Penelope Geng deposited “He Only Talks”: Arruntius and the Formation of Interpretive Communities in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus in the group TM Book History, Print Cultures, Lexicography on MLA Commons 10 months, 4 weeks ago
In this essay I argue that the portrait of Arruntius as a passive Stoic is injudicious, and then I develop a new reading of Jonson’s depiction of Arruntius based on the textual evidence from both the quarto and folio editions of the play. The essay proceeds in three sections. In the first section, I question the commonly held view regarding Arruntius’s Stoicism: is Arruntius an exemplary Stoic when he can be seen fulminating repeatedly against Tiberius, Sejanus, and even the gods? In the second section, I focus on Arruntius’s speeches during the trial of Silius in act 3. The critical perception that Arruntius comments from the margins of the stage is reinforced by modern editions which designate as many as twenty-six of Arruntius’s speeches in act 3 as asides. A collation of the quarto and folio texts shows that the count is inflated. Furthermore, in the original texts, Arruntius’s most pointed criticism is not typographically distinguished as asides: they are printed as regular speech. Based on this finding, I reconsider the function of Arruntius’s invective by asking whether in substance and delivery, his remarks upon the legal proceedings in act 3 constitute a form of parrhesia (or frank speech). In the final section, the focus becomes more theoretical: what is the significance of the public nature of Arruntius’s commentary? How does Arruntius involve others in his legal analysis and how does the group of commentators form a critically engaged public? Because readings of the play’s philosophical and political significance seem to hinge upon the interpretation of this one character, and because critical interpretations of Jonson’s political imagination seem to depend so heavily on this play, I believe it is doubly important for us to reevaluate the case of “old Arruntius” who “only talks” (2.219, 2.299).