The astute choice of a character’s name is something we, as readers, cherish in literature. We only have to recall Dickens’s villains to see how important a name can be in the depiction of a certain personality – the name Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), for example, with its harsh consonants, immediately hints at unkindness and cruelty, whilst the name Verneering (Our Mutual Friend) at once reveals a sense of superficiality and an obsession with ostentation. When dwelling on the importance of names in literature, we may also recall Virginia Woolf’s feminist novel A Room of One’s Own, the heroine of which is never fully identified apart from as ‘Mary’. Given that this name was, at the time, the most common female name, this naming sets her forth as a universal figure of feminine life. This tradition of the precise selecting of names partly stems back to Medieval morality plays, in which the characters each represent a particular virtue or vice and are named accordingly: in the anonymously-written, archetypal morality play, Everyman, the protagonist is surrounded by characters like ‘Good-Deeds’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Strength’. Arguably, it was this tradition that Ben Jonson drew on in the skilled naming of his characters: though their names can be easily overlooked, his specific choices often emphasise particular aspects of his satirical writing. In his three most famous comedies, Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, Jonson uses names to exemplify the idiosyncrasies of his characters before we have even met them, and it is often the naming of his characters that drives his satire or elucidates his plots.
The naming of characters in Volpone is the simplest manifestation of this phenomenon. In the play, Jonson draws directly on the medieval fabliaux tradition and, as Michael Jamieson points out, ‘The people of the play are, through their names, invested with animal symbolism…’ The play is set in Venice, a city which was, to the Elizabethans, seen as a hub of corruption – many audience members would recall the usury of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The name Volpone, in Italian, literally means ‘sly fox’, and thus the protagonist comes to represent this corruption – his manipulative scheming (evident in his comic asides), like that of Subtle, Face, and Doll in The Alchemist, comes straight out of the cony-catching pamphlets of the Early Modern period. The other characters are likewise elucidated by their names: Corbaccio (‘the raven’), Voltore (‘the vulture’) and Corvino (‘the crow’) are all carrion-eating fowl, hungry not for flesh but for the wealth of the play’s protagonist. This animalism is so extreme that Corvino, for instance, commits to disinheriting his son and prostituting his wife. But this is Jonson’s name choosing at its most simple. More interesting are characters like Sir Politic Would-Be, whose name gives away his role as the ridiculous Englishman abroad, vainly attempting to be politic and sensible, an endeavour in which he fails miserably. Indeed, he is so absurd that he notes in his diary every single action he performs (including urination) during each day, and he characteristically ends the play hiding in a tortoise shell, the victim of one of Peregrine’s clever pranks. Thus, we can see how his name goes towards a satire of the ignorant English traveller, his mind filled with extravagant and bizarre business ideas with which he bores characters and audience alike. Likewise, the name ‘Littlewit’ is ironically telling, making the opening scene of Bartholomew Fair all the more humorous. This garrulous amateur dramatist is infatuated with his own negligible intelligence, constantly endeavouring to present himself as a witty and clever orator. For example, when Winwife employs some relatively clichéd metaphors (‘strawberry-breath, cherry-lips, apricot-cheeks, and a soft velvet head’), Littlewit ironically cannot restrain his admiration: ‘that I had not that before him, that I should not light on’t as well as he! Velvet head!’ Justice Overdo’s name is similarly revealing of his character, predicting the exaggeration and self-satisfied nature of his speeches: ‘Now to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! The example of justice, and mirror of magistrates, the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours…!’ He, along with the Puritan Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, is just one of the many bourgeois characters of this carnivalesque play whose pretensions to honour, authority and religiosity are mocked by Jonson (who, of course, loathed the Puritans for their critique of the theatre), and it is the naming of these characters that contributes to Jonson’s mockery.
Similar naming techniques are used in one of Jonson’s other satirical comedies, The Alchemist. Sir Epicure Mammon is one of the ‘gulls’ hoping to get rich from Subtle’s feigned magical skill. The name Epicure refers to the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, famed for an emphasis on sensual pleasure (though this depiction of his philosophy is somewhat inaccurate and exaggerated). The name Mammon is also suggestive, meaning ‘wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship or devotion’. To an extent, then, the name Epicure Mammon is oxymoronic – though his forename implies an emphasis on material and physical existence, his surname seems to refute that, again showing how Jonson uses names to mock certain characters. So it’s no wonder that a character with such a name is so obsessed with the wealth and material riches that he hopes to acquire, which he boasts about to Doll: he shall have ‘glasses / Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse / And multiply the figures, as I walk / Naked between my succubæ.’
Even more witty a choice of name is the name adopted by Jeremy the Butler, who refers to himself as Captain Face whilst he is operating as a member of London’s criminal underworld. The name alone suggests the adoption of a mask, though we don’t find out until Act V that his real name is Jeremy. As Jonathan Haynes points out, ‘All traces of origin are effaced’ by Face’s ‘constant and impeccable role-playing.’ Thus, Face is an ‘impostor’, one of many corrupt characters lurking in London’s underworld: as the Prologue explains, ‘No clime breeds better matter, for your whore, / Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more.’ (lines 7-8) At the end of the play, though, Face is unmasked. And yet, he is, to some extent, the victor of the play. He is so manipulative and skilful that Lovewit’s neighbours think ‘Jeremie / Is a very honest fellow…’ Moreover, as the name Lovewit would imply, Face’s master appreciates his wit and scheming intellect, and thus Face can use his wit to gain his master’s pardon:
‘Give me but leave to make the best of my fortune,
And only pardon me thi' abuse of your house:
It's all I beg. I'll help you to a widow,
In recompense, that you shall give me thanks for…’
Hence, at the end of the play, Lovewit pays tribute to his servant’s ingenuity: he is ‘very grateful’ to have ‘received such happiness by a servant.’ It’s no surprise that a character called Lovewit would feel obliged to be ‘A little indulgent to that servant’s wit,’ and thus again we can see how Jonson’s use of naming helps not only to illustrate his characters, but to develop and almost foreshadow the plot. And though Lovewit is the eventual winner of the play (gaining a wife and augmented wealth), Face certainly ends up better off than his two scheming companions Subtle and Doll, who are forced to flee once the master of the house arrives unexpectedly. Face is what was known in the Renaissance period as a ‘taker-up’:
‘The taker-up seemeth a skilful man in all things, who hath by long travail learned without book a thousand policies to insinuate himself into a man’s acquaintance. Talk of matters in law, he hath plenty of cases at his fingers’ ends, and he hath seen, and tried, and ruled in the King’s courts. Speak of grazing and husbandry, no more knowether more shires than he, nor better way to raise a gainful commodity, and how the abuses and overture of prices might be redressed.’ – Greene, Notable Discovery
Face can use his wit to adopt multiple different personalities (hence the name ‘Face’, establishing his use of masks) – as Haynes explains, ‘Everyone is spoken to in his own language.’ He can talk to Drugger about tobacco, he can talk to Dapper about his milieu, all the while ready to transform back into Jeremy the Butler. Thus, the barrier between the criminal underworld and straight society becomes permeable for him, whilst it is not for Subtle and Doll. In this sense, Face can be seen as a warning to Elizabethan theatre-goers, his character demonstrating the Trump-like deceptions and manipulations not only of the criminal underworld, but of society in general.
We must remember, though, how aware Jonson was of the dangers of satire – he was, after all, arrested and imprisoned more than once for his satirical work. One of his most interesting satirical works, Poetaster, works completely differently in terms of naming. Jonson’s play sets out, amongst other things, to revenge the criticism he had received from Marston, Dekker and others during the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’ or Poetomachia. But, as he explains in his Apologetical Dialogue, he aims to ‘spare the persons and to speak the vices’. By setting his play in Augustan Rome rather than in London, Jonson champions his own style of Horatian satire (or, at least, the style of poetry to which he aspires), while criticising the Juvenalian satire of Marston and Dekker (though, in bitterly attacking these two playwrights as ‘vile ibids’ in the Apologetical Dialogue, Jonson was hypocritically sinking to the Juvenalian level) – thus, the play can be seen as a general satire of the poetaster figure whilst also criticising Jonson’s rivals. The loathsome Crispinus is often read as a representation of Marston – towards the end of the play, Crispinus vomits up what Tom Cain refers to as a series of ‘Marstonisms’, a pretentious and bombastic lexical flood including words like ‘retrograde’, ‘incubus’, ‘glibbery’, ‘magnificate’ and more. Moreover, the two poems that Crispinus and Demetrius read are undeniable parodies of Marston and Dekker’s work. But still, by choosing not to name Marston in the play, Jonson arguably escapes accusations of Juvenalian, bitter satire.
By (uncharacteristically) avoiding the use of illuminating names, Jonson is also able to compare himself to the great Augustan poet Horace, ‘a self-projection of Jonson’ according to Tom Cain. After all, the two poets were indeed very similar – Horace was often taunted because his father was a freed slave, and Jonson was acutely self-conscious of his step-father’s profession as a brick-layer; Horace had fought in Philippi, Jonson fought in the Low Countries. To an extent, then, Jonson seems to be modelling himself on Horace: in fact, in his Discoveries Jonson advocated exactly that: the ability ‘to bee able to convert the substance, or Riches of an other Poet, to his owne use.’ Thomas Smith even praised Jonson as ‘the elaborate English Horace,’ and like Horace, Jonson often chose to write in a realist style, ‘out of use and experience’ (Discoveries). Thus, Jonson could implicitly compare himself to the great Augustan satirist in an attempt to elevate his style.
There are other comparisons in Poetaster that also ought not to be ignored. The play opens with Ovid composing a poem which turns out to be one of Marlowe’s own translations of Ovid, lines from a banned edition published with Sir John Davies’s epigrams. Marlowe was one of the most loved poets of the day, and Jonson clearly respected him, though Marlowe does not completely escape criticism – compared to the virtues of Virgil and Horace, Ovid is seen as sensuous and arguably blasphemous in his organisation of the Divine Banquet (this, again, would link the Ovid character to Marlowe, who was often accused of blasphemy and atheism, and whose play Dr Faustus presents us with a similarly blasphemous banquet scene in Rome). So by presenting Ovid in such a way that we can’t help thinking of Marlowe, Jonson was able to express his opinions without fear of danger – Thomas More arguably used a similar technique in Utopia, hiding his own beliefs from the reader. Thus, the banishment of Ovid could be compared to the death of Marlowe, and as Tom Cain writes, ‘The Ovid being rejected is as much the Ovid of the 1590s in England [i.e. Marlowe and poets who wrote in a similar vein] as the historical Ovid of Augustan Rome.’ Finally, by setting the play in Rome, Jonson could make a subtle contrast and criticism between the high regard poets were held in under Augustus’s rule, and their relatively harsh treatment in Elizabethan England. It is poets that guide the Emperor Augustus in Jonson’s play, whilst it was libel and informers (like Tucca) that drove the Essex Rebellion of 1601, the year Jonson’s play was first performed.
So it’s clear that names played a huge role in Ben Jonson’s dramatic work. In his later comedies, he used names to elucidate and expound the personalities of certain characters whilst also satirising or ironizing them, whilst in the earlier Poetaster he deliberately avoids the direct naming of his subjects (if we can go so far as to say for sure that Jonson was attempting to satirise Marston and Dekker, amongst others). It is Histrio’s plays that directly mock and bitterly attack individuals: Ben Jonson, posing as the virtuous Horace, suggests he will not wrong ‘men’s fames’ (Trebatius’s words) in his verse. The implication is that Jonson (as Horace), along with Virgil (whom some critics have claimed resembles Chapman), is aloof from that, though it is doubtful whether he really is. Whatever the answer, it’s clear that Jonson thought very carefully about the choice of names in his plays, and through those names he makes his comedies and satires all the more powerful. As Haynes argues, Jonson used his art ‘in society as a weapon, or tool, or organ.’ Whether it was mocking the folly of naïve bourgeois figures like Cokes or Littlewit; whether it was revealing and revelling in the dark scheming of the criminal underworld; whether it was critiquing Early Modern nascent capitalism; or whether it was responding to the attacks of other poets, Jonson made the naming of characters an expressive tool in his work, carrying on and expanding earlier traditions, and influencing the work of writers who came after him.