Man of Many Parts

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

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Man of Many Parts


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.