Ben Jonson, Revisited. (Review Essay)

By Brady, Jennifer | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Ben Jonson, Revisited. (Review Essay)

Brady, Jennifer, Renaissance Quarterly


The renaissance in Ben Jonson studies has been the reassessment of his late work sparked by Anne Barton's Ben Jonson, Dramatist, published in 1984. There has been comparatively little genuinely new work on Jonson's middle plays and some growing interest, but not enough, in his early satires. While several of the books published on Jonson in 1999 and 2000 emphasize in their titles that a profound redefinition of Jonson is underway and while Herford and the Simpsons' great Oxford edition of Jonson's works is under fire from some quarters, much of the work under review here consolidates, extends, and subtly qualifies the contributions of earlier scholars in the field, rather than radically challenging their findings. A new complete edition of Jonson's work is on the horizon from Cambridge University, new Revels Plays editions of Jonson's plays continue to be published, and productions of plays once thought impossible to stage -- The New Inn, The Devil Is An Ass -- at the Swan Theatre in Stratford are establishin g for the first time the theatrical viability of these marginalized works. If there is any other marked trend in this sample of Jonson books, it is the move towards publishing collections of essays organized around large overarching topics. Martin Butler's collection, Re-Presenting Ben Jonson: Text, History, Performance, argues the need for a reconceptualized approach to editing Jonson, and Richard Cave, Elizabeth Schafer, and Brian Woolland's Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory, illuminates contemporary approaches to performing both familiar and little-known Jonson plays. Two other books are grouped together in this review since they are comprehensive surveys of Jonson's work. The fifth book is a study of Jonson's antimasques, the sixth a Revels Plays edition of a neglected late Jonson play, The Magnetic Lady. The availability of a number of jonson's Caroline plays in Revels editions is one of the most promising facets of the reassessment inspired by Anne Barton's influential work.


Ben Jonson Revised, published in Twayne's English Authors Series, is a marvelous critical survey reflecting the areas of broad consensus in Jonson scholarship. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, longtime collaborators, were the editors of a landmark collection, Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben (1982), that did much to galvanize Jonson studies. In this TEAS volume, Summers and Pebworth offer a lucid synthesis of both recent and more traditional Jonson scholarship on the comedies, tragedies, masques, poetry, and prose, devoting two-thirds of their survey to the comedies and nondramatic verse. The coverage of Ben Jonson's contribution to each major genre is impressive. The Twayne volume's extensive notes documenting Jonson criticism will be of use to all students and the authors include a helpful and current annotated bibliography of important books and collections of essays on Jonson.

In their survey of the comedies, Summers and Pebworth emphasize Jonson's brilliant plotting, arguing that in his best plays "the classical strictures Jonson voluntarily adopts never intrude as artificially enforced rules; rather, they serve to strengthen design and to reenforce theme" (35). The authors prefer his comedies to the comical satires, which "sacrifice structure to portraiture" (43), producing a more static, intellectualized kind of drama. Their readings of three comedies -- Every Man in His Humour (1598), the prototype for the great comedies of Jonson's middle period, Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610) -- are especially insightful on Jonson's adapting of the classical unities to his own creative purposes.

Summers and Pebworth explore another key feature of Ben Jonson's plots: the intense contest over priority that undermines his swindlers' tenuous and volatile alliances. Collaborations fail in Jonson's plays (and, arguably, in his professional life, as the bitter feud with Inigo Jones makes clear), foundering on schisms over class identity, legitimation, and recognition. …

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