Ben Jonson: a Life

Ben Jonson: a Life
Ian Donaldson
Oxford University Press, 560pp, £25

At the same time as Oxford University Press is publishing this large and handsome biography of the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, Cambridge University Press is poised to issue his complete works in seven serious, scholarly volumes. The combination is inviting, and so, in preparing for this review, I requested advance copies of each. Oxford promptly sent a copy but Cambridge declined, on the grounds that its edition was very expensive and it was sending advance copies to specialist academic journals only.

The gesture is curious, because surely the simultaneous publishing venture is making a claim about status: that Jonson was, as Ian Donaldson writes, "the greatest literary figure that England had ever seen". Implicit in the edition and in the biography is the suggestion that he has wrongly faded from pre-eminence. This is the contradiction - here is Jonson, in all his glory, for the world to see and enjoy; yet, n the other hand, there is the indication that he is too expensive to belong anywhere but on a university library shelf. It is peculiarly fitting, however, because Jonson was deeply ambivalent about publication and the reception of his literary efforts.

He achieved great fame as a playwright but dismissed what he called the "loathed stage"; he seems to have coined the word "playwright", and it indicates his own conception of the job: akin to a wheelwright, one who makes wheels. He wrote fast and for money, and considered it to be almost manual labour. Yet, in 1616, he issued a grand folio of his own writings. Called Workes, it prompted some mild teasing from his contemporaries. As Donaldson writes: "In his determination to seek early publication for so many of his plays and other writings, Jonson differed from most of his theatrical and literary contemporaries." But even after the publication of the 1616 folio "he continued - like many of his aristocratic and gentlemanly contemporaries - to circulate his poems in manuscript".

Jonson was a divided and troubled figure. In contrast to Shakespeare, whose biography suggests a cautious, law-abiding person, there is
a roughness to Jonson's life that is constantly engaging. He was a big man - nearly 20 stone when he was in his mid-forties - and was descended from a family of feuding marauders in the Scottish borders. His father had died by the time he was born, and his mother remarried a successful bricklayer. He grew up in the centre of London in an area Donaldson describes as a "maze of alleys and courtyards", which have since been cleared to make way for Trafalgar Square. He went to Westminster School, where the classes were in Latin and the school day ran from 6am prayers to the end of lessons at six in the evening, and he seems to have started, but never completed, a course of study at St John's College, Cambridge.

It was a tense, divided world, and Jonson's life mirrors the tensions of his times. He was recruited into the army in 1591 and fought in the Netherlands, where he killed an enemy soldier in single combat. In 1597, he collaborated on a notorious and now lost play called The Isle of Dogs, for which he was arrested. The following year he killed an actor in a duel. He was put on trial but managed to escape execution by displaying his knowledge of Latin. While in jail, he converted to Catholicism, but returned to the Church of England in 1610.

The life tumbles on, in swerves and leaps, a race through contradictions. His plays are marked by what Donaldson calls a "curious blend of high idealisation and satirical gloom", and they are weirdly divided works, startling even now. Volpone, which was first performed in March 1606 at the Globe by Shakespeare's own company of players, the King's Men, celebrates a ruthless and charismatic conman, irresistible and quick, and ends with his equally ruthless punishment. The plots of his plays are brilliant and baffling. In Epicœne (1609), a man called Morose longs for silence yet chooses to live on a noisy street in central London. He is tormented by his nephew and finally marries a silent woman, but she turns out to be both an unstoppable talker and a boy dressed in drag.

It is hard to escape the impression, reading Donaldson's absorbing biography, that a single life was not quite enough for Jonson, that these paradoxes are perhaps the product of the strain of trying to occupy too many positions. Even though Jonson knew the Gunpowder plotters who attempted to blow up King James in November 1605, he was also a particular favourite of the king. At Christmas 1604, he was invited to write a masque for the royal entertainments at court. Masques are a strange theatrical form, now entirely out of fashion; they are designed for a single performance, at great cost, and most of them are richly symbolic and directly referential. Jonson continued to write royal entertainments for the next two decades.

In 1615, he was granted a royal pension, and this is why he is often (mistakenly) described as the first poet laureate. In 1628 he suffered a severe stroke but continued to write: he finished his last play when he was 60. When he died in 1637, there was a huge funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was buried - in keeping with his own request - standing upright. "The use of things is all, and not the store," says one of the characters at the close of Jonson's late play The Staple of News, and surely this was a sentiment shared by the playwright. As all this suggests, he couldn't have been more different from his contemporary Shakespeare. Biographies of the Bard tend towards the speculative and the sentimental, partly because he seems to have left only the faintest traces of his presence, and partly because he is so endlessly adored. In contrast to Shakespeare's elegant vacancy, Jonson appears to have been dazzlingly present in his age as well as in his writing. Reading Jonson is an oddly personal experience; he insists that we must come to know him. As Donaldson notes,

Jonson "writes verses constantly to and about himself", and we only know the date of his birthday because he mentions it in a poem ("Upon my birthday, the eleventh of June . . ."). He was funny. His opinions were recorded ("That Shakespeare wanted art"). Perhaps because Jonson is so big, there is little room for anyone else. Donaldson scarcely mentions the playwright's wife, Anne Lewis. She gets one entry in the index, and their children - at least two of whom, perhaps three, died at a young age - are skimmed over.

This biography is undeniably a remarkable achievement, for its depth and for the confident subtlety of its readings. Donaldson appears to know everything about the man. But the question remains: does Jonson last? Should we pay ttention - this much attention - to him? Do we need him?
The answer is yes. Jonson's plays are, or should be, works for our age, an age of credulity, financial trickery and artifice. Shakespeare's plays dream of a world of reason; Jonson's don't. Where Shakespeare's comedies are really romances - all those young lovers running off to the woods, all those islands and coasts and faraway worlds - Jonson's are satires. In The Alchemist (1610), one character, Sir Epicure Mammon, fantasises about endless consumption, sickening and excessive:

. . . I myself will have
The beards of barbels serv'd
instead of salads;
Oiled mushrooms; and the swelling
unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite and
poignant sauce . . .

Jonson's plays look, unblinking, at the world in which he lived, which happens to be the world in which we live: one of rampant capit­alism and unfairness. He was violently and beautifully of the world. When he was in his twenties, his first son - also called Benjamin - died, and Jonson wrote about it, just as he wrote about so much else.

Farewell, thou child of my right
hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee . . .

the poem begins, almost overwhelming in its simplicity, expressing a perfect tenderness towards this child who "so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage". What makes it heartbreaking is both the death of the child and the sense of Jonson, left behind, in the world.

Daniel Swift's "Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two" is published by Penguin (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood