When Ben Jonson died on August 16, 1637, “the crowd that gathered included ‘all or the greatest part of nobility.’ ” Shakespeare, in contrast, was “buried quietly in the chancel of his parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon, having earned a modest place of honor from his status as a wealthy and respected citizen.”  Jonson, “more visible” in his time, “more knowable, [as a] more coherent figure than Shakespeare”  was “a difficult, quarrelsome, vain pedantically learned, hard-drinking member of the wrong faith, tainted with a criminal record; a satirist of court manners accused in the past of sedition, a man with known enemies in the inner circle of James,” the new king. “In much the same way that the name of Byron or Dickens, in an age of speedier communication, would later resonate through Europe . . . . Jonson . . . emerged as Britain’s first literary celebrity” and first Poet Laureate.

Shakespeare, less specifically characterized, would continuously be redefined for the ages.  His worlds contained witches and fairies, references to magic and astrology—elements which Jonson, eight years his junior, would have considered passé, if not suspect.  According to Ian Donaldson, in his magisterial Ben Jonson, A Life, “the powers that primarily interested this playwright were not mythological or extraterrestrial in nature, but political and social.  The influences that shaped his universe came not from the stars or the creatures of the forest but from the particular men and women whose conduct and learning he admired.”  He coveted the academy, as opposed to the theatre (Jonson was never considered a good actor in contrast to Shakespeare, as well).  But his life at Westminster School, where Jonson excelled, was cut short so that he could return home and, like his mother’s new husband, become a bricklayer (Jonson escaped into the army).  No one questions whether his education, despite its being curtailed, was adequate enough for him to have written masterpieces like Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, and Epicene, Or, The Silent Woman, not to mention his poetry and other works.  Yet Shakespeare, whose family also suffered financial reversals—which, apparently, also interrupted his education—can be thought not to have been knowledgeable enough to have written his own plays. 

As Donaldson writes, “Biographers . . . must always rely to a high degree upon interpretation, imagination, and guesswork.  This will be especially true in the case of a subject who was born more than 400 years ago, whose life . . . can only be known imperfectly and in part.” If we’re allowed to project upon and fantasize about Shakespeare–so we can see him anew, in the light of our own day–Jonson should have his own reexamination.  He could not have asked for a better, more qualified biographer to this purpose, in this amply illustrated volume, which includes discussion of newly discovered writing and inquiry into the early modern period:  Donaldson is honorary Professorial Fellow in the school of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, where he has written many books on the writer.  A fellow of the British Academy and past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Donaldson is a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of the forthcoming seven-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson.

From killing in the Low Countries to dueling in England; from censorship and the plague in London to plots onstage and off; religious upheaval, prison, and performances for queens and kings–Ben Jonson reached for “a new kind of drama that push[ed] at the very frontier of comedy.”  Previously, the genre included “final betrothals, reunions, and rewards.”  Instead, Jonson ended Volpone with punishments (no matter how due).  His “comedies often turn on some more or less mischievous act of impersonation, as one character fraudulently assumes the personality of another.  Thus, Volpone plays by turns the roles of a dying Venetian magnifico, of the notorious charlatan Scoto of Mantua, and of a commendatore or courtroom attendant at the Venetian Scrutineo.  In The Alchemist, Subtle and Face similarly assume the roles of alchemist, alchemist’s lackey, and military captain.”  How different they are from the trouser roles we know in Shakespeare, where women dress as men to travel or fall in love. 

“Good men are the stars, the planets of the ages wherein they live and illustrate the times,” the playwright wrote in Discoveries, his spiritual autobiography.  If this be true, the relatively alien and magnetic Ben Jonson, brought to glorious life here, is a good man, if not a supernova.   

Ben Jonson, A Life: Highly Recommended

Oxford University Press    ISBN13: 9780198129769

Copyright 2012 by Bob Shuman   

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