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Ben Jonson: such is fame

The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2013 is in full swing, welcoming thinkers and writers from across the globe to our wonderful city of Oxford. We’re delighted to have over thirty Oxford University Press authors participating in the Festival this year! OUPblog will be bringing you a selection of blog posts from these authors so that  even if you can’t join us in Oxford this year, you won’t miss out on all the action. Don’t forget you can also follow @oxfordlitfest and check the event schedule here.

Ian Donaldson will be appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival on Friday 22 March 2013 at 4pm to discuss ‘Ben Jonson and Fame’. More information and tickets.

By Ian Donaldson

Some years ago, while I was working in Australia’s national capital, Canberra, I was about to give a lecture on Ben Jonson when the telephone rang. It was the Canadian High Commission on the phone. A small delegation (I was told) was just setting out to hear the lecture, and wanted more precise directions to the place where I’d be speaking. I was pleased, of course, but slightly mystified at this news, until further enquiry revealed that they were mistaken about the subject of my talk. They imagined that I was going to speak about the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who for a brief time was the fastest man in the world over a hundred metres, a distance he covered in the amazing time of 9.79 seconds. He fell from grace a few days after this achievement when it was revealed that anabolic steroids had played a part in his success, and (like Lance Armstrong in more recent times) was formally stripped of his various medals and awards. I was forced to explain that my talk would actually be about a long-dead English author with a similar name, with whose achievements the diplomatic party seemed to be unfamiliar.

The episode prompted me to think about the nature of fame, a topic that (as it happened) was of intense interest to this other Ben Jonson, who’d watched as many of his contemporaries ride to the top of Fortune’s wheel, then crash ignominiously on the other side. There was Elizabeth’s one-time favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, with whom Jonson had been associated in the 1590s, executed in the courtyard of the Tower of London after his abortive rising in 1601. There was another of Elizabeth’s brightest stars, Jonson’s friend Sir Walter Ralegh, imprisoned in the Tower, then executed under James after his futile expedition to Guiana. There was the learned Francis Bacon, who ‘performed more in our tongue’ (so Jonson declared) ‘which may be declared or preferred either to insolent Greece or haughty Rome’, then also fell catastrophically from grace. There were James’s favoured courtiers, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, dispatched to the Tower of London along with his wife Frances Howard after it was revealed that they’d conspired to poison Jonson’s friend, Sir Thomas Overbury, who’d opposed their marriage; and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, stabbed by an assassin’s knife in Portsmouth in 1628, prompting scenes of popular rejoicing.

Ben Jonson by George Vertue

Jonson thought hard in particular about literary fame: why some writers’ works should endure, while others lasted only a day. ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ he wrote in his great poem ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr William Shakespeare, And What He Hath Left Us’, printed at the head of the 1623 First Folio: a tribute to Shakespeare’s lasting powers more generous than any that had been uttered until that moment. Jonson was hopeful his own writings would likewise carry through for ‘remembrance with posterity’. He had good reason for this confidence. In his lifetime and throughout the century following his death Jonson was commonly regarded as the greatest of all English writers, living or dead. By the late eighteenth century, however, his reputation was already in decline, his achievements disparagingly contrasted with those of the great genius that Romantic critics were busily discovering: ‘Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Shakespeare!’, as the celebrated actor and theatrical entrepreneur David Garrick — a lover incidentally of the works of Ben Jonson — had ecstatically hailed him.

Throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Jonson’s works were comparatively ignored. In recent years, however, their boldness, range, and modernity have been increasingly recognized. Neglected plays are delighting new audiences with their surprising topicality. The entire Jonsonian canon has just been re-edited in a format attractive to modern readers. And the extraordinary complexities of Jonson’s life are gradually coming to light.

Ian Donaldson is the author of Ben Jonson: A Life and Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. An eminent scholar, Donaldson is a Fellow of the British Academy and past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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Image credit: Ben Jonson  by George Vertue. Public domain via Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

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