The AL­CHEMIST

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Volpone

Matthew New­ton and Max Cullen in a Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany pro­duc­tion of

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