In his own time “Rare Ben Jonson”—sometime bricklayer, soldier, actor, dramatist, poet, critic, self-publicist, and personality—became a celebrity.  When, at the age of 46, and weighing about 280 pounds, he set off to walk from London to Edinburgh, the houses of the wealthy and fashionable were opened to him, and—as this biography tells us—even ordinary people in remote villages came out to welcome him and celebrate his passing.  By the time he died in 1637 quite a lot of the people who thought themselves qualified to judge considered him to be the most distinguished English man of letters of his own, or perhaps of any, time, a status to which Jonson, never reluctant to assert himself, had put in an early claim when he dramatized himself as the Roman poet Horace.  Later in the century, he and Shakespeare were paired as twin presiding geniuses of the English stage.

Popular opinion has drastically modified that verdict.  If we take The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a rough guide to literary fame, Shakespeare is represented by over 1,800 entries, Alexander Pope by 175, Jonson by a modest 54.  None of Jonson’s 18 known plays survives as part of the popular repertoire.  Only specialists read the court masques upon which he so prided himself, and, except for a small number of anthologized pieces, the same is true of his poetry.  Nonetheless, Jonson still has his enthusiasts and defenders.  This year Cambridge University Press will issue a complete edition of the Works to replace the famous—and very handsome—Herford and Simpson edition published by Oxford in 1925-52, though at the price of $900 one does not imagine many people will own it.  Meanwhile, Ian Donaldson, one of the three Cambridge editors, has completed this new biography for Oxford for the more rational price of $39.95—up-to-date in its facts and references, and so the obvious source for anyone wanting to know about Ben Jonson and his world.

One advantage that Jonson’s biographer enjoys over, say, Shakespeare’s, is that his subject, especially as a younger man, was always getting into trouble, and so left a marked trail behind him in the public records.  He coined a phrase, “the wolf’s black jaw,” to epitomize the nastier activities of the Elizabethan state, and—one of his more admirable qualities—he could not resist pulling the wolf’s tail.  In the summer of 1597, a play he wrote with Thomas Nashe, The Isle of Dogs, upset the authorities so badly that they ordered all theaters torn down, imprisoned Jonson and two other actors, and set their chief enforcer, Richard Topcliffe, to interrogate them.  Nashe skipped town and never came back.  Fortunately, the affair blew over before any theaters were destroyed, and by the fall, when Jonson and his fellow actors were released, the players were performing again.  Students of the Elizabethan theater would love to know what was so offensive about this play, but unfortunately it is lost.

About a year later, Jonson quarreled with his fellow actor and inmate, Gabriel Spencer, killed him in a sword fight, and would have been hanged for manslaughter had not the law of the time allowed him to “plead his clergy” and get off with an “M” for manslayer branded on the fleshy part of his thumb.  While in prison awaiting trial, he converted to Catholicism, a dangerously countercultural thing to do in the England of 1598.  In 1601, he offended the world at large by putting himself into his play The Poetaster as the poet Horace, beleaguered by nonentities, and he offended the government again—if Donaldson is right—by implying support for the earl of Essex, lately executed for treason.  In 1603 his tragedy Sejanus caused him to be “called before the Council . . . and accused of popery and treason.”  In 1605, he was in prison again, and threatened with severe punishment for making fun of King James I and the Scots in a comedy, Eastward Ho, written with George Chapman and John Marston.  One of the first things Jonson did when released in the fall of 1605 was to attend a supper party at a London inn with the leading Gunpowder Plotters, leaving his biographer to wonder whether he was a sympathizer, a supporter, or an agent planted by Robert Cecil.

This ample record of misbehavior provides no hint of Jonson’s motivations.  We do not even know why he fought and killed Gabriel Spencer, let alone why a man so eager to ingratiate himself at court would make public fun of the king’s Scots accent or, even stranger still, spend evenings hobnobbing with men planning to explode the king, his court, and all.  The Jonsonian record, then, despite its ampleness, does not tell as much as it promises about the man himself.  Yet he must have been good company, despite manifest shortcomings.  He always found important and influential friends to help him out of his scrapes, to support him financially, even to take him in as a house guest.  Two of his best poems, “On Inviting a Friend to Supper,” and “To Penshurst,” assure us that he was a good host and a welcome guest.

Insofar as this biography tells a story, it is an account of Jonson as the man who, by arranging the publication of his plays in a series of carefully presented editions culminating in his folio Works in 1616, elevated the writer’s life to the status of a career comparable with that of an academic, a lawyer, or a cleric.

That story, though, is really an endorsement of Jonson’s own version of his achievements, and it needs a little modification.  For one thing, the dates are wrong.  The dramatist who first separated himself decisively from the crowd with a brilliant series of single-author plays, and whose name appeared on the title page of a quarto play in 1598, well before Jonson’s first effort, was Shakespeare.  By then Shakespeare had already established himself as a hugely successful published poet, while his sonnets, as Francis Meres tells us, were circulating in manuscript among “his private friends.”  In fact, by 1599 Shakespeare’s name on a title page was so valuable that Jaggard the publisher—to Shakespeare’s irritation—stole it along with a couple of the sonnets for a book he called The Passionate Pilgrim.  In the later 1590’s, therefore, Jonson, eight years younger than Shakespeare, and very much a beginner whether as actor, dramatist, or poet, was imitating Shakespeare’s example, but putting his own aggressively competitive, neoclassicizing frame round the picture as he appropriated it, and doing it so successfully that to this day most people still see Shakespeare through Jonson’s eyes as a brilliant but half-educated child of nature.

As Donaldson presents him, Jonson was a quarrelsome, even violent character whose attitude to fellow writers, including Shakespeare, was on the whole ungenerous, even when he seemed to be praising them.  Donaldson pooh-poohs the later tradition of Jonson’s chip-on-the-shoulderish belittling of Shakespeare, which seems to have originated with Dryden’s generation.  Yet the evidence is there, and one has only to read Jonson’s elegy for Shakespeare with a clear head to see that Dryden knew what he was talking about when he called it “An insolent, sparing, and invidious panegyrick.”

Where, then, do we place Jonson?  Looking at the beautifully reproduced portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch that forms the dust jacket and frontispiece of this book, and being struck for the first time how much the 45-year-old Jonson looks exactly like Robert Graves at that age, it occurred to me that Jonson was a thoroughly Gravesian character.  They were both quirkily learned writers, being largely self-taught on the foundation of a good public-school education, plus some university experience.  Both were adept self-publicizers, both fairly abrasive personalities, usually at odds with someone, especially fellow writers.  Both wrote energetically in most available genres, and both were convinced believers in the virtue of a classically pure, plain style.  And there, surely, is Jonson’s great claim on our attention, because, insofar as there is a classical tradition in English prose and poetry, it began with Ben Jonson, and there is a special place in the House of Fame for cranky authors who write well and correctly.

This compendious biography, itself well written, is enormously informative about Jonson himself and the circles in which he moved.  There are, inevitably, some disappointments.  The author does not really tackle the big problem set by Jonson’s character and career: Why did so unruly and satirically minded a writer adulate the court and courtiers of James I so much?  Jonson not only admired the Jacobean court; as an expert contriver of court masques, he actively encouraged its delusions and extravagance.  Did he really think that James’s court, with his help, was reinaugurating the cultural splendors of Rome, with himself playing Vergil or Horace to James’s Augustus?  If so, he had his own delusions.

Donaldson has no real explanation of Jonson’s conversion, either, but then he seems not to know much about religion, especially the Catholic variety of it, about which he says some odd things—e.g., that the Council of Trent invented the Sacrament of Penance, and that the reason the laity didn’t receive the wine at Mass was lest some enthusiastic communicant should drink it all, forcing the priest to do the whole Mass over again.  He says nothing about Jonson’s contribution to the mysterious collection that included Shakespeare’s “Phoenix and the Turtle,” or about the little oil painting, purportedly of Jonson on his deathbed, formerly paired with a death mask that may be Shakespeare’s.  He does, though, tell us in exhaustive detail about Jonson’s very peculiar burial in Westminster Abbey: vertical and upside down.


[Ben Jonson: A Life, by Ian Donaldson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) 533 pp., $39.95]