In 1616, Ben Jonson, along with publisher William Stansby, produced the first folio of English plays, embarking on a bold act of self-promotion, establishing Jonson as a kind of authority figure over all his work—a status previously reserved in the Renaissance for classical and sacred authors. The folio format itself, a medium for works meant to endure such as bibles, is just one of many ways in which Jonson claims authority. It is not difficult to see why Jonson ventured down this daring path: Jonson was himself daring. In his early life, he apprenticed as a bricklayer, was eventually educated at Westminster School by the great classical scholar William Camden, served in the military in what is today Belgium, defeated a Spanish shoulder in mortal combat, killed a fellow actor in a duel, pleaded the clergy to escape execution, and was involved in numerous public disputes with fellow actors, writers, and censors. Jonson, indeed, had a ferocious temperament and weighty convictions. And it was these two characteristics, coupled with his fervent respect and admiration for classics such as Horace, Ovid, and Virgil, that manifested within Jonson the need to prove that all his work was just that, work, in line with the classical authors he admired so much. Framing plays in this way, as works, was a new, even radical, way of understanding English drama and those who created it.
|William Camden: Jonson's teacher|
(Engraving taken from the Center's collection)
|This dedication to Camden serves the dual purpose of thanking Jonson's teacher while also advertising the author's learnedness|
|Frontispiece of 1692 folio|
The 1616 folio’s title page specifically excludes the theaters of contemporary London while aligning the author with the concept of theater itself. To the left of the book’s title is the word “PLAVSTRM”- carved with an image of Thepis driving a pageant wagon, and on the right, labeled “VISORIVM,” a Greek chorus in a round auditorium is depicted. Directly above the page is a Roman theater, marked ‘THEATRVM.” London’s contemporary theaters of the Blackfrairs, Globe, or Fortune are not to be seen. Contemporary theaters do, however, show up later within the Folio. At the end of selected plays, Jonson lists the acting groups who first performed the plays in question. Listing the theaters of London was an unusual technique in the Renaissance, especially for Jonson, and particularly in a folio, but it illustrates a very important point: by listing these groups Jonson subscribes to no single theater group; instead, Jonson is an employer of actors as opposed to an employee.
|A play quarto compared to a folio|
The folios are much more than a random collection of material; rather, they are entities unto themselves. Jonson, in the editing process, was diligent and judicious in his actions, including within his plays’ dedications, arguments, character lists, and extensive scene breaks. Alongside Stansby, Jonson edited and corrected the majority of proofs in the printing house, constantly making minor changes to spelling and punctuation, elements printers of the period often ignored. This was of extraordinary importance to Jonson and Stansby; they were assiduous even in their use of italics and capitalization to achieve the highest degree of consistency possible. For instance, headers are capitalized and character names in plays are italicized. During the lengthy printing process, over 2,500 changes were made to the folio. Jonson’s interest in these changes went far beyond simple grammatical correction; rather, for Jonson, the spelling and preciseness of his words were essential for the overall meaning of his plays, the aspect Jonson considered most important in his work.
|From the second edition of Jonson's folio|
|The table of contents of the 1692 folio|
The folios were a success, selling well, and establishing what Jonson wanted most, a historical legacy. In the same year his first folio was published, Jonson became Poet Laureate, receiving a royal pension. The success of the Jonson folio also established a market for folio texts of English dramas, paving the way for Shakespeare’s 1623 posthumous first folio. Because of this success, Jonson’s fate is irrevocably involved with the consumerism he despised; however, by using print, he gained the patronage he desired. It is in his folio, and authorial possession of his plays, that he also takes possession of all his work, molding it from ephemera to intellectual property. As Joseph Lowenstein describes in his book Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship, “Jonson imagines (constructs, yearns toward) nothing less than what modern law recognizes (constructs, imagines) as the moral right of authorship.” Jonson’s folios clearly contribute to how he and his society constructed authorship, and possibly more importantly, the way in which Jonson constructed authorship plays a noteworthy historical role in our contemporary construction of the concept of authorial authority.
|The title page of the Center's 1692 folio|