Illuminating the life & work of a gifted & provocative playwright

He supped with the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, was almost hanged after killing a fellow actor in a sword fight, and wrote a satirical play that led to the closure of London’s theatres for months, but you may have never heard of him. Thanks to extensive research and new editions, the striking and bold theatrical works of Ben Jonson, can now retake their place next to Shakespeare’s.

Frontispiece of the works of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson was, by any measure, a colourful and volatile character. He was also one of the most celebrated poets and dramatists of his age, surpassed in talent only by Shakespeare, his contemporary. His eventful life was charted in unprecedented detail, and with piercing insight, in a biography by Australia’s Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life (2011).

One of the world’s most distinguished Jonson scholars, Donaldson also co-edited (with David Bevington and Martin Butler) a seven-volume edition of his complete writings, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, published in 2012.

A monumental feat of scholarship, it was accompanied by a digital version which contains hundreds of images and documents, including letters to Jonson, as well as eighty essays and an interactive chronology of his life and work.

Ben Jonson: Elizabethan bad boy

Jonson’s career spanned the late Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, England’s richest theatrical period. He wrote not only classic plays such as Volpone and The Alchemist, but also numerous “masques” – dramatic entertainments involving song and dance – for the Protestant court of James I. He was, in effect, England’s first poet laureate.

Yet he was constantly in trouble with civil and religious authorities, with much of his work denounced as seditious or slanderous. One of his first dramas, a satire titled The Isle of Dogs, saw him and two fellow actors imprisoned, and a threat by the Privy Council – fortunately not carried out – to shut down London theatres permanently.

A year later, Jonson was back in jail after that fatal duel, but managed to escape the gallows. His satire Eastward Ho! then landed him in prison yet again – and yet again he succeeded in fighting the charges.

Newly free, he attended a supper party at a London pub, The Irish Boy, on the eve of the 1605 plot to blow up Parliament and kill King James. His companions were the Catholic ringleaders of the ultimately abortive plot.

Hot-headed and quarrelsome, Jonson could be, even his friends noted, vain, egotistical, a bully and a drunkard.

But he was a brilliant writer whose work – which fell out of favour for a century or more following his death – has been increasingly recognised in recent times for its boldness, range and modernity.

Donaldson’s biography – the culmination of a lifetime’s work which consolidated his reputation as an international authority in early modern English literary studies – was praised as “definitive” and the first to do justice to the complexity of Jonson’s life.

Locating Jonson within the social, political and literary contexts of Jacobean London, it draws on newly discovered material including the journal of a young man who accompanied him on a walk from London to Edinburgh in 1618.

Not for an age, but for all time

The new edition of Jonson’s works, the result of an international collaboration between thirty scholars, was praised as “the best edition of a Renaissance dramatist in our time”. It presents his writings chronologically, edited in modern spelling.

The expansive digital version includes old-spelling transcriptions of early texts, introductions and commentary, a calendar chronicling all performances of the plays and their adaptations, and an archive of associated songs and dances. The print and digital editions are path-breaking in their combination of scholarly excellence and digital accessibility. Donaldson’s life of commitment to the study of Jonson is a prime example of Australians taking a leading role in research at an international level. As an editor Donaldson adds to a strong and continuing Australian tradition of scholarly editions of international significance. As a supervisor of research students and as a mentor of younger researchers he has had a profound influence on research overseas and in Australia. His legacy lives on both in his own writing and in the work of scholars he has influenced.

Jonson’s work foresaw the modern age, and his plays continue to engage new audiences with their striking topicality. His self-promotion as a writer and public figure, unusual for the time, also foreshadowed the role of the modern celebrity author.

He wrote of Shakespeare, his contemporary, that he was “not of an age, but for all time!” – a compliment that could equally be applied to Jonson himself.

Further reading & resources

Discovering Humanities series

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