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Ben Jonson’s

CYNTHIA’S REVELS

 

 

Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels appears, at first reading, to be a confusing mélange of characters and incidents filling out the slightest of plots, as far from the tightly worked out structures of the Shakespeare plays as can be imagined, and a wholly unpromising framework on which to hang an allegory. Apart, that is, from a hint – no more at this stage – in the very first lines of the Prologue, that make us not abandon the hunt just yet:

2. Marry that you shall not speak the prologue, sir.

3. Why? Do you hope to speak it?.

2. I, and I think I have most right to it…

On the basis of literally hundreds of precedents, this use of ‘I’ for the expected ‘Ay’ suggests that CR as allegory may also, like all the other plays we have examined without exception, have as its prime concern the world that lies unseen below the visible surface of nature – the world of the prima materia (macrocosm) or collective unconscious (microcosm), – with ‘I’ standing for the erect phallos, the unseen world of the libido (resident in the collective unconscious) made manifest to the eye.

On a second reading, however, CR begins impressively to cohere as a rich and carefully wrought allegory of psychic transformation, a cousin germane – albeit somewhat jokier, less awfully serious – to the Shakespeare plays, whose grand strategist was Sir Francis Bacon. We have seen in Ugly Dick and the Goddess of Compete Being that A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MND) (1595) is similarly an allegory of psychic transformation; and the close relationship of CR (first performed in 1600) to it and the First Folio as a whole is striking.

The heart of Cynthia’s Revels is Cynthia, aka Diana, the huntress of myth, a moon goddess, whose bow and arrows symbolise the rays of moonlight. Diana was, in ancient Britain, the Goddess of the Forest; and we remember that the woods, forest, grove or even single tree bears always in FF the allegoric value of the written word, the source most plausibly being the Druid grove, on the barks of which were nicked their scared texts. There is evidence elsewhere in FF of Bacon’s deep familiarity with the Druid alphabet (see especially Antony and Cleopatra; and also Robert Graves’ The White Goddess). Diana in MND in her guise of Titania (‘born of a titan’) represents the Goddess (the truth of nature, the unseen world) described in the written word, the reading and writing of which was the central plank of Bacon’s therapeutic approach to his patient Will Shakspere. The bow and arrows of Robin Hood, de facto king of Sherwood Forest, were borrowed from Diana. Robin Hood is mentioned explicitly twice in FF, in Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It; and he was originally a Ring Lord (that is, a Grail King: the two traditions being essentially the same). MND fairly reeks of Ring/Grail symbolism, and Bacon may well have been instructed in this tradition by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a direct descendent of the historical Robin Hood. (See Lawrence Gardner’s Realm of the Ring Lords). And in this way too of course, may Ben Jonson have been familiarised with it. Diana bears also in CR, as we shall see, the momentous value of the Goddess described in the written word.

Another key figure in FF is the silent Goddess: Cordelia, Hero, Hippolyta in the early Acts of MND, and their kin; and their silences signify always that nature is not speaking to the Puritan hero, or rather, that she is crying at him to listen, but he has closed his ears to her. There can be no question that Hero in the first scene of CR is cognate with her namesake in Measure for Measure. In a brief phase of volubility I.ii she inaugurates the Fountain of Self-Love – whose waters will protect those who have tasted of it from Cupid’s arrows in the final scenes – before relapsing into muteness. The waters thus symbolise the wealth to be gained from the engagement of the Gnostic written word by the reasoning imagination. Central to the esoteric tradition was the principle that this transformation into Gnostic nobility entailed a victory over the passions: hence Cupid’s failure in the final Act. This principle was enshrined in the ritual of the twenty-eighth degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (of Freemasonry), which states: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, flee from this place of truth.’ (Knight C. and Lomas R., The Second Messiah). Bacon was formally inducted into the brotherhood by James II in 1603 (or possibly earlier). The brutal truth is that it was an act of auto-erotism which precipitated Will Shakspere’s breakdown of 1587, to prompt his flight from Stratford and his family to the metropolis in search of to healing and a new life (see for example the striking auto-erotic symbolism of the Gad’s Hill episode in 1HIV).

The Goddesses of Cynthia’s (Diana’s) inner circle signify her sacredness: Arete (‘goodness’, ‘virtue’, ‘nobility’), Tyme (‘honour’, lordship’, ‘authority’), Phronesis (‘thoughtfulness, ‘sagacity’, ‘prudence’), Thauma (‘a wonder’, ‘a marvel’). These qualify the state of Gnostic nobility. The ladies of the outer circle represent, in contrast, the world of the passions which the initiate will strive to overcome: Philautia (‘self-love’, so Jonson explictly identifies her in the prologue: Shakspere’s auto-erotism is irresistibly suggested); Phantaste (‘a light wittiness’, from the Greek phantasia, ‘imagination’: we have seen in Ugly Dick that it was Shakspere-as-Puritan’s long-dormant imagination acting on the vividly described seduction scene in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass that precipitated the act of auto-erotism and his subsequent breakdown); Argurion (‘money’: from Gk. argurion, ‘a silver coin’, ‘a sum of money’: to suggest the semen, an interpretation supported by her passion for the courtier Asotus (‘prodigal, ‘the waster’)); and their guardian Moria (‘folly’: cf. Jonson’s portrayal of Will Shakspere as La Foole in Epicoene).

Accompanying Asotus is Amorphus (‘deformed’, < Gk. amorphos, misshapen’, ‘unsightly’: a reference to the dross which it will be the task of the Gnostic tradition to transform into the pure gold of enlightenment; and also possibly to Shakspere himself, who was almost certainly club-footed). In the transformation scene in Act V it will be Morphides (‘Son of shape’) who acts as gatekeeper of the revels, allowing in the Goddess (Wife) but excluding the ithyphallos (the passions: her husband), as we shall see. Specifically there is suggested Will Shakspere’s reading of Apuleius’ magical masterpiece of transformation The Golden Ass, this time engaging with the love story as idea, instead of succumbing to it as will, with the inevitable auto-erotism, as in the past. Also of Amorphus’ party are Anaides (‘impudent’, ‘shameless’) and Hedon (‘voluptuous’, ‘pleasure-seeking’). Jonson’s apparently diffuse and shapeless comedy is being revealed as an allegory of tight and focused construction indeed.

Let us look more closely at the revels and masque which conclude the play. It is Crites, a portrayal of the Gnostic ideal, a Solomon or Alexander or Christ figure, who will defeat, along with Mercury (messenger of the gods) – who bears, in his page disguise, the allegoric value of the written word – the Amorphus faction in the revels. Crites, like Arete, is characteristically garbed in black (unseen world). It is Cynthia’s goal to rehabilitate Crites’ (the Gnostic tradition’s) reputation:

Cynthia Nor are we ignorant, how noble minds

              Suffer too much through those indignities,

              Which times, and vicious person cast on them…

              “Cynthia shall brighten, what the world made dim.

                                                                                         (V, vi)

For ‘vicious persons’ read ‘Roman Catholicism’ and ‘Puritanism’. The Gnostic written word will drive everything:

Crites Well, since my leader on is Mercurie,

            I shall not fear to follow. If I fall,

            My proper virtue shall be my relief,

            That followed such a cause, and such a chief.

                                                                               (V.i)

The winner of the revels (psychic transformation) will be a master of the unseen world:

Amorphus …which if your antagonist or player-against you shall ignorantly be without, and yourself can produce, you give him the dor.

Asotus I, I, sir.

                      (V.i)

Dor’ of course suggests ‘d’or’, ‘golden’: the pure gold of the transformed ego, the goal of the alchemical process.

V.iii, absent from the Quarto, was added by Jonson to the Folio version. It is a key to the main theme of this last Act. The Wife, admitted by the doorkeeper Morphides into the chamber of the revels, represents the Goddess (nature) described in the written word: the voluptuous Fotis, object of Lucius’ erotic desire in The Golden Ass is a fine if somewhat literal example. Asotus, her brother, is linked to the ithyphallos:

Wife Because he is my brother, that plays the prizes.

Morphides Your brother?

Citizen I, her brother, sir, and we must come in.

Erotic union with her is represented by her husband, who however is not allowed in; and indeed, ‘He [Asotus] is not to know you [Wife] tonight.’ Signficantly, her name is ‘Downfall’, suggesting phallic flaccidity, the victory over the libido.

We remember that the ladies of the outer circle represent the baser predilections of the untransformed ego. The Painter bears always in FF the value of the visual imagination; the apothecary’s drugs that of the libido (see for example Romeo and Juliet V.i). So that we are here on utterly familiar ground:

Crites Then for your ladies, the most proud witty creatures, all things apprehending, nothing understanding, perpetually laughing, curious maintainers of fools, mercers, and minstrels, costly to be kept, miserably keeping, all disdaining, but their painter, and their pothecary, twixt whom and them is this reciprock commerce, their beauties maintain their painters, and their painters their beauties.

             (V.iv)

The written word is at its work of psychic transformation:

Mercury See, if I hit not all their practick observance, with which they lime twigs, to catch their phantastic ladybirds.

Crites I, but you should do more charitably, to do it more openly…

                                                                                                      (V.iv.288ff.)

In the final masque, Cupid will appear in the guise of Anteros (‘Libido’s opposite’), Mercury as a Page (written word). Their retinue will embrace to signify the ego’s attainment of Gnostic nobility. Cupid’s four female attendants, and Mercury’s four male, bear close examination. In Cupid’s camp are the ladies of the outer court disguised as, 1) Storge (‘allowable self-love’), the principle of self-knowledge; 2) Aglaia (‘beauty’, ‘splendour’: delectable and pleasant conversation); 3)Euphantaste (‘good imagination’: ‘a well-conceited wittiness’); 4) Aphelia (‘simplicity’). Mercury’s followers – the courtiers in disguise – are all children of Eutaxia (‘arrangement’, ‘order’, ‘regularity’). They are, 1) Eucosmos (‘whose courtly habit is the grace of the presence, and delight of the surveying eye, whom ladies understand by the names of neat and elegant’); 2) Eupathes (‘good experience’); Eutolmos (‘boldness’, ‘adventurousness’: ‘good audacity’); 4) Eucolos (‘peacable’, ‘contented’). They dance and embrace, and Cupid’s charm fails to work (will-to-eros is conquered), for they have all drunk from the water fetched from Hero’s Fountain of Self-love (Goddess Nature speaking to the initiate).

Here are some further points of interest.

Here the kinship of Echo with the Goddesses of Hell-Grail Queens of FF is stated, as she is explicitly identified with the unseen world:

Echo Here.

Mercury So nigh?

Echo I

          (I.i)

The ego’s ultimate victory over the libido, and transformation into Gnostic nobility, signified by the defeat of Amorphus-Asotus in Act V, is adumbrated here:

Amorphus …my thoughts and I am for this other element, water.

                                                                                                   (I.ii)

This is the water of Echo’s fountain, the wisdom of the Gnostic written word.

There is in the next scene a legerdemain which portrays the first steps in the victory over the will-to-eros. Asotus gives to Amorphus his beaver, which has cost him eight crowns; while Amorphus gives him his hat in exchange, ‘not worth a crown’. Asotus’ beaver is identified with the unseen world, in an erotic sense:

Amorphus Ist a beaver?

Asotus I, sir, Ile assure you tis a beaver, it cost me eight crowns but this morning.

Amorphus After your French account?

Asotus Yes, sir.

                        (I.iv)

 

–‘French crown’ being of course a colloquialism for a syphilitic chancre. In other words, the principle of auto-erotic wastefulness has been weakened; while the ego-in-transformation has been strengthened by its knowledge as idea.

Crites is here identified as a master of the unseen world of nature:

Cupid Here comes another.

Mercury I, but one of another strain, Cupid: this fellow weighs somewhat.

Cupid His name, Hermes?

Mercury Crites.

And again here:

Hedon …did you observe him [Crites]?

Anaides I, a pox on him…

                                        (III.ii)

 

 

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