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Book Review: Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson: A Life

by Ian Donaldson

Oxford University Press, 2011

“I appeal to posterity that will hereafter read and judge my writings, though now neglected” – so wrote the great poet, playwright, instructor, and public intellectual Ben Jonson in 1605 to the Earl of Suffolk. Jonson was writing from prison, where he’d been sent for his part in creating that satirical assault of a play, Eastward, Ho! The play, which Jonson co-wrote with George Chapman and John Marston, lampooned, among a great many other things, the boorish manners of some of King James I’s Scottish courtiers – and the new king was not amused.

There’s something at once pathetic and touching about the fact the Jonson, thrown in prison for one of his plays, would write that letter appealing to posterity as the final judge of his works – and by extension, of himself. The act contains the essential Jonsonian mixture of arrogance and deference, and that mixture has been the bane of Jonson biographers for four hundred years – they tend to see only the arrogance or only the deference, or else the arrogance on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the deference on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (on Sunday they just say ‘the hell with it’ and write about you-know-who). Ben Jonson, bricklayer’s son, brilliant student of a brilliant teacher (the great William Camden, whose greatest gift to all his students was the encouragement of lifelong omnivorous curiosity), sometime soldier, sometime poet, was above all things mutable. Biographers need springy knees to keep up.

Jonson has had plenty of biographers, from dear earnest John Aubrey to the wonderful Marchette Chute to a clutch of recent contributors, but he’s never had a better biography than the new one from Oxford University Press by Ian Donaldson. This is the volume that brings Jonson the man – in all his mutable glory – most closely into the reader’s company. It’s a delightful achievement, and the key to Donaldson’s success is his sensitivity to all the many facets of his subject. Other biographers have paid lip service to Jonson’s fierce complexity, but none in such perfect terms:

Since James’s accession Jonson had acted by turns as an apologist for the new King and as a satirist of his manners and countrymen; as a celebrator of the magnificence of the Jacobean court and scourge of its dubious values; as a confidant of the Gunpowder conspirators and as a go-between for their chief inquisitor, Robert Cecil; as a Catholic hare who might seem at times to be running with the Protestant hounds.

It’s a note Donaldson strikes often in his book, this acknowledgement that Jonson didn’t share the surface simplicity of those contemporaries who were pure courtiers, or pure playwrights, or even pure trimmers thinking of nothing but tacking to every new breeze. Jonson himself protested throughout his life that he was unchanging (he eyed with dangerous covetousness the motto semper eadem), and it takes a rare biographer to see that this was not simple hypocritical bluster – that through all the street fights and scandals and publicity stunts and penury, there really was a weaving thread uniting all. Donaldson is that biographer, and he seems to relish reminding his readers that his subject is tricky:

Over the coming years [the early 1600's],  Jonson the jealous subject would continue to coexist with Jonson the stubborn recusant and Jonson the court satirist, just as Jonson the public entertainer would continue to live alongside Jonson the unforgiving critic of the public stage. While proclaiming his steadfastness and unity of purpose, Jonson, like his own creation, Volpone, moved with the agility of a player from one role to the next.

The biggest obstacle to a clear-eyed popular biography of Jonson is the same obstacle sitting between him and that adoring posterity he sometimes envisioned, and that obstacle has a name: it’s you-know-who himself, William Shakespeare.

Like Shakespeare, Jonson probably started out in the theater not as a writer but as an actor – not as a marquee star, but as a fixer-upper whose literary talents only later made themselves obvious, in Jonson’s case (and possibly Shakespeare’s as well, at some point?) most likely for Pembroke’s Men. Donaldson paints a good vivid picture of the work-a-day nature of that early incarnation:

It seems clear … that Jonson’s initial engagement with the theatre was as an actor, and that he only gradually and incidentally picked up additional work as a writer. His early commissions were essentially backroom jobs, patching up old plays, and working collaboratively with other members of the troupe to produce new plays at high speed. The pressures of the repertory system were intense, and the appetite for new plays was insatiable.

But Shakespeare hovers over the whole picture like a goatee’d dirigible, because Shakespeare has become an industry and a household name – and the onlie begetter of other household names. What Des Moines housewife hasn’t heard of Hamlet? What schoolteacher in Lampok doesn’t know Romeo & Juliet? Hell, even “Star Trek” fans know “to be, or not to be” (often in the original Klingon). Jonson didn’t write as many plays as his friend and erstwhile colleague, but he wrote enough to make a decent season, and – hopeless point here, impossible to be heard – most of them are quite as good as Shakespeare. As Donaldson accurately points out, for the century immediately following Jonson’s death, the standard assumption among the literati was that he had indeed achieved a fame far in excess of any his contemporaries enjoyed – even you-know-who. Henry Chettle was only writing common sentiment when he predicted of Jonson, “our English Horace, whose steel pen/Can draw characters which will never die.” But, as his biographer points out, “Fame, whose uncertainty Jonson had always recognized, had proved to be an erratic friend.”

Another factor curiously weighing against Jonson in the Jonson-Shakespeare title bout was the perceived lack of purity: unlike Shakespeare, who returned to Stratford as soon as he decently could and settled in to a peaceful retirement of suing his neighbors for pocket change, Jonson cared very much about his literary legacy (he would have been enormously happy, for instance, at the mere thought of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, a marvellous ornament of scholarship in part edited by Donaldson). He very much wanted to be immortal, which often works against immortality – his later extremely custodial fussiness when assembling the authorized folio of his own work (something Shakespeare famously never did) is a perfect case-in-point. In pursuit of that immortality – and the ever-popular ready cash – he authored a large number of court masques, the special effects extravaganzas that have failed to translate into the modern world. He also spent a great deal of time (that might otherwise have gone to writing) tutoring the sons of the wealthy, from William Sidney at opulent Penshurst Place to Sir Walter Ralegh’s sexy, monstrous son ‘Wat’ on a tour of Europe in 1612. Jonson was a man of prodigious appetites, intellectual, physical, even spiritual, but he lived longer than Shakespeare, and that presents its own tawdry necessities.

He was mostly wrong about posterity, which can’t get enough of you-know-who but is almost entirely unaware of “Volpone” on the stage, or “Every Man in His Humour,” or the great “Sejanus His Fall.” It’s unlikely Donaldson’s quietly, conscientiously brilliant book will change that, but it’s an effort worth making just the same.