Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Douglas J. M. Duncan




In this thesis, I am concerned with Jonson's attitude toward theatricality in the world. His representation of a "centered self," especially in his poems, can be seen both as a part of the Renaissance concern with fashioning identity and as a protest against the theatrical role-playing it often caused. I am further interested in Jonson's conception of the nature of the theatre as a significant social activity. He employs the theatrical metaphor in Volpone, Epicoene, and The Alchemist in which clever author and actor-figures deceive less clever audience-figures who lack proper judgement. These characters reflect Jonson's awareness of his own engagement with his audience. The series of plays-within-the-play illustrate a theatre of deception and manipulation by which Jonson comes to measure both himself as a playwright and his art.

This study also attempts to come to terms with the interesting discrepancy between Jonson the moralist and Jonson the artist. There is a certain tension created in Jonsonian comedy when we consider that he infuses his theatrical tricksters with immense comic vigour. The audience's ability to pass judgement on the author and actor-figures' subversive actions is complicated since they perform so amusingly and with such brilliance.

As well, I trace the development of Jonson's thinking about the nature and function of comedy. With each successive play, I find that he subtly disguises his moral idealism in order to write successful comedy. A problem with this formula was that it tended to mask Jonson's identity as a morally purposeful writer. Increasingly, his comedies seemed to owe their success to a triumph of theatrical over moral values. Jonson remains a morally responsible dramatist who incorporates into his art the critical acceptance of the stage as a medium.

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