The Tribe of Ben

Blair Worden

  • Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson
    Oxford, 533 pp, £25.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 812976 9
  • The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson edited by David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson
    Cambridge, 5224 pp, £650.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 521 78246 3

Seventeenth-century critics thought Ben Jonson England’s finest writer. Even until the mid-18th century he was conventionally regarded as at least Shakespeare’s equal. It was he more than anyone who won a new status for authorship, to befit the moral and educative role he claimed for it. Under James I the former bricklayer and soldier and brawler and convict, the one-time mediocre actor and hack adapter of other people’s plays, became the royal laureate, the friend of courtiers, diplomats and MPs, the honorand of universities. He was Britain’s first literary celebrity, at least to judge by the throng that hailed him outside Berwick as he journeyed to Scotland on foot in 1618 – though he went not for charity, as he might today, but (it seems) for a bet.

His early reputation is now a surprise. His poems, though frequently studied in universities, are less often read outside them. They are rarely loved as much as Shakespeare’s sonnets or the verse of Jonson’s friend John Donne. His plays are a different matter. Among his contemporaries no dramatist other than Shakespeare has overtaken him. The depictions in his comedies of social and economic fantasy, and of their exploitation, have never seemed more pertinent than amid our financial convulsions. Where would a character called Madoff have been more at home? Nonetheless, Shakespeare, the rival of whom Jonson wrote with magnanimous prescience that he was not of an age but for all time, has left him far behind. Only a few of Jonson’s plays, Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair and perhaps Epicene, are performed with any frequency. The impulse to rescue him from undervaluation runs beneath these new publications. The almost simultaneous appearance of a major biography and a major edition is no accident, for the writing of Ian Donaldson’s Life became entwined with the seven-volume collection of Jonson’s writings, of which Donaldson has been one of the triumvirate of general editors. Frequently, the two enterprises echo each other’s claims.

The attitude that does most to bind them is a suspicion of what both of them call Jonson’s ‘idealised’ image of himself. How many poets name themselves so often or write so many verses to or about themselves? He wishes to be seen as the embodiment of, and as the forthright spokesman for, an unchanging set of elevated principles. Donaldson warns us against taking his ‘tactical declarations of personal constancy and imperturbability’ at face value. We should attend to the ‘shifts, transformations, experiments, back-trackings and inconsistencies’ detectable in ‘the serpentine progress of his professional career’. If that premise deserves credit for the stringency of Donaldson’s questioning of the biographical material it has more than earned its keep. There has been no more authoritative or assured biography of a Renaissance writer, and none that has more successfully brought historical and literary insights together. If Donaldson’s self-effacing prose (so un-Jonsonian a quality) and the quietness of his reasoning may occasionally obscure the novelty and penetration of his narrative, there is no missing the surges of power when he tackles hitherto unyielding biographical mysteries. The reasons for Jonson’s journey to Scotland are one such high point, his appearance before James I when his friend the historian John Selden was in trouble another.

Most searching of all is the account of Jonson’s relations with his fellow Catholics before and during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605; of the troubles with authority that arose from them; and of their bearing on his writing. Here as elsewhere a familiar but hazy landscape is clarified and in the process transformed. Until now no one has adequately confronted two terrifying moments in Jonson’s life. First, why did the satire of James I’s Scottish favourites in the play Eastward Ho! a few months before the plot provoke such a fierce reaction, and why was he imprisoned and threatened with physical mutilation? Second, when and why was he charged, apparently before the Privy Council, with ‘popery and treason’? Though no proof is possible, Donaldson finds in Jonson’s Catholicism, and in the suspicions it provoked, a thread which alone gives consistency to the evidence.

Modern literary criticism has been slower to recognise the religious preoccupations of Renaissance writers than their political ones. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, during an earlier imprisonment. He detested the methods of interrogation and surveillance that were practised against his new co-religionists. He supped with conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot only weeks before the attempted coup. It is unlikely that he gave encouragement to the plotters. As far as we know, he always sided with the party among the Catholics which renounced sedition. Yet the tensions between loyalty to king and country on one hand and his Catholic faith and friendships on the other took acute practical forms at a time of grave national emergency. The discovery of the plot was a turning point in his life and in his art. He quickly distanced himself from the conspiracy, helped the government try to penetrate it, and began attending Anglican services. Donaldson notes that in the years after the plot the terms ‘patriot’, ‘public good’, ‘common good’ and ‘commonwealth’ appear with growing frequency in his writings. Any true religion, he insisted, would complement and sustain those secular ideals. He injected the theme into the Roman tragedy Catiline His Conspiracy, which was written in 1611, the year after his final renunciation of Catholicism, and in which ‘the public good’ is served by those who grasp that ‘no religion binds men to be traitors.’

Donaldson superannuates simple dichotomies which have represented Jonson as a friend or critic of the establishment, or as an unqualified and consistent advocate or adversary of any particular political programme. Like many people he took now one point of view and then another, and looked now to one ally or patron and then another. He groped his way through the great debates over parliamentary authority and Jacobean foreign policy and, late in his life, through the crises of political and religious authority under Charles I, a period which Donaldson and the edition portray as one of neglected literary achievement on Jonson’s part.

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[*] The same gift animates Victoria Moul’s book Jonson, Horace and the Classical Tradition (Cambridge, 258 pp., £58, April 2010, 978 0 521 11742 5).