Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ben Jonson: In and Out of Shakespeare’s Shadow

Illustration by Chi Birmingham

Writing a few decades after the deaths of the two greatest writers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, the poet and critic John Dryden came clean about his feelings toward both. “I admire him,” he wrote of Ben Jonson, “but I love Shakespeare.”

By Ian Donaldson
Illustrated. 533 pp. Oxford University Press. US$39.95.

If in the context of literary history admiration can be said to entail sustained academic interest, and love to consist of centuries of popularity among both scholars and laymen alike, Dryden seems to have spoken for posterity. Jonson was the more celebrated and multifariously accomplished figure during his time and in the years immediately after his death in 1637, but his plays are produced relatively rarely today — only “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are widely known — and his poetry is read more rarely still. Shakespeare has emerged as the great genius of the age, the author of plays that will hold the stage as long as there are stages to hold, and a cycle of sonnets that are almost equally prized.
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.       

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