoene or The silent woman has a similar plot to Volpone that states about the greed for wealth. The play is set in London on a wealthy old man named Morose who has obsessive hatred of noise. He is childless and his nephew is his inheritor. But he doesn’t like the idea of his nephew inheriting wealth and decide to disinherit him by marrying. But the marriage backfires and he is actually trapped as the whole marriage is a setup. He files a divorce but ended up with being dismissed as his wife turns out to be a male.

The Alchemist has a relatively different plot where a Spanish shepherd named Santiago starts his journey for Egypt after he is directed by some strange dreams. His journey has its ups and downs. He gets rich but then everything is taken away from him. Then he gets to meet with an alchemist, someone with supernatural power who helps him to reach the pyramids of Egypt. But eventually he finds there is nothing. He meets a stranger who tells him about one of his that is similar to Santiago’s one but the place to find the treasure is Spain, not Egypt. He returns to Spain to find his treasure and then get back to the desert to meet his beloved one.

In the above-mentioned plays of Johnson, the most prominent theme that can be found is people’s greed for wealth. In Volpone, everyone is obsessed with wealth and money. And the greed is not just for money, it extends to all human desire. The story of Epicoene or The silent woman shows the same kind greed that destroys the characters both financially and spiritually. The old man Morose is so obsessed with his wealth that he decides to disinherit his own blood, his nephew. The Alchemist does not really have greed from that perspective but here the wealth is the driving factor as well. The poor Spaniard chases his dream in search of a treasure which he eventually achieved. It’s notable that in most of his plays, Johnson tried to point out the wealth-thirstiness of people and how their greed brings their debacle. Both Volpone and Epicoene show Johnson’s such philosophy towards the rich (Litt, 1969, pp. 218-226).

Another theme that can be found in those plays is the existence of justice. In Volpone, Johnson draws the picture of greediness of all the characters and at the end all the protagonists of the play is punished by the law authority which is just.

Similarly, in Epicoene the old Morose is punished and all the ludicrous characters are discomfited in the final act. All of them get what they deserve. Interestingly, in the play of The Alchemist, the protagonist Spanish shepherd is actually rewarded for his braveness and honesty. So, in all three cases justice finally triumphs and all the characters meet the end what they deserve (Sanchez, 2006).

Finally, in Johnson’s above mentioned plays, he tried to show the standing of woman in the society. He showed how they were pressed down and was seen more as merchandise than as human. Like in Volpone, Corvino used her beautiful wife to get the wealth of Volpone. Similarly, in Epicoene an imaginary lady is used to earn financial benefit from the old Morose. Johnson also depicts the female characters with strong characteristic like faithfulness. In Volpone and The Alchemist, both Celia and Fatima are devoted for their husbands and have been very loyal too. Read about animal imagery in Volpone


Johnson used satire to expose the follies and vices of his age, attacking greed, charlatanism, and religious hypocrisy as well as mocking the fools who fall victim to them. After Shakespeare, he was regarded as the best playwright of the Elizabethan era. Johnson died in 1637 and is buried at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Just like the way he used to write comedies, epitaph in his grave has the insightful inscription “O Rare Ben Johnson.”

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