Academic journal article Early Theatre

Situating Ben Jonson: The Cambridge Edition of the Works

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Situating Ben Jonson: The Cambridge Edition of the Works

Article excerpt

In July 2013, Ben Jonson set off on a walk from London to Scotland. Several media and heritage outlets trailed this journey extensively in advance, including the Twitter account 'Ben Jonson Walking' (@BenJonsonsWalk):

   #BenJonson is on a short break before he sets off on his epic walk
   next Monday, with a last minute dash to the Bodleian for some extra
   info. (1 July 2013, 5:08am) (1)

Over the following days, the account and an accompanying blog continued to post excerpts from the recently discovered manuscript written by Jonson's companion on his walk of 1618. (2) Edited to meet Twitter's 140-character limit, and including links and hashtags for navigation, @BenJonsonsWalk offered a fascinating, bite-size overview of the journey:

   'Three Minstrels thrust themselves on us asking if we would hear a
   merry song, the life & death of my Lord of Essex' #Hoddesdon
   #BenJonson (10 July 2013, 12:02am)

   'This forenoon it thundered & rained which stopped us setting
   forwards till the evening' #BenJonson #englishweather (10 July 2013, 4:03am)

Occurring in real time, this electronically disseminated report of the walk, belated by 400 years, situated Jonson in a temporal and geographic space that turned an anecdote into a labour-intensive and richly detailed experience. The project moved beyond simple dissemination, however, as the Twitter account began to interact with its twenty-first century audience. @BenJonsonsWalk 'followed' other Twitter users, engaging in discussion and debate, seamlessly conflating the 1618 walk and the 2013 public sphere. Meanwhile, 'William Shakespeare' (@Shakespeare) commented somewhat wryly:

   Ben Jonson is walking to Scotland. Londoners can relax.
   @BenJonsonsWalk ...
   (9 July 2013, 9:11am)

The jocular tension between the avatars of Jonson and the more established Shakespeare serves as a pleasant synecdoche of a critical tradition that binds the two authors together while insisting on their fundamental differences. For some this choice reads the two authors as 'exemplifying nature and art, usually to Jonson's disadvantage', as Warren Chernaik's recent essay argues. (3) For others, Jonson's own description of Shakespeare as being 'not of an age, but for all time' best distinguishes them, with Jonson himself coming to stand for the age while Shakespeare transcends his period. (4) In both cases, the historical forces that have led to Shakespeare's cultural dominance over Jonson present a Jonson prejudged according to Shakespearean terms. (5)

The Twitter project may only be one facet of a much more comprehensive scholarly edition, but the relative anomaly of a Jonsonian project making confident steps in a medium awash with Shakespearean organizations, parodies, fan communities, and experiments is telling. Since the standard was established by the multi-volume, original-spelling Herford, Simpson, and Simpson Oxford edition of 1925-52, Jonson has continued to occupy a formidable, prestigious place in university libraries at the expense of greater cultural recognition (with the exception of a few key plays revived in theatres and reprinted in affordable single editions). (6) For Ben Jonson's twenty-first century editor(s), the challenges are thus: How best to represent an author defined by his own moment rather than his transcendence? How best to balance the implicit desire to render Jonson accessible to students and newcomers while also consolidating a voluminous canon spanning several genres? How best to mediate between the author's supposed anti-theatricality and the partially preserved but inherently performative traces of his masques and plays? And how best to capture the multiple performative, manuscript, and textual manifestations of his works, which exemplify at once both an unprecedented level of authorial control over presentation and the proliferation of multiple, contradictory versions of the same texts? …

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