Ben Jonson's contemporaries admired him above all other playwrights and poets of the English Renaissance. He was the great refiner who alchemized the bleakest aspects of everyday life into brilliant images of folly and deceit. He was also a celebrated reprobate and an ambitious entrepreneur. David Riggs illuminates every facet of this extraordinary career, giving us the first major biography of Jonson in over sixty years.The story of Jonson's life provides a broad view of the literary procession in early modern England and the milieu in which Elizabethan drama was produced. Beginning as a journeyman actor, Jonson was soon a novice playwright; his first important play was staged in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast. He was by turns the self-styled leader of a literary elite, a writer of court masques, the first dramatist to publish his own "Works," a royal pensioner, and a genteel poet. As Jonson transformed himself from an artisan into a gentleman, his need to transcend his class origins led him to murder, to his notorious quarrels with Thomas Dekker, John Marston, and Inigo Jones, and to his lifelong rivalry with Shakespeare. Riggs traces the roots of Jonson's aggressiveness back to the turmoil of his childhood and adolescence. He offers new and convincing accounts of Jonson's latent hostility toward his bricklayer stepfather, his reckless marriage to Anne Lewis, and his conflicted relationships with his children.This vivid portrait synthesizes six decades of scholarship and new historical evidence. Sixty halftones beautifully illustrate the story and capture the spirit of the age. With Riggs' original interpretations of Jonson's masterpieces and lesser known works, "Ben Jonson: A Life" will prove the standard account of this complex man's life and works for many years to come."
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(230mm x 160mm x 23mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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US Kirkus Review »
A comprehensive, scholarly biography of the Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatist and poet; by Stanford Univ. professor Riggs, who here also illuminates the elaborate literary theories that underlay the structures of Jonson's plays - including Volpone, Cynthia's Revels, and Every Man in His Humour. Riggs traces Jonson's rise from a bricklayer's apprentice to England's leading literary figure. The consummate "literary careerist," Jonson's was often nearly derailed by his hot temper and independent nature. Accused of sedition, he was imprisoned several times and came close to being hanged; in his youth, he killed two men and indulged in a number of adulterous relationships. Riggs shows how Jonson was nevertheless able to transcend his background and transmute it through his enormous talent into literary gold. His popular comedies eventually brought him to the attention of King James I, who hired Jonson to fashion elaborate court dances and entertainments. As a courtier, Jonson was a loyal supporter of the new king, who rewarded his "well beloved servant" with an annual pension. Jonson also broke new ground when he became the first English playwright to publish his plays in folio form. After Charles I succeeded James I, the monarchy fell upon hard financial times and Jonson's pension was irregularly paid; his career also began to wane swiftly. Jonson died in near penury in 1637 and was buried in the poet's corner of Westminster Abbey. In this painstakingly thorough biography, Riggs describes in detail Jonson's milieu - the rise of London's new urban classes, the inner workings of the Jacobean Court, the growth in popularity of the theater, and the web of literary rivalries and friendships that Jonson wove about himself. Riggs' reliance on a scholarly armature, however, often weighs down the narrative flow. (Kirkus Reviews)
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