Friday, August 29, 2008

Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall

I have just begun Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall and it begins with the following dedication:

“To the No less Noble by Virtue than Blood

Esme Lord Aubigny”

No doubt Lord Aubigny liked this dedication, since Lord Aubigny’s lineage was of the finest. The intermarryings of his clan were the basis of James I’s claim to the English throne and Esme’s father was the great friend and confidante of the young James forty years before Jonson wrote Sejanus. Yet the dedication has a hint of something less flattering to the Lord, which the Lord perhaps did not perceive.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius

The dedication slyly implies that there are two nobilities, one by blood and one by virtue, that rarely coincide – otherwise, why would Jonson feel the need to indicate that this was especially praiseworthy in Aubigny? This dichotomy creates a paradox: titles of nobility (and the power and honor associated with them) descend by inheritance – but Jonson indicates that this has little connection with the virtue of those who inherit them.

Thus, in this dedication, Jonson already presupposed the conflict of two claims to aristocratic rule: the claim of those with the right inheritances and the claim of those of the greatest virtue. Only in the happy occasion when the two are the same are all questions of legitimacy answered. Jonson proposes that this is true in the person of Esme Lord Aubigny, but we wonder what of the unhappy places and times where this is NOT true. Lord Aubigny could take it for granted that his blood was of the noblest, but Jonson’s claim is that Jonson himself, the wise man, knows who is truly virtuous. Thus, the wise man or knower is fundamentally superior to those of noble blood – they merely know who’s blood is noble, but the wise man also knows in addition who is virtuous.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius