Grandson of a Scottish minister. Posthumously born (1572) to a clergyman father. Unhappy stepson of a bricklayer, to whom he was even more unhappily apprenticed. Brilliant student at one of London’s best schools, where he was taught by one of the time’s best teachers. Successful soldier. Unsuccessful actor. Mediocre tutor (to the son of Sir Walter Ralegh). Jailbird at least four times–once nearly executed for killing a fellow actor in a duel. Philandering husband, who particularly liked seducing married women. Father, but with no children who survived him. Playwright who rivals Shakespeare, in many senses of the word “rivals.” Convert to Catholicism, then, a decade later, convert back to Protestantism. Governmental spy. Gifted friend of some of the most important people of his era (including aristocrats, statesmen, poets). Searcher for patronage, sometimes successful, often not. Writer of court masques for king (James I and Charles I), queen (James’s wife, Anne), and prince (James’s son Henry). Central, and intransigent, figure in several of the age’s literary feuds. Talented practitioner of the plain style in his short poetry. Poet laureate, eventually, the first to be so honored; also the first to publish his plays in a folio volume, paving the way for Shakespeare’s First Folio. Public celebrity, including being awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. Paid (sort of) historian for the city of London. Invalid–victim of a paralyzing stroke–for the last decade or so of his life. Lived until 1637; the motto above his grave in Westminster Abbey: “O Rare Ben Jonson.”
So our task in this class is to confront this astonishing character via reading about his life and reading much of what he wrote: most of the poems; many of his plays (including his masterpieces, Volpone , Epicene , The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair ); his literary criticism; and a few of his court masques. I will lecture where needed, but we will have plenty of time for in-class discussions (and many reports; see below).
Assignments will mimic the kind of writing and other activities that Jonson himself did, insofar as this is possible in the modern academic environment. So, just as Jonson gathered the “sons of Ben” about him of an evening in various London taverns, you will be producing throughout the semester a series of e-letters (these will be distributed to the class via our Laulima site) on the various Jonsonian texts that we will be reading; you will be participating avidly in class discussions; and, in lieu of a midterm, you will give in class an oral report on one of Jonson’s lyric poems. Jonson kept a commonplace book, a record of memorable quotations from his reading; so you too will keep a commonplace book, in which you will record striking generalizations you have come across about Jonson and his work. The conversation that Jonson had with William Drummond of Hawthornden in the middle of Jonson’s prodigious walking tour from London to Scotland (and back) in 1618 is recorded in the Conversations; you will pick an entry from this book and explicate it in a written report. Jonson was in the habit of writing prefaces to his plays, so you will read and write a summary of the prefatory material in an important edition of one the plays that we will be reading. He also had a long battle with Inigo Jones about who was more important in the production of court masques–the lyricist (i.e., Jonson) or the set designer (i.e., Jones). You will so a report on a masque that we won’t be reading as a class. Finally, even after his stroke Jonson kept on writing almost until the day he died; at the end of our course, you will write a final examination and a long essay on any aspect of Jonson’s achievement (if you are a creative writer, this could take the form of poems + a critical afterword).To stave off your own fatality, the higher of those last two grades will count toward the point values for both assignments.
Texts: James Loxley, The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson (2002); George Parfitt, ed., Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems (1996); Gordon Campbell, ed., Ben Jonson: The Alchemist and Other Plays (1995) [the other plays are Volpone, Or The Fox; Epicene, Or The Silent Woman; and Bartholomew Fair]; and Margaret Jane Kidnie, ed., Ben Jonson: The Devil Is an Ass and Other Plays (2000) [the other plays are Poetaster, Or The Arraignment; Sejanus, His Fall; and The New Inn, Or The Light]. I’ll give you handouts with the texts of the court masques that we will all read.