Ben Jonson: A Life
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Ben Jonson was the greatest of Shakespeare's contemporaries. His fame rests not only on the numerous plays he had written, but on his achievements over three decades as principal masque-writer to the early Stuart court, where he had worked in creative, if at times stormy, collaboration with Inigo Jones. One of the most accomplished poets of the age, he was--in fact if not in title--the first Poet Laureate in England.
Ian Donaldson's new biography draws on freshly discovered writings by and about Ben Jonson, and locates his work within the social and intellectual contexts of his time. Donaldson depicts a life full of drama. Jonson's early satirical play, The Isle of Dogs, landed him in prison, and brought all theatrical activity in London to a temporary--and very nearly permanent--standstill. He was "almost at the gallows" for killing a fellow actor after a quarrel, and converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution. He supped with the Gunpowder conspirators on the eve of their planned coup at Westminster. After satirizing the Scots in Eastward Ho! he was imprisoned again, and throughout his career was repeatedly interrogated about plays and poems thought to contain seditious or slanderous material. Throughout this lively biography, Donaldson provides the fullest picture available of Jonson's personal, political, spiritual, and intellectual interests, and he insightfully discusses all of Jonson's major poetry and drama, plus some newly discovered works.
Jonson emerges from this study as a more complex and volatile character than previously depicted, and as a writer whose work strikingly foresees the modern age.
amphitheatres shown here in Southwark—on the south side of the river, to the west of London bridge—are for ‘Bowll [= bull] baytyng’ and ‘Beare-baytyng’, popular sports throughout Jonson’s lifetime. Charing Cross, near which Jonson lived as a boy, is visible near the bend of the river on the Strand, the major arterial road linking the two cities. The principal buildings of Westminster are shown at the extreme left of the picture. SCOTLAND 1618–1619 London remaining tracts of open land were
dubious types. Nominally under the jurisdiction of the justices of Surrey, the Bankside was in fact controlled by the Bishop of Winchester, who in the twelfth century had been granted one of the three manors that made up the borough. This was London’s red-light district, home to the many prostitutes familiarly known as ‘the Bishop’s geese’—‘Bred on the Bank in time of popery, j When Venus there maintained the mystery’, as Jonson wryly put it in a later poem (The Underwood, 43.142–4). It was also
signiﬁcant that in Jonson’s later co-authored 116 ENTERING THE THEATRE 1594–1597 comedy Eastward Ho! the play’s most daring satirical scene is also set, in what looks like a deliberately provocative allusion to the earlier play, on this same stretch of land, which the bedraggled knight Sir Petronel Flash, clambering ashore after suffering shipwreck in the Thames, at ﬁrst imagines is the coast of France. It is here, on ‘the coast of Dogs’, facing the royal palace, that the play’s most
was a fashionable meeting place in Jonson’s day, and the setting for a central scene in Every Man Out of his Humour (3.1), performed at the Globe theatre in 1599. John Earle in his Microcosmography (1628) was punningly to describe it as ‘the land’s epitome, or as you may call it, the lesser Isle of Great Britain. It is more than this, the whole world’s map, which you may here discern in its perfectest motion, jostling and turning . . . The noise in it is like that of bees, a strange humming or
THE WOLF’S BLACK JAW 1601–1603 might ask them again without their trouble: she might take them from them, not pull them; to keep always a distance between her and themselves.4 Distance was a quality that Jonson seems particularly to have valued also at this earlier moment of his career: distance not merely from the vagaries of fortune, but from the court, from his friends, and from the turmoil of domestic life. The portrait of himself that Jonson presents in the Apologetical Dialogue is that