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Ben Jonson was a masterful poet as well as a dramatist. His poetry, with some justification, has the reputation of being remote from modern readers. A dedicated classicist, Jonson emphasized clarity of form and phrase over expression of emotion, and many of his poems seem to be exercises in cleverness and wit rather than attempts to express an idea or image well. Others of his poems, however, retain their power and vision: “To Celia,” for example, has given the English language the phrase “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”
The difficulty of Jonson’s poetry originates in large part in his very mastery of poetic form. Jonson was a student of literature, and he was a man of letters with few equals in any era. He studied the poetic forms of classical Greek and Latin literature as well as those of later European literature, and he used what he learned in his own work. The result is a body of poetry that is very diverse, including salutations and love poems, homilies and satires, epigrams and lyrics. Much of the poetry appeals primarily to academics because of its experimental qualities and its displays of technical virtuosity. Yet those who allow themselves to be put off by Jonson’s prodigious intellectualism miss some of the finest verse in English.
Jonson was also a prodigious writer of masques—dramatic allegorical entertainments, usually prepared to celebrate special occasions and presented at court. Jonson’s masques have in common with his poetry technical achievement and, with much of his occasional verse, a focus on the virtues, real and reputed, of nobility and royalty. Although the emphasis was on spectacle and celebration of the aristocracy, Jonson tried to make his masques legitimate works of literature, and they have enjoyed increasing critical attention in recent years.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
Ben Jonson was the foremost man of letters of his time. His knowledge of literature was combined with a passionate personality and a desire to be respected; the combination resulted in his efforts to elevate authors in the estimation of society. He endeavored to demonstrate the importance of literature in the lives of people and in their culture. Although he regarded his dramatic work as merely one facet of his literary life, he was determined that the playwright should receive the esteemed title of “poet.” In the Elizabethan era, plays were regarded as unimportant public amusements; satires, sonnets, and narrative verse were expected to carry the heavy freight of ideas and art. Jonson worked to establish drama as a legitimate literary form by showing that it could be a conscious art with rules of organization that were as valid as those of more esteemed literary genres.
In 1616, Jonson published The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, including in the volume nine of his plays in addition to other writings. Never before had any author dared to give his plays the title “Works.” The term “works” was usually reserved for profound philosophical treatises. Jonson was derided by some writers for being conceited and for trying to make plays seem important; even after his death, some traditionalists found his title difficult to accept. Further, Jonson promoted the cause of drama as high art by devoting much care to the publishing of the texts of his plays, thereby establishing a higher standard for published texts of dramas than had existed before. The publication of The Workes of Benjamin Jonson led at least indirectly to the important First Folio edition of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Jonson’s reputation as a dramatist is inextricably bound with that of Shakespeare. Although Jonson was esteemed above Shakespeare by most...
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of his contemporaries, subsequent eras have elevated Shakespeare at Jonson’s expense. Thus, although Jonson’s comedies are wonderful and are well received by modern audiences, they are rarely performed. Shakespeare’s poetry is better than Jonson’s; his tragedies are more moving; his comedies are more diverse and have superior characterizations. To acknowledge Shakespeare’s superiority is not to derogate Jonson’s achievement; Shakespeare is alone atop the world’s authors, but Jonson is not far below. In addition, Jonson’s plays are superior to Shakespeare’s in consistency of plot and structure. Had there been no William Shakespeare, there might today be Jonson festivals, andVolpone and The Alchemist might be the revered standards for college drama productions.
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Ben Jonson’s fame has rested mainly on his comic drama, especially on the masterpieces of his maturity, Volpone: Or, The Fox (pr. 1605), Epicne: Or, The Silent Woman (pr. 1609), The Alchemist (pr. 1610), and Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614). Surviving earlier comedies are The Case Is Altered (pr. 1597), Every Man in His Humour (pr. 1598), Every Man Out of His Humour (pr. 1599), Cynthia’s Revels: Or, The Fountain of Self-Love (pr. c. 1600-1601), Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment (pr. 1601), and Eastward Ho! (pr., pb. 1605, with George Chapman and John Marston). Later comedies are The Devil Is an Ass (pr. 1616), The Staple of News (pr. 1626), The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart (pr. 1629), The Magnetic Lady: Or, Humours Reconciled (pr. 1632), and A Tale of a Tub (pr. 1633). Jonson wrote two tragedies, Sejanus His Fall (pr. 1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (pr., pb. 1611). Two uncompleted works date apparently from the end of his life: the pastoral The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood (pb. 1640) and the tragedy Mortimer His Fall (only a few pages).
Jonson’s court masques and entertainments may conservatively be said to number about thirty, differing tallies being possible depending on whether minor entertainments of various kinds are counted. Besides plays, masques, and original nondramatic verse, Jonson wrote and translated a few other works that help to place him in the Renaissance humanistic tradition; all were first published in The Works of Benjamin Jonson (1640-1641). As a vernacular humanist, Jonson wrote The English Grammar (1640); he translated Horace’s Ars poetica (as Horace His Art of Poetry) in 1640; finally, he compiled and translated extracts from classical and modern authors, mostly having to do with ethics, education, and rhetoric; the collection is titled Timber: Or, Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641).
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Ben Jonson’s achievements as a writer of verse can best be summarized by saying that he founded English neoclassicism. Jonson, of course, wrote several decades before what is usually thought of as the neoclassic age, but his work clearly foreshadows that of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. His, like theirs, was a mode of poetry generally imitative of ancient Roman forms, concerned, as important Roman writers had been, with behavior on a specifically human stage of action, and sometimes heroic, often satirical, in tone and stance.
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Ben Jonson’s comedies have often been compared to William Shakespeare’s. One observation has been that the audience laughs at Jonson’s characters and laughs with Shakepeare’s characters. Does this assertion seem to be generally true?
Which human vices does Jonson satirize most effectively?
What was a masque, and why was it a significant form of entertainment in Jonson’s time?
Jonson was a poet whose expression of personal feeling is more profound than it sometimes seems. Examine this statement with respect to “On My First Son” and other Jonson lyrics.
What makes Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare particularly significant among the many tributes to Shakespeare?
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Barish, Jonas A. Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Seminal study of Jonson’s comedy goes beyond the scope suggested by the title and examines virtually every aspect of his comedy. Some important discoveries that are now standard assumptions in Jonson criticism (such as the role of subplots) were first made here. Includes bibliography.
Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Barton’s approach is comprehensive and magisterial. She covers all aspects of Jonson’s life and writing with grace, style, insight, and perception. For a scholarly study, this is hard to put down. Includes chronology, notes, and index.
Brock, D. Heyward. A Ben Jonson Companion. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1983. Long-awaited volume provides a thorough and multifold first reference work with substance and range. Contains illuminating introductions to all the standard topics related to Jonson. The chronologies, indexes, and bibliography are easy to follow.
Booth, Stephen. Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson’s “Epitaphs on His Children,” and “Twelfth Night.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Using three disparate texts, Booth demonstrates how poetics can triumph over logic and enrich the reading experience. Booth’s presentation is playful yet analytical and his unique reading of Epitaphs on His Children is a valuable addition to critical thought on Jonson’s work.
Butler, Martin, ed. Re-presenting Ben Jonson: Text, History, Performance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. An examination of the theater in the time of Jonson as well as of his works. Bibliography and index.
Cave, Richard, Elizabeth Schafer, and Brian Woolland, eds. Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice, and Theory. New York: Routledge, 1999. A collection of essays dealing with the dramatic works of Jonson and the English theater of his time. Bibliography and index.
Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953. An old standard that has not been surpassed, Chute’s biography for the general reader is genial, enthusiastic, and bewitching. A good index makes it easier to cross-relate various topics.
Dutton, Richard, ed. Ben Jonson. Longman Critical Readers. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2000. This study presents critical analysis and interpretation of Jonson’s literary works. Bibliography and index.
Evans, Robert C., ed. Ben Jonson’s Major Plays: Summaries of Modern Monographs. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000. A reference work containing abstracts and bibliographies of materials by and concerning Jonson. Bibliography and index.
Harp, Richard, and Stanley Stewart, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A companion to the playwright and his works.
Haynes, Jonathan. The Social Relations of Jonson’s Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A look at Jonson’s dramatic works with emphasis on his political and social views. Bibliography and index.
Loxley, James. The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson. New York: Routledge, 2002. A handbook designed to provide readers with critical analysis of Jonson’s works. Bibliography and index.
Martin, Mathew R. Between Theater and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001. An examination of the dramatic works of Jonson and Thomas Middleton, with regard to their use of comedy. Bibliography and index.
Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Miles’s volume is a fine standard biography-study, especially for the literary background and Jonson’s position in Jacobean courtly society. The scholarly apparatus is thorough: a chronology, an index, a select but extensive bibliography, notes, and an appendix.
Partridge, Edward B. The Broken Compass: A Study of the Major Comedies of Ben Jonson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. This important study of Jonson’s comedy influenced everything that followed. The language and tone is quite scholarly but accessible to a beginner. Does not ignore Jonson’s works that are not “major comedies” but touches on poetry and tragedy only insofar as they affect the comedies that made Jonson’s reputation.
Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) This is a full-scale biography rather than a literary biography; the works illuminate the life rather than vice versa. The illumination is brilliant. Riggs reviews all the facts and assembles them in memorable order. He includes all the standard scholarly attachments, but the book deserves to be read simply for the revelations it contains for Jonson and his age, most of which are illustrated.
Sanders, Julie. Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An analysis of the political and social views of Jonson as they were manifested in his dramatic works. Bibliography and index.
Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Ben Jonson. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1999. An introductory overview of Jonson’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Watson, Robert N. Editor. Critical Essays on Ben Jonson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. A collection of previously published and new essays edited by an established authority on the life and work of Ben Jonson. Includes an introduction that provides an overview of criticism of Jonson’s work over his career. In addition, some previously unpublished interviews, letters, and manuscript fragments are included.