Ben Jonson : biography
- Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
- My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but others see it as a heartfelt tribute to the "Sweet Swan of Avon", the "Soul of the Age!" It has been argued that Jonson helped to edit the First Folio, and he may have been inspired to write this poem by reading his fellow playwright’s works, a number of which had been previously either unpublished or available in less satisfactory versions, in a relatively complete form.
Reception and influence
During most of the 17th century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous for he has been described as ‘One of the most vigorous minds that ever added to the strength of English literature’.Morley, Henry, Introduction to Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter and Some Poems 1892 kindle ebook 2011 ASIN B004TOT8FQ Before the English Civil War, the "Tribe of Ben" touted his importance, and during the Restoration Jonson’s satirical comedies and his theory and practice of "humour characters" (which are often misunderstood; see William Congreve’s letters for clarification) was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. In the 18th century Jonson’s status began to decline. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson’s type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but overall he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein. In the 20th century, Jonson’s status rose significantly.
In 2012, after more than two decades of research, Cambridge University Press published the first new edition for Jonson’s complete works for 60 years.
As G. E. Bentley notes in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, Jonson’s reputation was in some respects equal to Shakespeare’s in the 17th century. After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II, Jonson’s work, along with Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s work, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory. It was not until after 1710 that Shakespeare’s plays (ordinarily in heavily revised forms) were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the 18th century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasise the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber, and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies.
For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson (representing art or craft) with Shakespeare (representing nature, or untutored genius) has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to initiate this interpretation in the second folio, and Samuel Butler drew the same comparison in his commonplace book later in the century.
At the Restoration, this sensed difference became a kind of critical dogma. Charles de Saint-Évremond placed Jonson’s comedies above all else in English drama, and Charles Gildon called Jonson the father of English comedy. John Dryden offered a more common assessment in the Essay of Dramatic Poesie, in which his Avatar Neander compares Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil: the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice. But "artifice" was in the 17th century almost synonymous with "art"; Jonson, for instance, used "artificer" as a synonym for "artist" (Discoveries, 33). For Lewis Theobald, too, Jonson “ow[ed] all his Excellence to his Art,” in contrast to Shakespeare, the natural genius. Nicholas Rowe, to whom may be traced the legend that Jonson owed the production of Every Man in his Humour to Shakespeare’s intercession, likewise attributed Jonson’s excellence to learning, which did not raise him quite to the level of genius. A consensus formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with any accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life. But there were also more negative spins on Jonson’s learned art; for instance, in the 1750s, Edward Young casually remarked on the way in which Jonson’s learning worked, like Samson’s strength, to his own detriment. Earlier, Aphra Behn, writing in defence of female playwrights, had pointed to Jonson as a writer whose learning did not make him popular; unsurprisingly, she compares him unfavorably to Shakespeare. Particularly in the tragedies, with their lengthy speeches abstracted from Sallust and Cicero, Augustan critics saw a writer whose learning had swamped his aesthetic judgment.