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Ben Jonson: A Life
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 16 November 2011
This is a meticulously researched academic biography which is also, fortunately, well-written and filled with fascinating detail. For once, there's a generous allowance of black and white in-text illustrations as well as a well-chosen group of coloured illustrations in the centre of the book. Ben Jonson is the one Elizabethan/ Jacobean playwright whose personality has come down to us with real force and clarity and anybody looking for a biography should, as they say, look no further. And I can't help thinking that the forthright Ben would have noticed if his close associate William Shakespeare hadn't actually written his own plays and made his views known.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 31 December 2011
This biography draws into the story of Ben Jonson new documents not hitherto known or considered. Its phrasing is often sensitive and elegant, and it's rich with apt and even surprising illustrations. Written over an extended time-span, it is not a quick read, but it offers much to ponder.

The excellent opening chapters discuss most interestingly what can a biography ask and learn about a subject so complex and so distant from us in time? To help weigh up what the sources do and don't offer, it examines early on Jonson's famous walk to Scotland, and his conversations there that were put on the record by Drummond of Hawthornden, a poet and man of letters with whom Jonson stayed for some months, and whose style of reportage was itself idiosyncratic. Then begins Jonson's own story, and we're taken, thoughtfully and absorbingly, through his schooling, his military escapades, and his early years in the theatre during the final years of Elizabeth I.

All this is fascinatingly told, until we reach the arrival in London of Elizabeth's successor, James VI of Scotland, James I of England, and the start of Jonson's long involvement with the Jacobean court as a writer of masques, an art form of that era. At this point, so it seemed to me, the biography goes off the rails, is sometimes boringly over-detailed about court intrigues, and in its strange silences even comes close to dodgy.

Modern historians confirm that James's court was camp, dandified, extravagant, and very notably gay - as had been widely noted too in the seventeenth century. Jonson's entry to the court seems to have come through his closeness with Esme Stuart, a flamboyant courtier under James's protection. who was the son of the first man to have loved James. Himself a Catholic at this period, Jonson lived for a time in Esme Stuart's house in Blackfriars, perhaps - as Donaldson suggests - to benefit from the protection of a Catholic nobleman's mansion. To begin with, Jonson wrote for Queen Anne, James's wife, who had struggled lengthily to retain some custody of their eldest son, Prince Henry. However Donaldson gives but the very briefest hint of the fierceness of these domestic battles, of which Jonson could not have been unaware.

Court faction divided and intrigued around the King's "favorites", handsome lads who were tagged "Gentlemen of the Bed-Chamber". While Donaldson remarks that Jonson's first collection of Epigrams made no mention of either James Hay or Robert Carr, he himself makes no mention as to how both these young men were then generally observed to be foremost in James's affections. Later, after Carr had been married to Frances Howard and was tried with her for complicity in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, a new favorite arrived, George Villiers, who became Duke of Buckingham. For Villiers, as we now know, there was a secret passage between his bedroom and the King's . And we know too that Villiers was generous with his favours and also slept with Francis Bacon, much to Bacon's delight. Jonson was vigorous in writing in praise of George Villiers from the first moment he arrived at court. But these details from the historical record and their possible significance all pass unmentioned in this biography,which is largely oblique on the gay dimension.

Does it matter there's such silence about the considerable gay life at Court? Well, yes. One reason to say it does matter is that Jonson's friends and contemporaries such as John Donne were well aware of gay culture in the city, which features openly in some of Donne's poems; it's implict in various of Shakespeare's plays, and is apparent to in Jonson's play "The Silent Woman". If neither Jonson nor writers close to him were unaware, indifferent, or unamused, and their imaginations were enlivened, what is the point in refraining from comment today, as if no one was in any way gay way back then? Surely the kiss-but-don't-tell policy is now outmoded in academic studies, and not just in the armed forces?

Another strange silence is the absence of any mention of the very long delay between the death of Queen Anne and her state funeral, which it is well known resulted from the emptiness of the court coffers and some unwillingness on the part of the state to provide the necessary funding for lavish ceremonials. Jonson would appear to have returned to London from his Scottish expedition at some point while Anne's body was still laying in State. We learn Jonson may have written a commemorative poem that's now lost, but there's not a word of comment whatsoever on the highly unusual pause before the Queen's funeral took place, although it's a circumstance highly pertinent to the tale of a writer who was then earning much of his living from Court coffers for flattering members of the Court. Economics are, in the last instance, determinant.

Such silences are highly peculiar in a book which otherwise is not only filled with dense information and dissection of far more speculative suggestions, but is also one in which the same anecdotes get repeated and repeated over and over. It's as if much of the biography was composed as separate lectures, with understandable overlaps, but that no editor at Oxford bothered to read through the whole manuscript and edit out the repetitions. I got tired of hearing about Jonson's mother's mock threat to feed him poison in gaol and take some of it herself. I got even more weary hearing over and over how commentators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries peddled a pointless and baseless contrast between Jonson and Shakespeare, which derives from their taste and fantasies and not from seventeenth century realities. Why clean again a window you've already cleaned, and scrubbed, and cleaned, and polished? Did an Oxford editor doze off too often?

Perhaps the difficulty is that the bar was set too high initially? That early on we're promised more than could be delivered? Missing is not only a vivid grasp on Jonson's "personality" but also any developed discussion of his artistic imagination - which Ian Donaldson has however elaborated on elsewhere quite wonderfully. As biographical sources he draws from time to time on the intermissions and inductions which surround Jonson's plays, and which modern producers tend to excise. Bringing these to our notice is a stirring reminder that Jonson's stage-craft often trafficed in switching levels, loosely speaking to an extent that rivals Pirandello, reminding the audience it is in a theatre, then appearing to forget it is so, only to turn back again to exposing performance and illusion in new twists and turns. There's a brief - too brief - hint of this in the few - far too few - pages given to Bartholomew Fair, and how the line between life and art slips and slides in that extraordinary play. It's a real pity the medium of biography wasn't here deemed to allow for a more developed account of Jonson and the baroque to which Ian Donaldson could bring real enlightenment..
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
(3.5 stars)

Ian Donaldson is, without doubt, a fine scholar and an excellent editor of Jonson's work - but as a biography this feels strangely stilted at times, and lacks the vivid vivaciousness of David Riggs' Ben Jonson: A Life.

Donaldson starts with Jonson's so-called `long walk' when he made the journey from London to Edinburgh on foot - and then works back from there. He does interrogate the genre of biography, but then seems to forget about this introduction once he gets into the life itself.

There are points at which this feels almost too rigorous: so, for example, Donaldson doesn't confine himself to Jonson's career in relation to the courtly masque, but gives us the entire history of the English masque rather than simply pointing us to the relevant literature.

Above all, this doesn't capture the atmosphere of theatrical and literary London in the way that Riggs does: the relationships between Jonson, Donne, the Sidney-Essex-Herbert families etc. are all here but feel muted, background information, almost, rather than in the foreground.

So if you're working on Jonson this is, of course, a must-read - but for the general reader interested in Jonson, I would still recommend Riggs above this.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 2 December 2011
To read this excellent biography is to be accompanied by an expert guide. That Ian Donaldson is an expert not just on his subject and his works, but on all of the issues and minutiae of his subject's world, is where this biography excels. Even Donaldson's speculations are measured and constrained. A pleasure to enjoy; crafted and completed so lovingly and well.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 1 January 2013
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.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2012
Ben Jonson:A LifeRead this down the pub,makes me wish smoking and old plays were a fixture of the local pub,most informative,makes me feel that I know him and all the other characters that passed his way.Lots to read and entertain.
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