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      Convention and Contravention in Ben Jonson’s Three Comedies : Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair 


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          Ben Jonson’s three best-known city comedies exemplify the mixing of popular culture and official culture, their modes of behavior and patterns of language. By taking Venice and London – paradigms of urban worldliness, then as now, and important less for their actual level of sophistication in the seventeenth century than for the place they occupied in the hearts and minds of Jonson’s audience – as settings Jonson criticizes the developing capitalist system while retaining a carnivalesque manner. Characters from the lower stratum merge with those from the higher stratum merge and they are presented in an upside down world– a “logical” enough outcome in an era of apparently unrestrained opportunity for the nascent bourgeoisie, especially in cities distrusted even by the citizens of their respective countries / peninsulas for the social whirl of luxury and opportunism they presented to the world – Jonson, in his comic satires not only deals with the formation of the hierarchies of high and low, but also delineates the processes through which the low troubles the high. The high / low opposition in each of four symbolic domains – psychic forms, the human body, geographical space and the social order – is a fundamental basis of mechanisms of ordering in Jonsonian comedies, just as Renaissance culture is a product of the combined symbolisms of those four domains. Transgressing the rules of hierarchy and order in one of the domains may have major consequences in the others and may rupture the “The Great Chain of Being.”

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