Illustration by Chi Birmingham
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD - Published: January 19, 2012-New York Times
BEN JONSON - A LifeBy Ian DonaldsonIllustrated. 533 pp. Oxford University Press. US$39.95.
The contrasting lives — and posthumous fates — of Jonson and Shakespeare are a minor but recurring theme in the deeply researched but happily readable new biography of Jonson by Ian Donaldson, entitled “Ben Jonson: A Life.” A general editor of the forthcoming seven-volume “Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson,” Donaldson has a case to make that, despite the Shakespearean eclipse, Jonson was as central to the development of the British theater as Shakespeare was — in some ways perhaps more so, at least during the years in which their plays were first produced.
Jonson “would do much to transform the status of the dramatic author in early modern England, boldly asserting his moral dignity, critical authority and quasi-legal rights of textual ownership,” Donaldson writes. “Above all, he would make the dramatic author a visible figure — nominally visible on the title pages of his works, imaginatively visible through the language of his own dramatic creations.”
Shakespeare’s comparative invisibility during his lifetime has certainly posed intractable problems in the centuries since his death, as the eternal and tedious arguments over the authorship of his plays illustrate. Had he the foresight to make himself the colorful and combative public figure Jonson was — jailed several times, famed for insobriety, sometime friend and sometime foe of the mighty names of his age — we would not be plagued by the rankling theories of the Oxfordians that still clamor today.
Full review at the New York Times.