Ben Jonson: A Life

Ben Jonson: A Life

by Ian Donaldson

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Ben Jonson was the greatest of Shakespeare's contemporaries. In the century following his death he was seen by many as the finest of all English writers, living or dead. His fame rested not only on the numerous plays he had written for the theatre, but on his achievements over three decades as principal masque-writer to the early Stuart court, where he had worked in


Ben Jonson was the greatest of Shakespeare's contemporaries. In the century following his death he was seen by many as the finest of all English writers, living or dead. His fame rested not only on the numerous plays he had written for the theatre, but on his achievements over three decades as principal masque-writer to the early Stuart court, where he had worked in creative, and often stormy, collaboration with Inigo Jones. One of the most accomplished poets of the age, he had become - in fact if not in title - the first Poet Laureate in England. Jonson's life was full of drama. Serving in the Low Countries as a young man, he overcame a Spanish adversary in single combat in full view of both the armies. His early satirical play, The Isle of Dogs, landed him in prison, and brought all theatrical activity in London to a temporary — and very nearly to a 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. In his middle years, twenty stone in weight, he walked to Scotland and back, seemingly partly to fulfil a wager, and partly to see the land of his forebears. He travelled in Europe as tutor to the mischievous son of Sir Walter Ralegh, who 'caused him to be drunken and dead drunk' and wheeled provocatively through the streets of Paris. During his later years he presided over a sociable club in the Apollo Room in Fleet Street, mixed with the most learned scholars of his day, and viewed with keen interest the political, religious, and scientific controversies of the day. 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. Jonson emerges from this study as a more complex and volatile character than his own self-declarations (and much modern scholarship) would allow, and as a writer whose work strikingly foresees - and at times pre-emptively satirizes - the modern age.

Editorial Reviews

Charles Isherwood
…deeply researched but happily readable…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.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"A deeply researched but happily readable new biography of Jonson" —The New York Times Book Review

"A fascinating portrait... Brilliant biography." —Daily Telegraph

"An authoritative and lucid biography." —Sunday Telegraph

"Definitive biography of this quarrelsome playwright." —Sunday Times

"The biographical material on Jonson is extraordinarily rich... Donaldson's fine book is stocked with new material." —The Guardian

"A work of clarity and lucidity, exact in its historical detail, full of new material and ingeniously suggestive in its conjecture and interpretation." —Sam Leith, Spectator

"An absorbing biography" —New Statesman

"This is a measured, comprehensive book written with style, sympathy for his subject, and scholarly balance. Other good Jonson bios are out there...but for sheer reach, grasp, and panache, there may never be a better one than this." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Donaldson's biography is well-paced, readable, and authoritative." —lThe New Criterion

"His deep involvement with Jonson scholarship and criticism ... is apparent on every page of his authoritative, elegantly written, and illuminatingly illustrated biography." —Stanley Wells, The New York Review of Books

"This volume embeds Jonson intimately in the social, political, and literary crosscurrents of Jacobean London. ... An indispensable research aid. Highly recommended." —Choice

"Provides an incisive summary of contemporary research on Jonson's life and works." —Renaissance Quarterly

"Wherever he may be in his after-life, Ben Jonson must be purring with delight at this latest, most magisterial biography of his. Than this Life, nothing more detailed, more elaborate, more painstakingly researched can be conceived. Through all the recorded details, many of them left to posterity by the subject himself, the author has so well succeeded - as no author of Shakespeare's life has ever succeeded - in entering into the mind of his poet, in agreeing with him at almost every point, even (it might seem) in sharing with him what he calls 'his spiritual shuttling between the English and the Roman religions' (p. 57), as to form almost one entity." —The Heythrop Journal

Library Journal
With the exception of Shakespeare, his older contemporary, Ben Jonson is the greatest playwright of the British Renaissance, with achievements across tragedy, satire, comedy—where arguably he exceeds Shakespeare—and court masques. He also excelled as a poet. Donaldson (honorary professorial fellow, Sch. of Culture & Communication, Univ. of Melbourne, Australia) is one of the general editors of the forthcoming Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (Feb. 2012). He brings to this critical biography a thorough knowledge of Jonson's works and the most up-to-date scholarly and textual research. Though starting with Jonson's vertical burial and the fate of his bones, Donaldson's approach is roughly chronological, dividing Jonson's life into four- to eight-year segments, presenting a good balance between his discussion of specific works and their biographical contexts. VERDICT Aimed primarily at academics, the book's prose style is a bit dry but accessible to the interested general reader. There have been four other biographical studies of Jonson in the last 50 years, the most recent being W. David Kay's Ben Jonson: A Literary Life (1995), now out of print. This new study is essential for academic collections and for readers wishing to seriously extend beyond Shakespeare their knowledge of this literary era.—T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah

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Meet the Author

Ian Donaldson is a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (Print Edition, 7 volumes, 2011; Electronic Edition, 2012). His previous OUP books include The World Upside-Down: Comedy From Jonson to Fielding (1970), Ben Jonson: Selected Works (Oxford Authors, 1985), Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation (OUP, 1997). He has taught at the Universities of Oxford (tutorial Fellow in English at Wadham College, 1962-9), Edinburgh (Regius Professor of English, 1991-5), and Cambridge (Fellow of King's College, 1995-2005, and Grace 1 Professor of English, 1995-2001), and at the Australian National University, Canberra (Professor of English, 1969-91). He was founding Director of the ANU's Humanities Research Centre (1974-90, 2004-7) and of Cambridge University's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH, 2001-3).

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