Ben Jonson: A Life

Ian Donaldson
  • New paperback edition of Ian Donaldson's fascination biography
  • An accessible and generously illustrated biography of one of the great writers of the early modern period, whose eventful life hasn't been previously chartered in close detail
  • Provides the fullest picture of Jonson's personal, political, spiritual, and intellectual interests and engagements to date
  • Includes discussion of some newly discovered work by Ben Jonson - a complete civic entertainment, and parts of another, along with a newly identified poem - and of a recently discovered journal by a young man who walked with Jonson to Scotland in 1618

Ben Jonson was the greatest of Shakespeare's contemporaries. In the century following his death he was seen by many as the finest of all English writers, living or dead. His fame rested not only on the numerous plays he had written for the theatre, but on his achievements over three decades as principal masque-writer to the early Stuart court, where he had worked in creative, and often stormy, collaboration with Inigo Jones. One of the most accomplished poets of the age, he had become - in fact if not in title - the first Poet Laureate in England. 

Jonson's life was full of drama. Serving in the Low Countries as a young man, he overcame a Spanish adversary in single combat in full view of both the armies. His early satirical play, The Isle of Dogs, landed him in prison, and brought all theatrical activity in London to a temporary — and very nearly to a permanent — standstill. He was 'almost at the gallows' for killing a fellow actor after a quarrel, and converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution. He supped with the Gunpowder conspirators on the eve of their planned coup at Westminster. After satirizing the Scots in Eastward Ho! he was imprisoned again; and throughout his career was repeatedly interrogated about plays and poems thought to contain seditious or slanderous material. In his middle years, twenty stone in weight, he walked to Scotland and back, seemingly partly to fulfil a wager, and partly to see the land of his forebears. He travelled in Europe as tutor to the mischievous son of Sir Walter Ralegh, who 'caused him to be drunken and dead drunk' and wheeled provocatively through the streets of Paris. During his later years he presided over a sociable club in the Apollo Room in Fleet Street, mixed with the most learned scholars of his day, and viewed with keen interest the political, religious, and scientific controversies of the day. 

Ian Donaldson's new biography draws on freshly discovered writings by and about Ben Jonson, and locates his work within the social and intellectual contexts of his time. Jonson emerges from this study as a more complex and volatile character than his own self-declarations (and much modern scholarship) would allow, and as a writer whose work strikingly foresees - and at times pre-emptively satirizes - the modern age.


List of illustrations
Note on texts and dating
1: Prologue: The Biographer's Bones
2: Scotland 1618-1619
3: Debatable Land 1542-1572
4: Influences 1572-1588
5: Conflicts 1588-1592
6: Entering the Theatre 1594-1597
7: Saved by the Book 1597-1598
8: Global Satire 1598-1601
9: The Wolf's Black Jaw 1601-1603
10: Scots, Plots, and Panegyrics 1603-1605
11: Following the Plot 1606-7
12: Communities 1607-1612
13: City, Theatre, Court 1610-1612
14: Travels 1611-1613
15: Fame 1613-1616
16: Money 1614-1617
17: Scholarship 1619-1630
18: Lateness 1619-1637
19: Remembrance with Posterity


Ian Donaldson, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne
Ian Donaldson is a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (Print Edition, 7 volumes, 2011; Electronic Edition, 2012). His previous OUP books include The World Upside-Down: Comedy From Jonson to Fielding (1970), Ben Jonson: Selected Works (Oxford Authors, 1985), Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation (OUP, 1997). He has taught at the Universities of Oxford (tutorial Fellow in English at Wadham College, 1962-9), Edinburgh (Regius Professor of English, 1991-5), and Cambridge (Fellow of King's College, 1995-2005, and Grace 1 Professor of English, 1995-2001), and at the Australian National University, Canberra (Professor of English, 1969-91). He was founding Director of the ANU's Humanities Research Centre (1974-90, 2004-7) and of Cambridge University's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH, 2001-3).



"It was a brilliant, epoch making, and memorable life superbly served by Ian Donaldson. Jonson earned his fame. This is and will remain the biography to have." - Ralph Berry, Contemporary Review

"A rare and valuable achievement. Elegant in style, flexible in approach, and characterised by a tone of intelligent curiosity, it is engaging as well as definitive." - Lisa Gorton, Australian Book Review

"Deeply researched but happily readable." - New York Review of Books

"absorbing biography" - New Statesman

"fascinating portrait...brilliant biography" - Daily Telegraph

"authoritative and lucid biography" - Sunday Telegraph

"definitive biography of this quarrelsome playwright." - Sunday Times

"The biographical material on Jonson is extraordinarily rich...Donaldson's fine book is stocked with new material" - The Guardian

"exemplary new biography...rich in detail and insights" - The Guardian

"a work of clarity and lucidity, exact in its historical detail, full of new material and ingeniously suggestive in its conjecture and interpretation." - Sam Leith, Spectator

"Donaldson is ideally placed to write the definitive life, and he has done so." - John Carey, Sunday Times

"Ian Donaldson has written a splendid life of this extraordinary man, which all claimants to the "tribe of Ben" will savor and prize." - The Weekly Standard

"A learned biography, it cuts a revealing section through the Jacobean Age." - Michael Alexander, The Tablet

"His deep involvement with Jonson scholarship and criticism ... is apparent on every page of his authoritative, elegantly written, and illuminatingly illustrated biography." - Stanley Wells, New York Review of Books

"...one of the best literary biographies written in any era." - R.S White, Parergon.