Man of Many Parts

By Swift, Daniel | New Statesman (1996), November 28, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Man of Many Parts

Swift, Daniel, New Statesman (1996)

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, on 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 Epicoene (1609), a man called Morose longs for silence yet chooses to live on a noisy street in central London.

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