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Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 233-235 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0008

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To write a thorough biography of Ben Jonson requires a detailed history of the whole period from his birth in 1572 to beyond his death in 1637. This is because the poor bricklayer’s stepson who wrote plays, spent time in Marshalsea for debt, and was branded as a felon for murdering a fellow playwright (Gabriel Spencer), steadily gained access to some of the highest in the land, including three monarchs, their most senior courtiers, including even those in conflict with each other like Essex and the Cecils, Raleigh (whose mischievous son played a dangerous practical joke on Jonson in Italy), most of the Sidney family, and the most famous scholars of the day.

It is quite remarkable that time and again Jonson’s bulky presence turns up in the most controversial political contexts, including the rebellious plots by Essex, and Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. His apparent upward mobility did not ever give him full social respectability let alone a station in life above that of a professional writer for the stage, and it certainly did not lead to riches or even financial security. Yet it meant that he was inescapably influential, sometimes in central ways and sometimes marginal, in political statecraft. To this extent, it is impossible to trace Jonson’s own affairs without also understanding and explaining the affairs of state around him, and the various contexts of social stratification which in his unlikely way he managed to manoeuvre through. A good deal of detective work is required by the biographer since the Jacobean state increasingly intimidated its citizens with a surveillance that forced them to ‘maintain silence or communicate in whispers, equivocations, or code’ (p. 192).

Doctrines and machinations in religion too, as Jonson’s conversion to Roman Catholicism was probably aided by his friend Father Wright (author of The Passions of the Mind in General) who risked prosecution for treason for doing so. There is also Jonson’s professional milieu of ‘the small but intensely competitive arena of late Elizabethan theatre’ (p. 159) to explain, and Ian Donaldson gradually unfolds an unobtrusive but meticulously detailed history of the Elizabethan theatre from its earliest times in the 1570s through to the era of the Jacobean masque in which Jonson had such a complicated relationship with Inigo Jones. Collaborations and enmities among writers, actors, and men of the theatre form a conspicuous part of the book and there are often colourful appearances by figures such as Kyd, Drayton, and of course the elusive Shakespeare. A close study of the controversies surrounding the lost play, The Isle of Dogs, exemplifies all the personal intricacies and political dangers which were part of Jonson’s daily experience. The story stretches from London up to Scotland, which was where Jonson’s heritage lay and his friend Drummond of Hawthornden lived, the destination on his famous northern walk.

There is more than a touch of Sir John Falstaff who, although a fiction, is a similarly self-mythologizing figure living from hand to mouth, frequenting the tavern, and often just shy of the law, yet consorting with the future king and his entourage. Certainly Donaldson makes no attempt to whitewash his subject who emerges as periodically splenetic, violent, often drunk, congenitally vain, and in later life so fat he could barely move from his lodgings; yet one who also managed to write some of the greatest stage comedies and lofty classical tragedies we have.

If I have a reservation it is probably forgivable in the light of the riches Donaldson offers. His subject’s tumultuous life leaves the writer little time to explore the plays in any depth, though what he provides are elegantly clear, concise, and suggestive interpretations of very complicated plays. What tacitly emerges is the plays’ contemporaneity in both time zones. Not only are they rooted in London society of Jonson’s time, but they also shrewdly foresee contentious aspects of our own world: the contradictions in capitalism, advertising, radical changes in the book trade and media of entertainment and information, including the timely subject of corruption of the press. It becomes completely understandable why Jonson would be critical of...

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