The Power of Appearance in Ben Johnson's Plays
The very notion of drama depends in part upon the idea that when people dress up in different clothes, it is easier to imagine them as different people. Jonson commonly utilizes this device within his plays; for, when a character pretends to be someone else, he or she merely puts on the other person’s clothes. In “Volpone,” when Volpone puts on the garb of a commendatore, Mosca, a clarissimo, they are treated as such. When Volpone asks, “Am I then like him?” Mosca replies “O, sir, you are he; no man can sever you” (Jonson, Volpone, 5.5, l. 1-2). By putting on the other man’s garment, Volpone essentially becomes the commendatore whose cloak he has put on. Jonson is not suggesting that the audience actually believes that the actors have become their characters. However, he is making fun of this idea that because actor’s dress up in someone else’s clothing, the audience can accept the illusion of a group of lower-class men playing women and kings.
In “The Devil Is an Ass,” and “The New Inn” Jonson takes the power of appearances one step further. These plays accept as self-evident the idea that social class is defined by appearance. However, men like Fitzdottrel and Ambler who do not properly respect their rights to aristocratic dress, prove themselves less than aristocratic. Women like Prudence, who understand and respect the power of dress to mold appearances, are allowed to assume the role for which they have been costumed. Jonson seems to be suggesting that those characters who know that social class can actually be manipulated by appearance, and thus place the proper value on their appearances, are the true aristocrats – whether they are born to the rank or not.
Both “The Devil is an Ass” and “The New Inn” raise questions about what makes someone a true aristocrat – i.e. someone whose character makes them worthy of the rank – and how to distinguish false aristocrats from true aristocrats. In “The Devil is an Ass,” Satan remarks, “they have their Vices there most like to Virtues; you cannot know ‘em apart by any difference: They wear the same clothes, eat the same meat, sleep I’ the self-same beds, ride I’ those coaches, or very like, four horses in a coach, as the best men and women. Tissue gowns, garters and roses, fourscore pound a pair, embroidered stockings, cut-work smocks and shirts, more certain marks of lechery now, and pride, than ere they were of true nobility!” (Jonson, The Devil is an Ass, 1.1, l. 120-130). Satan correctly identifies the feature that makes it most difficult to distinguish mere appearance of nobility, from actual substance – they are both dressed in the same suit of clothes. In fact, Satan claims that the rich garments, which were once the signifier of nobility, are now more often “marks of lechery . . . and pride.” Jonson is alluding to King James’s practice of granting titles for money, thus whoever could afford to buy fine...