Magazine article New Criterion

Jonson for All Time

Magazine article New Criterion

Jonson for All Time

Article excerpt

Reviewing Ian Donaldson's life of Ben Jonson in The New Criterion of April 2012, I noted that a new edition of Jonson's complete works was forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. (1) Now it has appeared, in seven fat volumes with a separate electronic version, overseen by three general editors including Donaldson--who provides a skillfully condensed version of his biography in Volume 1--with a team of distinguished editors for individual works, and it is a magnificent achievement. In recent years we have had notable editions of individual plays, but this is the first modern attempt to present the canon as a whole, including entertainments, masques, letters, and poems and prose writings as well. It replaces the hitherto standard multi-volume edition by C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (hereafter H&S), published between 1925 and 1952, and overturns many of their conclusions. To mention only the most radical example, A Tale of a Tub, which H&S judged to be Jonson's first play, written in collaboration in the 1590s, is now assigned to him alone and dated to 1634, making it his last completed play. Jonson was a habitual reviser of his own work, and H&S consistently took the 1616 Folio as their copy-text, respecting his final thoughts; the Cambridge editors often follow the Quartos in their wish to present the plays as closely as possible in the form in which they were originally staged or published. The print edition presents the works chronologically, in modern spelling, with introductions and copious annotation. Its production values are impeccable, and it is a pleasure to handle and to read. The electronic edition adds an old-spelling text, transcripts of all the Jonson life-records, supplementary essays on textual and other matters, digital images of key manuscripts, editions of all the musical items, and a fully searchable database. Anything anyone wants to know about Jonson is now obtainable at the click of a mouse--with, of course, a subscription. The only serious criticism to be made of the project is that it is plainly aimed at academic institutions; its cost puts it beyond the reach of individual purchasers. I hope Cambridge will consider issuing the plays, at least, in single-volume editions at a more reasonable price.

Before looking in detail at some of the plays, I will mention other items briefly. About the letters it seems sufficient to note that they all exhibit Jonson's sense of the tone and style appropriate to the recipient and the occasion. It is no derogation of the editors to say that the masques are never going to achieve their full effect in a reading text alone, even one supplied, as these are, with a full description of the scenery and dances and a series of explanatory footnotes by the author. The money lavished on them was astonishing--budgets were normally around 2,000 [pounds sterling] for a one-off performance, which equates to over $300,000 at today's prices. Jonson valued them as highly as his plays and was furious when the spectacle was praised, rather than the poetry; his increasingly acrimonious relationship with the stage designer Inigo Jones, whom he considered a mere mechanic, is well known. In the preface to Hymenaei, staged in 1606 for the marriage of Lady Frances Howard and the Earl of Essex, Jonson set out his theory of the masque, contrasting the evanescent sensuous appeal of the performance with the permanent value of the matrix of ideas underlying the text, "grounded upon antiquity and solid learning." To critics who objected that he was endowing trivia with too much importance, he retorted that those who could not digest the nutritious food he was offering could go home and eat a salad. Hymenaei, edited by David Lindley, is a fourfold hymn to Union: between the sexes in marriage, among the constituent parts of the social hierarchy, among the planets of the solar system, and between Scotland and England as embodied in the King of Great Britain, a title James first used in 1604. …

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