Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

Excerpt

BEN JONSON suffered the worst fate that can overtake a creative writer. Himself a man of great talent or minor genius--his real place is on the frontier where the terms become virtually indistinguishable--he had the misfortune to live and work at the same time and in the same field as a genius acknowledged by the world as supreme--William Shakespeare. However devotedly his admirers have laboured to rescue him from this position, their efforts have never succeeded in saving him from being overcast by that mighty shadow. For a time, in the seventeenth century, he was considered Shakespeare's equal-- even, by some, his superior--but from the time of Dryden onwards his reputation has become more and more eclipsed. It must seem very unjust and unfair to his ghost, and also very irritating. Not that he did not admire Shakespeare: although he occasionally made fun of him, Jonson wrote about Shakespeare more warmly than he wrote about any other contemporary writer. Yet his love for Shakespeare was, as he said himself, 'this side idolatry'. He thought that Shakespeare had many faults and made many mistakes; above all, he thought that Shakespeare 'wanted Arte'. In Jonson's eyes, that is, Shakespeare had not reflected deeply enough on the nature and purpose of drama, nor taken sufficient care to observe its laws. To find himself ranked below a writer seemingly so careless and un-serious would have been a very bitter pill to swallow. Yet however hard we try to avoid it, we almost automatically find ourselves comparing the two, and Jonson nearly always comes off the worse.

In some respects the comparison is illuminating. Their social origins were not dissimilar: Shakespeare's father was . . .

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