Ben Jonson - A Life

Ian Donaldson
Oxford University Press

During the 16th century, Ben Jonson was a better-known name than his contemporary William Shakespeare. While it seems hard to believe that fact today, Jonson was a true celebrity and even better for a biographer, lived a life that was eventful and at times stormy.

Jonson called himself a poet and not only use that term to refer to what we would talk about as poetry today but in addition, used this description to extend to his stage writings as well.

Not only did he conjure up plays, which he claimed brought in less than £200 for the duration of his life, but in addition he wrote many masques for the court, frequently in tandem with designer / architect Inigo Jones. These were often presented at Christmas time or as celebratory entertainments and will usually relatively light nature but particularly lucrative.

As well as writing on his own and collaborating with colleagues on plays such as Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson became heavily involved in many of the intrigues of his day.

Born a Protestant, in a time of flux when it was de rigueur to switch between Catholicism and Protestantism and back again on a regular basis.

However, rather than saving him from problems as the country lifted backwards and forwards between the two religions, Jonson's religious affiliations landed him in prison, where he also spent time on account of some of his playwriting which was deemed to be seditious on more than one occasion.

While the later days under Queen Elizabeth were pretty rocky, the playwright emerged to enjoy far greater success under her successor James I. Jonson may have been no lover of some of his supporters nor of the large number of Scottish nobleman who came south with the new king, but he flourished during the reign of King with artistic interests.

Increasingly, Jonson became involved with the major citizens of his time, which was often a benefit for man who knew how to spend money. He was so rather close for comfort both to the Earl of Essex during the period when he was going out of favour with Queen Elizabeth and also the conspirators who almost blew up Parliament and her successor during what we now know as The Gunpowder Plot.

For those with interests in theatre, Jonson's relationships with William Shakespeare and many of the other great writers of his time will be of particular interest. Indeed, one builds up a far better picture of the theatrical landscape during this period through Jonson's experiences than those of Shakespeare.

However, the main reason why a biography of Jonson is so fulfilling when compared with the proliferation of attempts to portray now more famous colleague is that so much more was known and recorded of a considerably longer life.

The doughty Ian Donaldson seems to have devoted almost the whole of his academic career to studying Jonson and this Magnum Opus is his fifth book with a significant Jonson connection.

As a result, this biography is extremely well written and demonstrates great erudition and knowledge on the part of the author, who has gained a deep understanding of his subject and conveys it well, aided by large numbers of illustrations.

As a result, Ben Jonson - A Life is not only thoroughly very readable but highly informative about Jonson himself but also in history and culture of a tempestuous era. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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