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Ben Jonson: A Life
Ben Jonson: A Life
by Ian Donaldson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.38

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jonson scholarship vs Shakespeare "scholarship", 1 Jan 2013
This review is from: Ben Jonson: A Life (Hardcover)
I read this biography from the perspective of a confirmed doubter of the case for Shakespeare of Stratford as the author Shakespeare, and as still an agnostic on alternative candidates. As a PhD in (Economic) History who moved away from academia I wanted to confirm my belief that there's still good scholarship around in literary history as long as Shakespeare is not involved.

This new and scrupulously careful biography is generally excellent. The "conjectural reconstruction" Donaldson says is necessary for his sort of work is completely eschewed. Conjectural reconstruction is widely used in so-called academic scholarship on the man from Stratford, but it is not scholarship. Just because there is a total absence of personal, contemporary literary evidence for Shakespeare the author doesn't make it right for Shakespeare "scholars" to make things up and pass them off as the truth.

Strangely, the very scrupulousness that Donaldson so ably uses for Jonson often deserts him when it comes to Shakespeare the author. Sometimes he is scrupulous and admits the challenges of the evidence, at other points he just accepts Jonson's later recollections and goes all "conjectural".

Why could Donaldson not see the problem? For instance he shows a good degree of puzzlement over Shakespeare the playwright's inexplicable lack of interest in getting his plays published, even in his own name, or in publishing a collected works in his lifetime, especially when compared to Jonson and other contemporary playwrights.

At other times Donaldson is really poor and no more than cheap blogger. The snide remarks (e.g. on p371, and usually in overused parentheses) are frankly unworthy of the whole Cambridge Jonson project, and actually undermine it. To be fair, perhaps the cheapest comments were added by an editor, they seem very out of character.

Since Diana Price's so far unanswered challenge to academia in her Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, Donaldson should have been far more careful what he said. When academia finally recognises that the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy is real many Shakespearean scholars are going to look very foolish indeed and this might damage the reputation of the good work they have done elsewhere - Donaldson included.

The Jonson biography has been criticised by some for its lack of colour and imagination. The lack is certainly there, but this is the biography's main strength. It consistently refuses to go beyond the actual hard evidence. It is proper historical scholarship, it takes few risks because it wants to remain grounded in the contemporary "life" records evidence. Where there are gaps Donaldson is careful not to speculate but just to move on to the next piece of firm ground.

There are plenty of life records for Ben Jonson, all carefully assessed for authenticity and relevance to Jonson's as a writer. Many are included in the much larger project Donaldson has co-edited, the new Cambridge Edition of the Collected Works of Ben Jonson. Although it is completely inaccessible to the general public at £650 a throw for the seven volumes, hopefully the newly edited plays might be released in affordable paperback editions - they are said to be very well done.

When it comes to Shakespeare there really are no authentic life records relevant to him as a writer. That's right, zero. Diana Price has convincingly demonstrated this fact, or rather lack of fact.

Jonson is in the lead for late Elizabethan/early Stuart writers' life records, passing ten out of her ten in Price's tests for contemporary and relevant literary evidence.

Jonson does not have a clear lead though, as Thomas Nashe passes nine, while Massenger and Harvey eight. Another group including Spenser and Daniel achieve seven. Of the twenty-four Shakespeare contemporaries the worst scores were three (for John Webster), apart from Shakespeare alone who scored zero.

Why is this? To her great credit Price did not go further than the lack of evidence. She rightly wonders whether there were two Shakespeares: one the sometime London actor, theatre promoter but mostly Stratford wannabe gentleman, and the other the playwright and poet using "Shakespeare" as his, her or their nom de plume. It is the theory that most fits the facts.

Price left speculation on the identity of the real author or authors, much of it fascinating and illuminating even, to others who enjoy building on circumstantial rather than hard evidence. In many ways, Price on Shakespeare is quite like Donaldson on Jonson.

Included in the speculative genre are the thousands of books on the man from Stratford, spinning out zero hard evidence into a million pages of fantasy. There are also now numerous high quality recent works like Charles Beauclerk's marvellously insightful book on the case for Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Ros Barber's very well-received The Marlowe Papers, Robin P. Williams on the case for Mary Sidney Herbert, and the earlier John Michell's Who Wrote Shakespeare? concluding on Francis Bacon orchestrating a group of authors. There are also books out there with very thin circumstantial evidence, like James and Rubinstein's The Truth Will Out arguing for Henry Neville's authorship. This last one even makes it into presumably semi-respectable academic status via a footnote in Donaldson on Jonson.

Jonson's comments on Shakespeare are pretty much the only ones by someone who could and should have known Shakespeare the playwright and need to be taken very seriously. Price does just that, but Donaldson just appears to want to apologise for the confusion they create, rather to raise any bigger issues. But then one could hardly expect Donaldson to rock the mainstream boat when he has been so heavily reliant on government subsidies for the enormous Jonson Collected Works project handed out by boards of consisting of mainstream Shakespearean academics. Economics matters, to Donaldson today as much as to Jonson in the 400 years ago, except that Jonson mixed his sucking up to Royalty in the Masques with more dangerous satire in the plays.

It is clearly typical of Jonson that he could simultaneously hail Shakespeare, seven years after his death, as "not of an age but for all time" and damn him for having "small Latin and less Greek" (from Jonson's introduction to the First Folio). The fatal flaw overlooked by Donaldson is that these comments were published seven years after Shakespeare's death and thus not qualifying as contemporary and relevant life records.

Likewise, the other well-known personal records of anyone literary having a relationship with Shakespeare come from the second hand record of Ben Jonson's discussions on his Scottish trip with William Drummond of Hawthornden published as Conversations, and from the posthumous publication of Jonson's commonplace book Discoveries. Jonson's visit to Drummond took place after Shakespeare's death and so do not qualify as contemporary life records, and were only published in 1841 (on their rediscovery after having been lost for two centuries). Discoveries was published 24 years after Shakespeare's death, and the relevant comments were also written after his death.

While neither the Discoveries nor the Conversations are undeniably reliable sources, they are probably from Jonson. They do display his usual two-facedness, he both "loved the man" (Discoveries) but "that he wanted art" (Conversations). It is possible that Jonson is talking about two different people too, of course.

In fact, Jonson made fun of the wannabe gentleman from Stratford with the jokes over the Coat of Arms Shakespeare coveted. Donaldson nicely brings out the general clamour for such signs of heraldic ancestry from many around the turn sixteenth century, including Jonson himself.

Donaldson often dismisses many later, recollected stories about Jonson himself and especially about Jonson and Shakespeare as being either unreliable or highly unlikely, or both. Inconsistently, Jonson's own later recollections about Shakespeare are treated as gospel truth.

Blair Worden makes a good comment in his London Review of Books piece:
"Mindful of the gaps in the record of Jonson's life, Donaldson argues that the problems of conjectural reconstruction faced by his biographer are `not ... so very different' from those facing Shakespeare's. But Shakespeare's recorded life is little else but gaps, whereas by the standards of the time Jonson's is unusually well documented." Worden is right about Shakespeare, though Diana Price shows him wrong about others.

Donaldson's scholarship is a great example of how it academic biographies should be done, they may not sell so well but they are truthful. The mountains of speculation around Shakespeare's literary life remain speculation, while almost all of Shakespearean academia looks increasingly silly to ignore the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy, so well articulated by Diana Price. Just because we don't have hard, contemporary and relevant evidence for any candidate doesn't mean that the vacuum has to be authoritatively filled. Uncertainty is OK, scientists have lived with it for centuries.


Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth
Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth
by Charles Beauclerk
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.78

9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, even if no actual hard evidence, 28 Nov 2011
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This is a great read. Literary history at its best. The thesis is simple, if shocking, to modern ears. The Earl of Oxford was not only the author of the Shakespeare canon but was also Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son, lover and father of a joint child, the Earl of Southampton. It also helped shape the storyline of the film "Anonymous" recently released by Roland Emmerich.

While I completely accept the notion of reasonable doubt over the man from Stratford's authorship, best summed up in Diana Price's brilliant "Shakespeare: The unorthodox biography", the case for Oxford as author remains circumstantial - even if quite plausible.

Once over the Stratford-man hurdle, it is hard at first to get to grips with the idea of Oxford being the author, but how much harder to swallow is the tale of his relationship with Elizabeth. It is shocking to modern ears, but should it really be so given the long history of royal infidelity, carried on right up the present day with Prince Charles' relationship with Camilla, and given the somewhat dubious parentage of another famous current prince.

Even if there is no actual hard evidence to prove the thesis, the use of the idea to interpret many of plot-lines and drama of Shakespeare's plays is very illuminating, daring and even thrilling.

It is a cracking read, and far, far better as a literary biography of Shakespeare than the hundreds of tomes that pour from the presses about the frankly dull man from Stratford and his unlikely claim to be the author of the canon.


Shakespeare's Sonnets: With a Commentary
Shakespeare's Sonnets: With a Commentary
by David West
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.19

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sonnets revealed, 20 May 2008
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David West, a classicist, has written a very erudite commentary on each sonnet. They are also quite often teasingly funny about other commentaries - he says he was inspired to write his views after reading three (implicitly) poor commentaries published as a bunch in 1997. His classical learning enables him to find many interesting and (to me) new parallels from the ancient Roman authors who the author of the sonnets must have been familiar with. The book is also beautifully produced and is great to own, and would make a great gift.

I did have an ulterior motive to read the sonnets as I am a definite sceptic over the man from Stratford as the author of the plays and sonnets (see Diana Price's book for one of the best pieces of research here). A fun recent book (but very light on real evidence) has revived the notion that a woman, Mary Sidney, wrote the the plays and sonnets and I wanted to see if one could gain insight on the sonnets by thinking of them as having been written by a woman. Jury is still out on that one.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 17, 2013 9:31 PM GMT


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