Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson: sacred and profane, bawdy and holy, contrite and arrogant, dramatic and boorish. Examine Abraham van Blyenberch’s painting of Jonson that hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Jonson does not cut a particularly handsome figure: His nose looks like it was broken in a fight (it probably was), his mouth hangs open, his hair is messy, and he seems hungover (he probably was). But it’s hard not to see a keen intelligence and sarcastic humor in that intense, bemused, skeptical stare — not to mention a bit of pathos from a man who had his share of sorrow during his own life. When compared to the face of William Shakespeare, whether the balding, bourgeois shopkeeper of the first folio’s engraving or the bohemian sporting a piratical earring in the Chandos portrait, Jonson’s picture is largely invisible today. Ironically, if he’s widely known for one thing, it’s predicting his competitor’s enduring popularity. He has become a victim, as he would put it, of “That old bald cheater, Time.”
In the dedicatory sonnet he wrote in 1623 for the collected works of his sometimes-friend and all-the-time nemesis Shakespeare, he claimed that the latter was, “Not of an age, but for all time.” Rarely is literary horserace betting so spot-on, as one only need look at the commemorations and reflections about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (I wrote my own article, in fact). Of course, Jonson’s prediction was accurate, and in some sense it was correct to the detriment of the man who made it, for that little bit of verse about Shakespeare is probably the most widely quoted fragment of Jonson. Yet 1616 saw not only the death of Shakespeare, but also the publication of the first major folio of dramatic work, predating the more famous folio of Shakespeare’s. At the ripe age of 44, and with his career only half over, Jonson took the unprecedented and unusual step of collecting his poetry (a respected form) alongside his masques and drama (relatively not respected forms), and compiling them in the large, expensive, prestigious form of the folio. Jonson’s folio brought new legitimacy to the stage, and in the process he revolutionized English literature. Last April, Shakespeare had his day of commemorations; now, let this other folio and the man who made it have their moment, no matter how modest — even if Jonson was himself anything but a modest man.
Outside of academic circles, where there has been a resurgence in interest, Jonson is a distant third in the contemporary popular imagination about the time period, after canonical Shakespeare and sexy Christopher Marlowe. When it comes to Renaissance theater written by people other than Shakespeare, you’re lucky to see Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus performed, and some edgy directors will give us John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi or John Ford’s fantastically titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Jonson, though it’s not unheard of, isn’t produced as often. Yet Jonson was the great showstopper of the age, revolutionizing the theater every bit as much as the others, writing in every major genre from domestic and revenge tragedy to city comedy, and penning verse that despite its deceptive simplicity is among the most moving of that age. Moreover, while Shakespeare is in some sense a cipher onto which a variety of positions and opinions can be projected, Jonson in his imperfections can seem more real. Shakespeare may have been for all time, but Jonson was so of his own age that he remains more tangible as a personality.
Like Shakespeare, Jonson was from a relatively working class background (his step-father was a bricklayer). Accepted to Cambridge, finances precluded him from attending. But Jonson was still proud to the point of conceitedness when it came to his deep humanistic reading. After all, it was in that same sonnet to Shakespeare where Jonson jabbed that the Bard knew “Small Latin and less Greek.” Like his counterpart, Jonson made a reputation in Southwark, across the Thames from the City of London, which was governed by anti-theater Puritans. Jonson worked among the first commercial theaters in English history, surrounded by taverns, brothels, and bear-baiting pits, with the river acting as perdition’s boundary. In the Middle Ages, theater had been an extension of the Catholic Church, with massive pageants like the Corpus Christi Cycle dominating the dramatic imagination. Upon the Reformation and with the stripping of the altars and the closing of the monasteries, theater was forced out of the cloister and into the entertainment business. There was already a coterie of playwrights writing on secular themes in blank verse before Jonson and Shakespeare would become famous, but it was Jonson’s generation (and in large part Jonson himself) who would elevate the grungy, grubby, dirty medium to the realm of true art. Writers like Thomas Kyd, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Richard Beaumont, Robert Greene, John Webster, and John Ford transformed the stage into a platform for exploring complex narratives, difficult characters, and immaculate turns of phrase.
In plays like Every Man in His Humour (1598), Sejanus His Fall (1603), Eastward Ho! (1605), Volpone (1606), Epiocene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fayre (1611), and The Devil is an Ass (1616), among dozens more, Jonson perfected a distinctly English voice. He could shift from learned erudition to puckishly working-class, a diction that could be estimably holy while also ribald, verse where the tavern’s lanterns and the cathedral’s candles burn your eyes simultaneously. Of his corpus there are masterpieces that can stand alongside Shakespeare and Marlowe, plays like the “beast fable” Volpone, a satirical account of the Court of St. James’s diplomat in Venice, Jonson’s friend Henry Wotton. In Volpone human personalities are endowed with bestial characteristics, from the titular character, who is a “Sly Fox;” to his sycophantic servant Mosca, who is as drawn to his master as a fly is to shit; Corbaccio “The Raven;” and Voltore “the Vulture,” who is of course a lawyer. A similar sensibility concerning the foibles of human vanity regarding wealth, religion, and almost everything else is also demonstrated in The Alchemist with its cast of conmen, cutpurses, prostitutes, and credulous Anabaptists. But no play in Jonson’s body of work, or indeed that of the English Renaissance’s, is as unmitigated a triumph of narrative complexity, earthy dialogue, and experimental finesse like that of his masterpiece Bartholomew Fayre. A “city comedy” that attempts to demonstrate the complex, chaotic, fetid, and glorious reality of everyday life in England’s capital. Jonson creates characters who ply their wares at the massive carnival-like fair at the edge of the city, where different classes and occupations all mingle, with the play presenting as complete a tableaux of the city as ever depicted on the stage during the Renaissance or any other era — Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it among the most perfect plots ever created. Figures like Win Littlewit, Justice Overdo, and the unsurpassed Ursula the Swine Woman deserve to be resurrected on our stages more frequently, if at least for the weirdness of seeing the puritanical kill-joy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy intellectually humbled by a puppet during a theological argument centering on the genitals of marionettes. Jonson took every opportunity to get one over on his Puritan persecutors (who would ultimately close the theaters during the years of Interregnum, from 1649 to 1660). The author’s irreverent cheer, as displayed in scenes such as the puppet-genital-disputation in Bartholomew’s Fayre establishes Jonson’s fusion of learning and humor, always the most potent alliance against puritans either then or now.
A failed actor with the Admiral’s Men, he became one of their star playwrights at the Rose Theater (and in turn Shakespeare performed as an actor in Jonson’s early hit Every Man in His Humour). Paid £100 a year by King James I, Jonson is credibly the first Poet Laureate of England (placing him as the first in a line that would include William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Ted Hughes), Yet he also served prison time in 1597 for his role in writing a “Leude and mutinous” play entitled The Isle of Dogs (which is now lost), and then again a year later for murdering an actor in a duel. He received a comically light sentence by utilizing a loophole called “benefit of the clergy,” where his knowledge of Latin supposedly demonstrated an immunity from civil courts.
In keeping with Jonson’s wild contradictions, the scurrilous, libelous, banned, and imprisoned playwright found an intellectual home not just at Newgate Prison, but later at the Palace of Whitehall, where he helped to develop the genre of the masque. The aesthetic precursor to opera or the musical (or maybe even more appropriately the Vegas dinner show), masques were spectacular pageants of performance, music, and special effect pyrotechnics that demonstrated the Stuart Court’s wealth and power. Often featuring “performances” by royalty themselves (including some of the first by English women upon the stage), Jonson entered a fruitful, if often contentious, creative partnership with the architect Inigo Jones. In masques written for Queen Anne, such as The Masque of Beauty (1608), Oberon, The Fairy Prince (1611), and The Golden Age Restored (1616), Jonson wrote dialogue to be spoken among the technically dazzling mechanical sets of Jones, featuring marvels such as mermaids riding in on seahorses and the ladies of the court traveling upon a giant clam shell pulled by aquatic monsters across a raging storm. That latter effect was used in The Masque of Blackness (1605), which also has the dubious distinction of being among the first performances to use blackface in the depiction of African characters; the English had just begun their horrific role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If Jonson’s legacy is one of creative brilliance, we must also reckon with the fact that it includes the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland standing aloft a palatial stage with burnt cork upon her face.
The charged, neon, electric luminescence of spectacle hangs about Jonson and his work. In short, Jonson was one of the inventors of creative marketing, with a sensibility that would be perfectly attuned to the gimmicks of the modern social media universe. For example, there was the publicity stunt whereby he spent several months in 1618 walking from London to his ancestral homeland of Scotland. He lodged in Edinburgh with the famed Scottish poet William Drummond who then wrote a popular account of the feat, a description of the new “British” Poet Laureate exploring a rapidly emerging terrain where England and Scotland were unifying. Jonson’s reflections on his encounters were pithy and human; if Twitter had existed he’d have no doubt presented an entertaining collection of hashtagged reflections on his journey north (as indeed the University of Edinburgh did when they transformed Jonson’s accounts into tweets a few years ago). Even more audacious than his walking tour to Scotland was the so-called “War of the Theaters” two decades earlier, which ran from 1599 to 1602, and featured Jonson in possibly mock-competition with the playwright Thomas Dekker (among others) in a rhetorical fight across several plays that seems to almost prefigure modern-day hip-hop feuds. Whether the whole thing was a legitimate display of grievances between writers or a cagey mutually beneficial marketing ploy to increase ticket sales is arguable, but this delineates precisely what’s so fascinating and current about Jonson.
But if Jonson’s plays were enjoyed during his lifetime, it was his poetry that was expected to achieve true posterity; though for the last century, Jonson’s verse and that of his protégés have seen their regard fall in favor of more sophisticated poets. The 18th-century lexicographer Dr. Johnson (of no relation —notice the “h”) defined the metaphysical poetry of Jonson’s friend John Donne as poetry where “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together,” a verse that revels in contradiction and paradox. By contrast, Dr. Jonson identified the “Cavalier Poets” (or “Tribe of Ben”) in opposition, with a more conservative aesthetic. It should be clarified that these categories are ever malleable, and that strictly speaking most literary historians classify Jonson less as a member of the Cavalier poets than as their guiding influence. But if Dr. Johnson was one of the first literary critics to distinguish between these two movements (ones that the poets themselves might not have recognized), then it wasn’t until T.S. Eliot’s 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets” that the critical regard of the “Tribe of Ben,” and by proxy the man whom they drew inspiration from, would see a precipitous decline, from which the Cavaliers have never really recovered.
In Eliot’s (accurate) estimation Donne and those influenced by him were poets of unique ability, exhibiting intellectual daring displayed with provocative metaphors, conceits, and wit. The Cavaliers, by contrast, were poets whose verse was as conservative as Eliot’s politics — lyrics that were all carpe diem, gathering one’s rosebuds while one can, drinking, carousing, and pining for some aristocratic golden age. Where the metaphysics were daring and mature, the Cavaliers were seen as traditional and childish. Where the metaphysics concerned themselves with the complexities of faith and doubt, the Cavaliers wrote poems about some comfortable, pastoral fantasy. Jonson’s estimation of Donne was that, “for not being understood, [he] would perish,” the irony being that it was Jonson who perished and precisely because he was understood too well. There is difficulty in simplicity, though; it’s hard work to make a poem seem easy.
Still, Jonson, of course, was no Donne. Jonson’s poetry may have had enough wit, cleverness, ingenuity, and immaculate phrases that his verse deserves to be anthologized next to Donne’s Holy Sonnets or “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” but ultimately there is a reason why Elliot canonized the metaphysical poets over the Cavaliers. As the Victorian critic John Addington Symonds observed of Jonson, “His throne is not with the Olympians but with the Titans; not with those who share the divine gifts of creative imagination and inevitable instinct, but with those who compel our admiration by their untiring energy and giant strength of intellectual muscle.” With Donne’s compasses, his globes, and his interrupting sun, the poet constructed an entirely novel little world, made cunningly. By contrast Jonson was less an initiator of a radical movement than he was an incredibly talented and competent writer of verse, albeit an often-brilliant playwright. And with such an outsized, Falstaffian personality (how he might despise that adjective being associated with him), it’s easy to forget those closest to Jonson.
While writing poetry and staging those plays, Jonson and his wife had to bury three children. We aren’t even exactly sure of the name of the woman whom Jonson described as “a shrew, yet honest,” his wife who probably went by the appellation Ann Lewis. Despite Jonson’s barb about her, by all accounts their matrimony was relatively warm. But the heartbreaks of life can take their toll; despite affection, they didn’t live in the same house for Jonson’s last five years.
Even if his inner life can sometimes be obscured in bombast and anecdote, more the raconteur with a glass of sack in one hand and a barbed comment on his tongue than a figure poised for introspection, the most moving of his poetry makes Jonson the human more closely available to us. If poetry is truly a fragment of emotional singularity, a warm and holy sanctuary providing organization to experience and meaning to life, then Jonson was nothing less than completely, and truly, a poet. Writing in elegy of his dead son, who shared his name, Jonson says, “Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” One should resist the cynicism that observes how Jonson equates his child as being simply another production of the poet’s brilliant mind (even if “his best piece of poetry”), for a man of Jonson’s ambition and ego that claim is not insignificant nor empty. But the poignancy and pathos of “On My First Sonne” is in its heartbreaking conclusion, “For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such, /As what he loves may never like too much.” In that one line we get as much sense of the traumas and the losses of Jacobean London (where losing your children at a young age was no rare incident) as we do in all of Bartholomew Fayre, and we see the human at the center of Jonson’s own self-mythologizing. Consider the pain that must accompany this self-imposed distance, this moratorium on feeling, whereby he must resist liking that which he loves due to the inevitability of its loss. The confessional is implicit in this 12-line masterpiece, and hiding among its letters and punctuation is a father’s loss, preserved and passed down for four centuries. Having written verse such as this, Jonson has no need to be celebrated with the biggest monument in the Poet’s Corner, or to have his bust displayed in the lobbies of libraries, or to have his plays produced every month of every year in every major English speaking city in the world. He has no need of those things because he has already perfectly accomplished what it is that a poem is supposed to do, whether that poem is known by everybody, anybody, or nobody. And we should be grateful to Ben Jonson for letting us share in his loss. And we should be thankful to Ben Jonson for writing poetry such as this. And we should remember Ben Jonson, this, the 400th year of his first folio.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.