Ben Jonson: A Life


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780198129769
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/13/2012
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.76 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Donaldson is Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has written many books on Jonson and is a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of the forthcoming seven-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. An eminent scholar, Donaldson is a Fellow of the British Academy and past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Note on texts and dating
1. Prologue: The Biographer's Bones
2. Scotland 1618-1619
3. Debatable Land 1542-1572
4. Influences 1572-1588
5. Conflicts 1588-1592
6. Entering the Theatre 1594-1597
7. Saved by the Book 1597-1598
8. Global Satire 1598-1601
9. The Wolf's Black Jaw 1601-1603
10. Scots, Plots, and Panegyrics 1603-1605
11. Following the Plot 1606-7
12. Communities 1607-1612
13. City, Theatre, Court 1610-1612
14. Travels 1611-1613
15. Fame 1613-1616
16. Money 1614-1617
17. Scholarship 1619-1630
18. Lateness 1619-1637
19. Remembrance with Posterity

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