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  • Irascible Ben
  • William E. Engel (bio)
Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson (Oxford University Press, 2012. xxii + 534 pages. Illustrated. $39.95)

Jonson's most memorable phrases live on (not without a certain dramatic irony) in connection with his rival and friend whom he loved "this side of idolatry"—William Shakespeare, the "sweet swan of Avon" and "soul of an age." In much of Ian Donaldson's absorbing and meticulously researched biography the author is at pains to redeem Jonson's reputation as "the greatest literary figure that England had ever seen" and "Britain's first literary celebrity." He never misses an opportunity to point out how Jonson wrongly has [End Page xxiii] been eclipsed by Shakespeare, with statements such as "Jonson's own social ascent was to prove even more spectacular than Shakespeare's, starting as it did from a position of such seemingly impossible disadvantage, moving swiftly to the highest levels of acceptance, recovering so acrobatically from seemingly fatal falls."

It may well be, as Donaldson claims, that the advent of the Stuart dynasty marked for Jonson a potential new beginning both for the nation and for himself. He was the first poet laureate of England, in fact if not in title, when he received a royal pension of ten marks for his services at court. Part of the reason why Jonson has not been put above Shakespeare, it would seem, is due to the vagaries of fortune, most notably the fire in his house that destroyed many yet unpublished manuscripts of great literary merit—at least according to the list of projects outlined in his long poem that comically if ruefully laments the event, "An Execration upon Vulcan."

One of the most compelling aspects of this magisterial treatment of Jonson's life is the new evidence that has turned up since Marchette Chute's popular biography of the 1960s and David Riggs's more scholarly Life in the late 1980s. Donaldson makes good use of recently discovered documents, most notably the record of a hitherto unknown traveling companion who walked with Jonson on his famous trek from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. As with so many things about Jonson's life, even this journal has a story to tell; and it affirms and fleshes out more fully the stereotypical view of Jonson as a tough customer. The companion turns out to have been a young gentleman sent along by interested parties to verify the terms of a formal and publically known wager that Jonson's journey be completed entirely on foot. Here we find swaggering Ben being taken to task to make good on his boast—and he did so with aplomb. Along the way he was hosted by some of the most eminent families in the realm, with advance-runners announcing his approach as town officials gathered to greet and fête the bold and brash literary celebrity returning to his ancestral homeland.

The erudition displayed in the book and the careful analysis of a wide range of documentary evidence end up reinforcing the well-known picture of Jonson as a robust man—sturdy of girth, hard drinking, and quarrelsome. Donaldson presents an array of facts to back up his conclusion that Jonson was "a naturally pugnacious man" for whom fighting was "a habitual response" that governed much of his behavior throughout his life. He fought as a mercenary in the Low Countries; killed a man in single combat to decide a skirmish; read his Latin psalm "neck verse" to avoid being hanged for having killed a fellow actor in a duel; was arraigned for sedition for his part in a now lost play, The Isle of Dogs, and seems not to have learned his lesson because several years later he was arrested for satirizing the Scots in Eastward Ho!; was connected intimately with members of the Essex Rebellion; broke bread with key conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot in early November 1605; and was involved with both sides of the famous trial of Frances Howard and her lover, Thomas Carr, [End Page xxiv] for poisoning Thomas Overbury (Jonson had written the wedding masque, Hymenaei, for Howard's unconsummated marriage to Robert Devereux...


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