Creating a Legacy

Our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on how Ben Jonson’s publication of his folio of Works may have been an attempt by him to influence the legacy he woud leave behind.

One of the major reasons for including Ben Jonson in our 2016 programme is the 400th anniversary of the publication of his first folio of Works, an event somewhat overlooked by the general public due to Shakespeare also having a 400th anniversary (that of his death). As with most historical figures, the motivation behind Jonson’s decision to publish a selection of his writings at a certain point in his life is not really known. He was one of the first people in history to publish his plays and poems within his own lifetime, and with his own editorial hand at the helm; a fact which shows that such an occurrence was not the norm.

The first idea I had about what may have compelled Jonson to take this unusual step was to wonder if perhaps his attachment to the concept of being a ‘poet’, and his apparent belief that this was somehow a more pure vocation than ‘playwright’ (as I have pondered before), meant that he drew a distinction between plays, which are written to be enacted, and poems, which are generally just read. Almost immediately, the holes in that argument were apparent. First, if Jonson was truly ashamed of play-making, he would not have included any of his dramas in the publication, yet his folio included nine plays, thirteen masques, and six further ‘entertainments’. Second, the line between poetry and playwriting is blurred when one considers verse drama of the type that was in fashion in Jonson’s era.

Moreover, poetry isn’t just for reading in solitude. Poets frequently share their work with audiences at readings, and this would have been even more the case for those during the Renaissance who were subsidised by wealthy patrons; performing their works for their noble supporters was part and parcel of their job. Going back further, poetry was performance. Although rarely presented as such today, we would do well to remember that Beowulf or The Odyssey were part of an oral culture, poetry that was only ever shared through performance, never originally through someone sitting down and opening a book. In antiquity or early medieval times, the distinction between poetry and drama was extremely blurry indeed.

Jonson was part of the first era when a dramatist could hope to have two audiences: those in the seats at the theatre, and those reading the play script subsequently. Publishing individual plays in those days may have been a way of advertising them, of keeping them in circulation for second or third runs. Publishing a collection together, though, was beyond advertising; an exercise in the control of posterity. Jonson must surely have had a sense that he was creating something, to use the words he would later write for Shakespeare’s posthumous folio, “for all time”, and that in doing so during his own lifetime, he got to have the final say about what was included. It is impossible to imagine today what it must have been like for those alive during the early eras of printing, to first realise that they could leave something behind that could potentially last forever, and not just in one precious manuscript, but in a form which could be replicated and thus have it spread out to an ever-widening audience. Previously that kind of legacy would have been only available to the highest reaches of society; now those in middle class employment, like writers for the theatre, could contemplate leaving an echo of themselves for the future.

The legacy Jonson left through the publication of his folio of Works came with an extra irony attached. Arguably more famous in some circles than Shakespeare in his own period, Jonson’s publication inspired that of Shakespeare’s work a few years later (an event in which Shakespeare, many years dead, did not get a say); without Jonson’s Works we might not have Shakespeare’s, which overtime threw Jonson’s into shadow. It’s hard to imagine that Jonson intended such an outcome resulting from a project he may have begun in furtherance of his own fame. Which, in a sense, brings the topic full circle: proof that publication within one’s own lifetime, no matter how sincere an attempt at controlling one’s own imprint upon history, can’t guarantee control over future circumstances. Even the ideas and information contained in printed works, like that in plays onstage, become the communal property of the wider world once they have been shared with others, whether that is across the footlights, or on the pages of a book.