Life (5 Stars) and Lit Crit (Zero)
Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's slightly younger contemporary, is the earliest English author who left behind enough evidence to make a genuine biography possible. Not that the evidence is, by modern standards, voluminous. We do not know for certain when Jonson was born, who his father was or how long he went to school. His relationships with patrons and fellow writers are obscure, and his conduct was sometimes so reckless as to defy rational explanation. His determined efforts to fashion a persona only make his personality murkier. On paper, he was both a champion of morality and a venturer into the near neighborhood of pornography. In praxis, he seduced other men's wives while risking his own life and well-being as a religious dissident.
David Riggs' thorough biography emphasizes Jonson's contradictions. Actually, it may find more contradictions than really exist. The author appears to be a convinced disciple of modern critical theory, a searcher after ambiguity who frequently drowns text in subtext. Foucault, Barthes, Fish and lesser lights of the deconstructionist priesthood receive proper marks of respect. Happily, though, Riggs is not quite so dense as his inspirers; except when he quotes them directly, his meaning can be more or less understood.
With the lit crit trappings (happily only a fraction of the whole work) stripped away, the tale of Jonson's rise from bricklayer's stepson to cultural arbiter is fascinating. Though claiming descent from an official of Henry VIII's court, he grew up among the laboring classes and would doubtless have followed his stepfather into the bricklaying trade, had some unknown benefactor not enabled him to enroll at Winchester, one of the finest grammar schools of the day. While Riggs finds no evidence that young Ben's education continued beyond the Fourth Form (his prodigious classical learning came from adult reading), it was sufficient, apparently, to instill a love of books and literature that led him, after detours into the army and acting, as well as some serious scrapes with the law, to become a professional writer for the stage.
Jonson's career spanned the full range of the literary world of his time. In the beginning, he cadged advances from impresarios and earned so little that, after selling several plays, he returned for a while to his bricks. At the height, he enjoyed the bounty of royal and noble patrons, who rewarded him well for masques and occasional poems. At the end, though patrons grew fewer and his plays no longer appealed to the popular taste, he had the comfort of a circle of acolytes, the "Sons of Ben", and unrivaled prestige.
On the ups and downs of this life, Riggs' detailed account is clear and authoritative. On the other hand, his analysis of the plays and poems that make us interested in the life is more likely to puzzle than enlighten. Fellow scholars will no doubt find useful nuggets, but the reader whose acquaintance with Jonson is perhaps limited to a long-ago perusal of Volpone or Everyman in His Humour, and who wishes to get a better idea of the nature of the author's works, will find little help.
There is also one noteworthy omission. The first name that most readers will look for in Riggs' index is "Shakespeare", and they will find almost nothing. That gap stems from a praiseworthy reluctance to speculate beyond the evidence or to accept as evidence the dubious legends of later generations. Still, the subject is one on which a slight boldness of inference, or a thorough debunking of the legends, would be welcome.
A successful literary biography, someone has said, recruits new readers for its subject. This one does not pass that test, but, for anyone who is already interested in the second greatest dramatist of the Elizabethan Age, it will be quite satisfactory.