Ben Jonson was a big man. In his hungry early years as a bricklayer, soldier and actor he was tall and lean — a "hollow-cheeked scrag", Thomas Dekker called him — but by middle age the celebrated playwright and poet had swelled to corpulence on the free dinners of patronage and gargantuan quantities of sweet Canary wine. A poem from 1619 punningly sums up his lifestyle and its consequences as "so much waste", and regrets that ladies "cannot embrace [his] mountain belly". In a verse epistle to Lady Covell he gives his weight as "twenty stone within two pound", and hopes she will round this up by adding some pounds to his purse. His agility in the art of cadging had clearly not deserted him.
In a career lasting 40 years, this "huge overgrown play-maker" — as he calls himself in The Staple of News — cast a giant shadow over the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline literary landscapes. More than any of his contemporaries — more than Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser or Donne, to name just the crème de la crème — this swaggering, learned, truculent and uproariously funny writer was a celebrity in his own time. And a generation after his death in 1637, when John Dryden looked back over the development of English theatre, it was Jonson rather than Shakespeare whom he singled out as "the greatest man of the last age" though he added a telling rider to this, saying: "I admire him, but I love Shakespeare."
This turbulent comic genius strides splendidly through the pages of Ian Donaldson's exemplary new biography. The book is rich in detail and insights, combines meticulous research with readability, and is full of quoted examples of Jonson's inimitably muscular, pungent yet precise style.
Jonson's first known work as a playwright was The Isle of Dogs, co-written with the pamphleteer Thomas Nashe in 1597, when he was in his mid-twenties. It was an explosive debut.
Deemed by the authorities to be "lewd, seditious and sklandrous", it was hauled off the stage, and suppressed so effectively that no trace of the text remains. Jonson was arrested — the first of three recorded spells of imprisonment. Under interrogation, he later boasted, "his judges" (who included the notorious rackmaster Richard Topcliffe) "could get nothing of him to all their demands but Aye and No". He was released after a couple of months and the following year had his first hit with Every Man in His Humour, played by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Curtain in Shoreditch, with Shakespeare in the cast.
Jonson was a Londoner through and through, and wrote brilliantly about the city — "our scene is London", he announces in the prologue to The Alchemist (1610), for "no clime breeds better matter" — but his family's origins were Scottish. His grandfather was of the Johnstons of Annandale, a tough border clan. His father, who died a month before Jonson's birth, was a Protestant minister who lost his estate during the reign of Bloody Mary. His widowed mother, whose name was probably Rebecca, married a bricklayer called Robert Brett, in whose house on lowly Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross, he grew up.
The biographical material on Jonson is extraordinarily rich. As well as the prolific abundance of his published work — plays, masques, poems, epigrams, civic entertainments, translations, a book of English grammar — there is a fascinating deposit of more private material. There are letters both to and from him. There are books from his library, inscribed with his Senecan motto, Tanquam explorator ("As an explorer"), and filled with busy marginalia. There are revealing conversations transcribed by Scottish poet William Drummond. And there is his splendid "commonplace book", posthumously published in 1640 under the title Timber: or, Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter, full of sound writerly advice and classical quotations, intermixed with veins of Montaignian self-reflection. All this provides an atmospheric hinterland of personal detail that might make the shadowy Shakespeare's biographer green at the gills. Much more would have survived but for a house fire in 1623, which destroyed "years' labours in an hour" and called forth his fine poem An Execration upon Vulcan, beginning "And why to me this, thou lame Lord of Fire?"
-Guardian News & Media Ltd
Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street is published by Penguin.
Ben Jonson: A Life By Ian Donaldson,Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $39.95