Librarian’s Pick #8: Ben Jonson and Terence’s Comedies

Over the course of Trinity Term 2020, the library staff at St. John's College will be taking you on a 'tour' of some of their favourites among our special collections. Every Monday, we will upload a new note on the item of the week. Read on to discover more about our chosen items...

Ben Jonson and Terence’s Comedies

– Nadia Azimikorf, Graduate Trainee

St John’s College’s MS 87 is a western medieval manuscript of Terence’s Comedies, owned by the Renaissance poet and playwright Ben Jonson. Terence was a North African Roman playwright and freed slave, living in the second century BC. He authored at least six plays, which were performed during his lifetime despite his dying at a young age, and his slave status for much of his life. His comedies had a clear influence on the drama produced during the classical revival of the Renaissance, including Jonson’s plays.

St John’s College Oxford, MS 87, folio 1r.

Publius Terentius Afer, often known simply as Terence, was a North African–Roman playwright living c. 195/185 BC to 159 BC. Thought to have been born in Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), he was taken as a slave of the Roman Republic and brought to Rome by the Roman senator Terentius Lucas. Terence was educated by his owner, and was later freed by him, allowing him to pursue playwrighting.  Terence died at a young age (estimated to be around 25) when he journeyed to Greece. It is unclear whether he died at sea on the journey, or shortly after arriving. He authored and exhibited six plays during his lifespan. First performed c. 170 BC, all six of his plays survived and are included in MS 87, alongside their accompanying prefaces and periochae.

The 25 long lines to a page within the manuscript take up a mere fraction of the total space allowed, encouraging the written commentary of the manuscript owner. All of the texts throughout are presented as prose, with no headings. At the start of each play there are instead four-line champes, often with illustrations of natural scenes inside the gold leaf capital letter. The demivinet in folio 1 displays gold leaf and flowers. Other folio’s display floral sprays and borders.

These first five lines of verse on fol.1r are thought to be Terence’s epitaph.

The manuscript is written in the cursive, and relatively informal, anglicana and secretary scripts, with the same scribe being responsible for St John’s MS 84 (Works of Sallust).

The margin area in folio 1r displays the provenance of the manuscript – namely the Renaissance poet and playwright Ben Jonson: ‘Sum Ben’ and ‘Jonsonij Liber’. This was therefore one of Jonson’s five manuscripts – another of which is St John’s MS 192 (Juvenal; Horace’s Ars Poetica).

‘Sum Ben: Jonsonij Liber.’

Jonson would have studied Terence’s Comedies while at Westminster School, which introduced Roman Comedy to the curriculum under the supervision of headmaster Alexander Nowell (famed for his 1572 Middle Catechism). During the revival of classical drama in England during the Renaissance era, many viewed Roman comedy, such as that by Terence, as amoral, and were suspicious of its use and value. Nowell, however, clearly viewed Roman comedy in its positive terms, seeing little unresolvable conflict between Christianity and Roman comedy. Jonson would have benefitted not only from the study and performance of Roman comedy while at Westminster, but also from the exercise of translating Greek and Latin verse into the equivalent English.

1598 was a key point in the use of Roman comedy (and of Terence in particular) for English students – with the publication of Richard Bernard’s Terence in English, a bilingual edition of the Comedies in which the original Latin was placed with Bernard’s translation into English. In his dedicatory epistle, Bernard claims Terence will tell you the ‘nature’ of his amoral characters, and that rather than misusing Terence’s comedies as many were apparently wont to do, he asks his readers to read the “good” into the texts, and claims that this was his purpose in translating the plays. The emphasis on defending the moral goodness of Terentian (and other Roman) comedy was a key theme. Erasmus himself was a leading advocate of Roman comedy in Northern Europe, claiming that the comedies of Terence when ‘read in the proper way, not only have no tendency to subvert men’s morals but even afford great assistance in rewarding them’. This defence of the comedies allowed the lude and racy drama to be both taught and performed, and later used in English comedies throughout the classical revival.

It is easy to see the influence of classical comedy in renaissance drama for many reasons – regarding the Roman New Comedy that Terence represented, his stock characters often found themselves in romantic plots with happy endings, while satirizing contemporary issues in Rome. The tropes developed from the Roman New Comedy of Terence to the Renaissance drama of Jonson were aided via the transmission of manuscripts such as Jonson’s (and now St John’s) MS 87. The influence of this manuscript upon Jonson’s drama can most clearly be seen by comparing Jonson’s drama to Terence’s. Comparisons have been drawn between the climactic Act 3 Scene 7 of Jonson’s Volpone and a scene in Terence’s Eunuch, in which both scenes essentially present a seduction attempt on an innocent woman from a man faking impotence.  

Overall, this manuscript is a testament to the transmission of literature through time, and the role of manuscripts in this transmission. It also sheds a light on the world of manuscript ownership in the late medieval/renaissance era in England – with this manuscript being one of the two of Jonson’s manuscripts held at St John’s, and with the same scribe as yet another of St John’s manuscripts.

Select Bibliography

Hanna, Ralph, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hardin, Richard F. “New Light on Jonson and Roman Comedy: Volpone and Eunuchus, Magnetic Lady and Truculentus.” The Ben Jonson Journal, vol. 20, issue 2, 2013, pp. 179-200. Edinburgh University Press, https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/pdfplus/10.3366%2Fbjj.2013.0080. Accessed 10 June 2020.

Hrdlicka, Steven. Satiric Comedy: Ben Jonson’s “Faire Correctives of Moral and Social ills. Gale: 2018.

McPherson, David. “Roman Comedy in Renaissance Education: The Moral Question.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, 1981, pp. 19–30. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3003700. Accessed 10 June 2020.

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