Ben Jonson Overview
Ben Jonson may be the most famous person to use the shortened version of his given name professionally. It is for hackneyed notes and anecdotes like these that the playwright, poet, and actor is now primarily known.
Evidently, it is really difficult to be a dramatist and poet if you lived while Shakespeare wrote; even while Jonson secured for himself tremendous respect during his lifetime and long after, Shakespeare's shadow has only grown and grown since the initial production and publication of his plays and poems.
The other famous dramatist and poet of Shakespeare's time, Christopher Marlowe, seemed to have lived a life almost entirely of salacious anecdotism: while little is known about him, many accounts and works of scholarship – of a wide range of credibility – paint him as a proud social and religious heathen who was born into poverty but later attended Cambridge on scholarship only to go on to become, among other vocations and predilections, a government spy, an inveterate fighter and duel-instigator, a gambler, and a generally lascivious and libelous genius; the long-unknown circumstances around his murder and his possible homosexuality only add further intrigue to his persona, sex and murder being the natural attention-hoggers that they are.
Jonson therefore occupies an awkward space in Elizabethan and Jacobean literary history: while an undoubted player in the scene – at the time, and for some time afterwards, he was the preeminent literary figure of what would then have been considered more his time than Shakespeare's; his work even spawned a group of prominent and influential later followers, often referred to as the 'Sons of Ben' –, his literary output maintains less interest to modern readers than does that of Shakespeare.
But the space for fantastical and fun tales of Elizabethan era artistic rivalries and anecdotes has been taken up by the outsize and unreal person of Marlowe. Between the tremendous oeuvre of Shakespeare – as well as mystery surrounding his earthly life, which has left much open to the imagination – and the aura of Marlowe, there often seems to be little room for Jonson, whose life is well-documented and oeuvre perhaps too classical for many modern readers. His writing bears markings of his well-educated youth; this was a quality he took much pride in, and had no qualms with denigrating Shakespeare with his lack of a formal, higher education.
In his tremendously reverent eulogy to the deceased writer, Jonson makes a point – in comparing him favorably to Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont and commanding the great Greak and Latin tragedians to do him honor – to still call attention to the fact that he "hadst small Latine, and less Greeke"; behind his evident respect for Shakespeare – toward the end of the panegyric he famously remarks, "He was not of an age, but for all time!" – lay no small amount of frustration and discontent with his comparably lacking education.
In time, however, Jonson would be derided precisely for what he considered his patent virtue: many claimed that while he was the greater educated, it was Shakespeare who was the greater poet; that, indeed, it was his knowledge and command of and commitment to more classical styles and strictures that hampered his work, while Shakespeare's unhinged and untethered imagination set his work far above that of his peer.
As Jonson's stature waned, Shakespeare's increased; it was only in the twentieth century – that century of ecstatic rediscoveries – that his work was reexamined in academic as well as entertainment spheres. Jonson's most famous work comes primarily from his dramatic oeuvre, whether in play for masque form; foremost among them the plays "Volpone," "Epicoene, the Silent Woman," and "The Alchemist," and the masques "The Satyr" and "The Masque of Blackness."
A keen wit and sardonic satire mark the tone of these works, and much of his oeuvre represents or variously toys with and critiques sociopolitical circumstances, something that has added greatly to his modern day appeal. His lyric poetry, for which he is generally less recognized, is largely secular, as distinct from the work of John Donne, the metaphysical poet with whose poetry Jonson's is now most often compared. Both his dramatic and poetic works bear a strong stylistic adherence to classical dicta, even while their subjects were most frequently contemporary ones. It seems unlikely that either Jonson or his work will escape the long pall of Shakespeare's distinction, but this should not be seen as a strictly unwelcome or unfortunate collation, with Jonson unfairly strapped to Shakespeare's side, for contextualization purposes only.
Certainly, few writers can manage to escape their historical contexts. But more important is the opportunities that such comparisons may afford the reader in approaching the work of either writer. Each becomes richer the more acquainted one is with the other; may it not be their rivalry that lives on and is vicariously recreated and further embedded by their followers and researchers, but their uniquely productive literary enmity and collusion.[show less]