Peter Craven celebrates a magnificent account of the life and works of the other genius of the Shakespearean era The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Seven Volume Set
BEN Jonson was a prominent member in the stellar cast of William Shakespeare’s contemporaries. There was Christopher Marlowe, who said those who loved not tobacco and boys were fools and who died young in a tavern brawl but gave Doctor Faustus his speech about Helen as the face that launched a thousand ships.
There was John Donne, who wrote lyrics that began ‘‘ Go and catch a falling star’’ or ‘‘ For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love’’, then quit the life of a dashing young rake to become the great churchman who preached that no man was an island.
The age of Shakespeare would have been great without him. John Webster with The Duchess of Malfi, Cyril Tourneur with The Revenger’s Tragedy, Thomas Middleton with The Changeling: all wrote masterpieces to rival the Bard. And then there was Jonson, who was something else.
Dramatist, poet and actor, Jonson has imprinted his character on literary history like no one else. He’s the one who described Shakespeare as the soul of the age and compared him with the Greek dramatists. He said he loved the man this side of idolatry but deplored his ‘‘ small Latin and less Greek’’. Jonson had stacks of both.
Born in 1573, a few years after Shakespeare, Jonson collected his own works as if he knew he was a classic but also outlived Shakespeare by 20-odd years, dying in 1637, a few short years before Charles I, the cavalier king with the long face, would die on the scaffold in the civil war that changed England forever — the theatre and poetry along with everything else.
Jonson was the most comprehensive poet of the age and he also lived to be a figure of some eminence, a kind of poet laureate before the letter, composing those musical pageants we know as masques, which were performed at court in productions of fabulous lavishness designed by the greatest architect of the time, Inigo Jones.
Every jot and tittle of Jonson’s grand and staggering career is detailed in this magnifi- Edited by David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson Cambridge University Press, 5224pp, $1865.95 (HB) cent Cambridge edition of his work put together by a team of editors including Ian Donaldson, the friend of Barry Humphries who for many years was the head of the Australian Research Council at the Australian National University in Canberra.
This seven-volume edition contains everything from Jonson’s letters to William Drummond of Hawthornden (as well as Drummond’s classic account of Jonson’s unbuttoned small talk) to a vivid fragment of a historical drama, Mortimer, His Fall, that makes you long to have the rest of it.
The scholarship is at once dazzling and helpful. At one point glossing Jonson’s comedy Every Man in his Humour and an echo of one the most famous passages in Corinthians (the one about love or charity as the greatest of the virtues), the editors footnote the Catholic Douay translation of the Bible. Why? Because they want ‘‘ charity’’ whereas earlier translations such as the Geneva Bible have ‘‘ love’’ and the play is a few years before the King James Bible decided on ‘‘ charity’’. And Jonson spent a stretch of his life as a Catholic convert.
By the way, Every Man in his Humour (which you can read here in the original Quarto and then the revised Folio version) was first performed by a cast that included Richard Burbage — the original Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Lear — Henry Condell, who helped put together Shakespeare’s First Folio, and Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s Tony Hancock and Ricky Gervais figure, for whom he wrote Feste and the Fool. A reminder, if we needed one, that Jonson, like Shakespeare, wrote for the Broadway of his day.
Jonson’s success was in fact even more golden because via the masques he did write the words of the Broadway musicals of his day and it’s significant that classical stage director Trevor Nunn, explaining his decision to turn his hand to Les Misersables, Cats and co, should have cited Jonson as a magnificent precedent.
It’s true, though, as your eyes glaze through the masques, this succession of highly skilled conventional cavalcades for which Jonson penned the librettos, that you wish he’d done a bit less of this high-gloss spectacularist theatre and knocked off a few more plays. We have 17 plays by Jonson, about 20 less than by Shakespeare, despite the former’s much longer career.
Jonson’s plays are a revelation, however much you have dabbled in his waters and know his reputation. The standard line on Jonson — which is true as far as it goes — is that the great dramatist of Volpone and The Alchemist is much closer than Shakespeare was to the tradition of commedia dell’arte and that he is a much more influential figure in the development of classic English comedy.
Those glittering city comedies — Jonson’s depictions of urban life — with their silvery mordant wit, their sense of human character as a hilarious perdition, seem a long way from As You Like It and the forest of Arden, let alone the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest.
Yes, but then we remember that beautiful late romance by Jonson, The Sad Shepherd. And so we turn to the final volume in this gorgeous edition, where the play is edited by Anne Barton. It is a tale of Robin Hood, it has a Puck figure, a Maid Marian and an extraordinary witch. Barton is not wrong to say the speeches of the sad shepherd, Eglamour, include ‘‘ passages of great lyrical beauty’’: The world may find the spring by following her, For other print her airy steps ne’er left. Her treading would not bend a blade of grass Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk, But like the soft west wind she shot along
The delicacy of this (and indeed the whole of The Sad Shepherd) is like a entire lost tradition, as luminous in its way as Shakespeare but different and subtly shaded.
This Cambridge Jonson allows you to read the whole of Jonson on fine paper and with an abundance of pertinent annotation on the actual page. Every bit of the Latin and the Greek is translated, and there are great goldmines of information about who was in and who was out at court. All of this is intensely helpful in the case of a writer who
Matthew Newton and Max Cullen in a Sydney Theatre Company production of