Ben Jonson’s book

This is the story of how one man, the playwright Ben Jonson, revolutionised the English stage, founded the reputation of William Shakespeare, and drastically altered the history of English literature.

The golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama lasted less than 100 years between 1540-1640. At the start of this period groups of travelling players presented morality plays based on bible stories; at the end of it the Puritans succeeded in closing the theatres on moral grounds for over a decade. But during that century drama developed from crude tableaux into great literature as men of genius such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dekker, Fletcher, Massinger and Jonson  wrote and created a new art form.

1 Mystery and morality playsMystery and morality plays

This theatre world was a small world, with small numbers, London based. About six companies in the service of a patron, and, later, about six companies with a commercial setting based on ownership of a theatre. This represented about fifty actors in total, with many others attached to the acting periphery: writing and revising plays, printing and hawking playbills, providing musical accompaniment and costumes. Seven stars dominated this world. Three actors, Will Kempe (c.1555-c.1603), Edward Alleyn (1566-1626) and Richard Burbage (1567-1619); and four playwrights, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), and John Fletcher (1579-1625). Each playwright wrote a different kind of material, and their plays were popular in turn as the drama developed in subtlety, characterisation and structure.

Playwright vs dramatist

We know Shakespeare as the world’s greatest dramatist, but he wasn’t a dramatist originally, in his life time. He was a playwright. The difference was important. A dramatist produces literary works in dramatic form. A playwright makes plays. Plays consist of text, directions for the actors, descriptions of scenes, costumes, special effects such as duels and cannon shots, contemporary references, and scope for actors’ improvisations. Many people are needed to help make a play. In a sense they were made by the company as a whole that performed them.


Philip Henslowe was a major play producer of that period, and he kept a diary which has survived. Henslowe’s Diary is really a collection of notes about plays that were produced by him, and in it we can see something of how plays were then written. Many authors were put to work together to ‘write’ a play for Henslowe, and paid a pittance. His need was to produce a play quickly, perhaps in a day, and to do so he needed a production line. The authors were unimportant, their names were not published, and attribution of those plays which have survived is extremely difficult. It’s reminiscent of the labyrinthine history of the original Star Trek scripts, such as Space Seed, which introduced the superman Khan. It was written for another series entirely, adapted by the author for Star Trek, re-written by two other writers, producers Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry, and served as the basis for a feature film. Who was the author? The chaotic situation of Elizabethan and Jacobean authorship of drama only changed because of the unprecedented popularity and success of the King’s Men and their chief writer’s (Shakespeare) continued production of material. Nevertheless, the few references to Shakespeare by his contemporaries refer to his narrative poems, and only secondarily to his plays, many of which could have been collaboratively written as was the custom. Still, for Thomas Dekker, one of Henslowe’s hacks and one of the most talented of Elizabethan playwrights, a play was just a play, a minor thing.

2 AlchemistSubtle (Bruce Cromer, left) as the all-knowing alchemist foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Jonson’s The Alchemist (Photo Jerry Dalia)


Elizabethan and Jacobean actors did not expect plays to have long runs. They learnt their lines in a day, and most probably not very exactly. This meant they may have contributed to the text of a play by improvisation or error. In this connection John Heminges’ statement, in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, that the players always received a clean copy from Shakespeare’s hand, not a copy with alterations, is notable. Despite the rush that play production inevitably was, Shakespeare always apparently took the time to write out a clean copy for the players, easier for them to follow and learn.

Actors were expected to ‘play’ the crowd, following along scenes that got a good reception much like vaudeville performers did. Sometimes they may have spouted nonsense because they simply forgot lines. And occasionally they might have had real inspiration, and thought of lines the company kept in the text. Actors as well were often the source for a play’s printed text. Who better to ask, in the absence of a reliable manuscript, than the man who had spoken the lines? The results were variable.

Actors were expected to learn lines quickly, improvise, mug their lines or change their intonations for effect or to change the lines’ meanings, mime, duel with swords, perform acrobatics such as pratfalls, falling from balconies and so on, sing and play a musical instrument, address members of the audience directly, describe non existent scenery, and play convincingly female parts. And act.

3 AlchemistDavid Manis as Subtle, Jeff Biehl as Abel Drugger and Michael Milligan as Face in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman. Review

Literary status

Despite the popularity of plays, writing them was considered an unimportant activity, the plays mere peripheral entertainment. They were the television of that era. Many, perhaps most, plays of the period have been lost, and many playwrights remain unknown (do you know the names of the script writers for your favourite TV show?) We know of two playwrights whose lives were considered expendable by Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, Marlowe and Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), even though they were the greatest playwrights of her reign.

This disregard was altered by one man, with one book. Because of its publication we have come to admire the plays of William Shakespeare and 20 plays of his that otherwise would not have survived, plays such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night and the Tempest. The man was Ben Jonson, the book The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, published in 1616, and the first commercially published book in England to include contemporary stage plays, the first book to declare current plays works of literature. Most of the literate world of London then thought this was absurd, but opinions have since changed. Three men had an important part to play in this shift of opinion.

John Heminges

The first was John Heminges (1556-1630), an actor. His first known contact with an actor’s life was in 1588, when he married 16 year old Rebecca Knell, an actor’s widow. Her husband was with the Queen’s Men, and had been killed in a duel with another member of the company. By 1593 Heminges was in Lord Strange’s Company, then the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (who became the King’s Men when they obtained the patronage of King James). He was a shareholder in the company, and so was part owner of the Globe theatre. Heminges was also a successful grocer with a large establishment in the city. He served as the King’s Men’s financial manager, one of the most responsible positions in the company. It is not known if he wrote or contributed to any plays himself.  He seems to have been a close friend of Shakespeare, performed several tasks for him, and was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will.

4 volponeJonson’s Volpone 1941 France, directed by Maurice Tourneur. Jacqueline Delubac as Columba, Harry Baur as Volpone and Louis Jouvet as Mosca. Review

Heminges was instrumental in gathering the plays of Shakespeare into what is known as the First Folio, published in 1623. From about 1598 he played parts in several plays written by Ben Jonson (as did Shakespeare), and may well have been involved in the work of assembling texts for some of Johnson’s plays (in which he had played) for Johnson’s first folio, published in 1616. If so, the experience may have sparked a desire to do the same for the King’s Men and their chief playwright William Shakespeare, who had died that same year of 1616. Heminges must have spent some time gathering manuscripts and consulting published texts before Shakespeare’s First Folio came out in 1623.

As the King’s Men’s financial manager Heminges had an even more vital role to play, because it was he who kept the company largely free of government interference, on the road, and financially viable and in need of more work from Shakespeare. It was Heminges who collected court payments and made a good impression on court officials. It was Heminges who met with the Master of Revels and persuaded him that passages objected to were not seditious nor immoral. Thanks to his diplomacy some saucy stuff slipped through to delight the groundlings. Shakespeare is indeed a seditious and obscene playwright at times, even if we don’t recognise the language as such, and this kind of material made sure he kept his audience, and the King’s Men their income.

Ben Jonson

If any defence of plays and the writing of them needed to be made, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), actor and playwright,  was the man for it. Jonson was one who loved an argument, and was opinionated enough to get one time and again. He started life as a bricklayer, apprenticed to his foster father. Apparently he had been intended to study at Cambridge University, where Marlowe had been given a degree in the 80s, but financial considerations dictated a bricklaying career, from which he escaped by joining the army. (In the same way William Shakespeare may have been intended for university study but forced into the glover’s trade to assist his father’s finances). By the 1590s Johnson was working as actor and playwright for Philip Henslowe, an important producer of that time, just as Shakespeare was for another, James Burbage. Theatre was an expanding market, opportunities plentiful, and fortunes being made.

5 steve-hope-wynne-and-pip-brignall-in-volponeSteve Hope-Wynne and Pip Brignall in Volpone by Ben Jonson. Photo Scena Mundi

There was no John Heminges to smooth Jonson’s path. He was jailed twice for seditious lines, and once for manslaughter (a duel). He engaged in acrimonious disputes with other playwrights, and generally showed himself intractable and pugnacious. Jonson later obtained the patronage of the King, and wrote a number of masques, a kind of musical play with mime, for the court, which earned him more money than his plays (Henslowe was a notoriously stingy payer), and guaranteed him royal protection. In fact he was granted a pension in 1616. Jonson, though he had not attended university, had furthered his education, and was self taught. He was fluent in Latin and Greek, and knew many works of classical Greek and Latin literature. These were referenced in his plays, and Jonson was proud both of his learning and his writing. Perhaps he used his pension to fund a publication in 1616, that of his ‘workes’, presented as the humanists were then publishing the classical authors of antiquity. If any book said, “I am as good as any classical author” it was Jonson’s publication, a chip-on-the-shoulder assertion that attracted much discussion. In some ways Jonson is reminiscent of Michelangelo, a pugnacious defender of the status of the ‘artist’: just as Shakespeare is of the more reticent Leonardo.

As they had acted and worked together (especially if Heminges had worked on Jonson’s 1616 folio) it would not be surprising to find Heminges had involved Jonson in assembling and editing the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works. Jonson may have acted in some of the plays. He had certainly criticised some of them to Shakespeare’s face, hard to imagine otherwise. Now he contributed the first considered assessment of Shakespeare’s work yet made to that time, one that was eventually to establish Shakespeare as the greatest of English dramatists (even though Jonson would have thought that position belonged to him). It was a portrait of a ‘natural’ genius, whom he loved as man and artist, who should have used more care in his composition. It was a portrait of a painter made by a sculptor and that perspective should be recognised when reading Jonson’s introductory lines to Shakespeare’s plays.

6 sejanusA kind of prequel to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Jonson’s Sejanus. A review here:

John Fletcher

John Fletcher (1579-1625), the best loved playwright of James’ reign, may have been off to a rocky start, as his father Richard was a cleric who fell afoul of the religious politics of Elizabeth’s reign. Fletcher attended Cambridge university and was intended for the church, but by 1606 he had moved to the theatre, without taking a degree at Cambridge, and had formed a close friendship with Ben Jonson, and with Francis Beaumont with whom he had a successful collaboration with plays for the King’s Men till Beaumont’s illness in 1613. Fletcher then collaborated with Shakespeare, then with Philip Massinger, but died from plague infection in 1625.

Fletcher excelled at the tragicomedy, a mixed genre he pioneered and that influenced Shakespeare. He too, had his reputation consolidated by a folio edition of his plays. In fact, there were two, one 1647, one 1679, an indication how long lasting his reputation was (today Fletcher’s plays are hardly ever performed). The first folio was published during the period the theatres were closed by the Puritans, and featured a poem by Ben Jonson. It was dedicated to the fourth Earl of Pembroke (one of the dedicatees of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio). Both volumes show the influence of Jonson, whose conception of ‘collected works’ they follow. By 1647 there was no question plays should be considered literature, especially as they could only be accessed in printed form at that time.

The Restoration

Charles II was a lover of theatre and the playwrights of his reign, such as Congreve, Wycherley, Etheredge and Shadwell, supplied the stage with many works right from the start of the Restoration period in 1660. Comedy was based on French models such as the plays of Molière. Women actors were introduced, and elaborate stage machinery. Relations between the sexes was a constant theme, and matters were sometimes treated rather explicitly, so that later ages thought it decadent.




Two beaux – the original dirty rotten scoundrels – are penniless after living the good life in London, so their strategy is to find and seduce a wealthy heiress and get all her money. The lusty, swashbuckling romp, THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM, performs weekends May 30 - June 22 at Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis. For reservations and information, call the box office at 612-333-3010. (shown: Megan Dowd, Ware Carlton-Ford, Mark L. Mattison)

George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707). Megan Dowd, Ware Carlton-Ford, Mark L. Mattison. Photo Ron Ravensborg. Review at

All this made the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods look old fashioned. Yet the existence of folios of Jonson, Shakespeare and Fletcher demonstrated these playwrights’ literary worth. Once popular and much loved, they were now considered inept and primitive. Kyd and Jonson were thought not to know how to construct a play, and Marlowe was full of bombast. Shakespeare and Fletcher couldn’t write dialogue, and didn’t understand the classical unities of time and place. The solution was to rewrite these earlier playwrights’ work, to correct their faults, to try to make them contemporary.

It was not until David Garrick started performing works by Shakespeare and Jonson from 1742 at the Drury Lane theatre that these plays were at last seen in a style close to their original performances. Garrick’s advocacy, and Samuel Johnson’s monumental edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, first established Shakespeare as a great playwright, as John Heminges had claimed in the 1623 First Folio.

So, 150 years after Ben Jonson’s folio of 1616, Shakespeare began to be appreciated. And that book of 1616 was crucial to his reputation. Without it, there would probably have been no folio of Shakespeare’s or Fletcher’s work. Shakespeare would have remained one of the minor Elizabethan playwrights. And millions of books on the subject would have remained unwritten.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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