All the playwrights that we most prize from the Jacobean period, for their powerful, non-formulaic drama, were drawn to either endorse or contest the drama of moral experiment. There are perhaps two great names who could never be claimed among the group: Jonson and Middleton. Neither playwright is notable for his sentimentality. Indeed, both are notable for considerable sardonic harshness in their descriptions of the human condition, and therefore in a sense would seem likely recruits to a drama which deals in moral subversion and easily demolished consciences. However, the fact that both wrote drama which is almost without exception satiric is probably our best clue as to why the drama of moral experiment attracted neither dramatist. For the satirist, the immoral possibilities are already too well-known. The satirists’ plots simply devise ingenious new revelations of the known and well-tried formula that the ‘world’s divided into knaves and fools’. The protagonists of this kind of drama — invariably its opportunists, rather than its fools — will share their authors’ convictions. The last thing we can expect them to possess is any sense of curiosity in what they are engaged in. Volpone or Face, knowing human nature well, are dealing with the predictable.
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- 1.See, for instance, J. R. Mulryne’s description of the protagonists as ‘egotists to the point where the moral sense undergoes paralysis’: Thomas Middleton (Harlow, Essex, 1979).Google Scholar