As I often tell folks, my path to graduate school was paved by the work of two writers: Michel Foucault, and the great early modern playwright Ben Jonson. During an advanced seminar my senior year at college, I wrote a paper arguing that Jonson’s pervasive attempts to insert himself into his own work as both writer and master interpreter in the various prefaces and dramatic inductions accompanying the publications of his plays in his Folio, simultaneously anticipated and responded to Foucault’s musings on the nature of authorship in his seminal essay, “What is an Author?” In the early modern era, playwrights — much like modern-day screenwriters — received far lower billing than the actors who brought their works to life (go ahead — take a minute, jot down the names of all the screenwriters whose films you have seen in the last year. Repeat the exercise for actors and actresses — what’s the ratio? 5:1? 10:1?). Jonson saw actors as a hindrance more than anything else, and took an even dimmer view of theater audiences, who he felt were unworthy to offer any criticism of his plays. Even when tasked with writing a eulogy for his Shakespeare in 1623, he could not resist stroking his own ego in the process by lamenting that his friend was possessed of “small Latin and less Greek,” a reference to Jonson’s considerable knowledge of both languages.
Shakespeare’s status as author of his own plays continuously comes under fire precisely because there are no direct links between the man and his work, at least not of the sort that Jonson provided. Whether Shakespeare thought at all about how future readers and audiences would receive his work, we simply don’t know; the plays and poems are all that we have go to by. Jonson was a much different character. Like Petrarch before him, Jonson was keen to dictate not only how he should be praised in the present, but also how he should be lauded in centuries to come. I was fascinated by this — by the sense that Jonson was so confident of his status as a creative genius and master writer that he would work so hard to take interpretive control of his own work. Psychoanalysis and anxieties aside, Jonson struck me as worthy of admiration for refusing to allow the public to claim ownership of his ideas. Shakespeare, on the other hand, seems not to have cared little — or at least, far less — about the public’s perspectives on his plays. Scattered, dismissive references to the plebeian tastes of his audiences suggest merely that he harbored disgust for the “groundlings” who seemed more excited about the simple theatrics of the boy actors who played in various theaters around London in the early 1600s, than in the work of mature, talented actors. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz speaks contemptuously about the “little eyases” (eagles) who “cry out on the top of questions, and are tyranically clapped for’t.”
Jonson — whose plays were often performed by children’s companies in the prestigious Blackfriars theater — did not resort to such subtle tactics. Instead, he plainly called out his audience as being unworthy of judging his writing through various meta-theatrical tactics. Among the most prominent — and my favorite — is found in the “Induction” to Bartholomew Fair (1614), in which the stage-keeper appears before the start of the play proper to inform the audience that the price of their ticket allows them to only comment in kind. Furthermore, the purchase of the ticket does not entitle audience members to misinterpret the play, or to accuse the author of incorporating blasphemous oaths, touchy political satire, or (worst of all) neglecting to include popular elements of stage comedies, such as trained monkeys.
Ultimately, although Jonson was responsible for my impetus to pursue doctoral studies, I found myself getting increasingly wrapped up in the work of other playwrights as my studies progressed. In the end, I made the decision to cut my dissertation chapter on Jonson to open more room for discussions of methodology and cognitive studies research. I don’t regret the decision — the dissertation was much more focused as a result — but I have been itching to get back to work on Jonson’s plays. This urge has gotten stronger following a flurry of recent reviews of Ian Donaldson’s new bibliography of Jonson, Ben Jonson: A Life. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy very soon, although my book budget has been severely strained by my post-Christmas spree. For the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with lush, expansive reviews, such as this one by Brian Vickers in the literary supplement of the London Times.
Perhaps I’ll return to Foucault’s side of the story in a later post!