Jonson's Workes

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Ben Jonson, The Workes of Beniamin Jonson. London: William Stansby, 1616.

Image source: University of Oregon Rare Books Collection

Shakespeare’s First Folio was not the first collection of the works of an English playwright in a handsome and imposing folio edition. Instead, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and actor, as well as an admired poet and author of entertainments for King James I, was first to conceive of his writing, including his plays, as meriting publication in folio. Understanding Jonson’s innovation is crucial for understanding how Shakespeare’s reputation as a culturally valued playwright was formed and was able to grow. Jonson’s publication, at the simplest level, paved the way for the similar publication of Shakespeare’s writings in folio. But the 1616 Jonson Workes  has much larger cultural significance in its claims on behalf of an author’s stake in controlling his own work.

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson

Frontispiece to Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616). Jonson’s use of “Workes” rather than “Plays” in his title and his images of classical theaters here illustrate his ambitious claims for the value of his dramatic writing.

Jonson’s inclusion of many of his plays in his 1616 folio volume also marked a startling claim on behalf of theater. The expensive folio format had heretofore been reserved for classical and religious works, histories and maps, and works by those of high birth. The size, careful printing, and expense of folios marked their contents as prestigious. King James himself had published several works in folio by this time. Only a few works of literature in English had been published in folio – Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. One English poet, Samuel Daniel, had recently published a collection of his Works  in folio in 1601.

Plays were not likely candidates for this prestigious form of publication. For one thing, plays were often seen as public entertainment of little value and attacked as incitements to idleness and vice. In England’s religious society, theater and actors were seen as telling lies, a serious sin. That thieves, prostitutes, and apprentices playing hooky from their labors frequented the public theaters contributed to plays’ and actors’ low reputation among the propertied Citizens of London, who banned theaters within city limits.


Catalogue (table of contents) of the Workes (1616). Note that Jonson leads with his plays, which also comprise the majority of content of the entire volume. Jonson selected these plays and edited some of them anew for publication, a rare act by an author at the time.

Then, too, playwrights did not publish their own plays. They couldn’t: they did not own their plays’ copyright. The theater companies owned the play texts once they paid the plays’ authors. Theater companies could change plays’ wording at will. Theater companies, in turn, lost control over plays’ copyrights when they sold play manuscripts to publishers to earn money or to build audience interest in revivals. The publishers could print the text they preferred, and playwrights would not have expected to be consulted on the published text. Indeed, authors’ names were often omitted from plays’ title pages, in favor of the name of the theater company, which was seen as the real generator of the play’s content. While playwrights complained from time to time about the changes made to their work by actors or about shoddy printing jobs, most would have seen their work as intended for performance, as “published” when performed.

In our era, which places a high value on protecting the intangible intellectual “property” of writers, this routine alienation of control over a piece of writing from its author seems utterly foreign and counterintuitive. That very emotion – the feeling that authors “should” own their ideas, not publishers – owes something to Ben Jonson. The rise of Shakespeare and our desire to know what he intended to say (rather than, say, wanting to know how the King’s Men told the story of Macbeth ), is part of a larger story about changing views of authors and authorship, a story in which Jonson is a major innovator. (The early modern world’s lack of authorial copyright did have an important advantage: early modern authors might borrow and even quote freely from their reading and were valued for doing so. A rich web of communal reference, with ideas seen as possessed jointly by all, led to interesting textual allusions, recombinations, and retellings. To help see the literary potential of this way of thinking of ideas in common, we can note that virtually all of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays are based on stories composed by others.)

More than other playwrights, Jonson resented this system and the control of play content by theater companies and publishers rather than authors. He questioned the input of actors and the opinions of audiences, seeing his own ideas and words as superior. He saw his plays not as unrefined mass culture but as carefully crafted works on the model of classical drama, of a piece with his virtuoso lyric poetry and deserving the same esteem as his entertainments and masques for King James’s court. Ordering and at least partly revising his works to his liking, Jonson oversaw publication of his writings in folio. His Workes  was published by the talented William Stansby in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death. The bulk of this volume consisted of 10 of his plays Jonson selected to represent him best and which he placed first in the book.


A child’s doodle found in the University of Oregon’s copy of Jonson’s Workes.

Jonson’s Workes  was the first folio to contain English plays. His design for the title page emphasized the classical models he reworked and his sense of the monumental nature of his writing. This publication would have seemed startling to English readers in its claims on behalf of a humbly-born author and on behalf of theater. Within the world of theater, it must have been exhilarating to many. For Shakespeare’s friends and co-shareholders of the King's Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, Jonson’s Workes  suggested a new way to think about and honor their colleague.

Our images of Jonson’s Workes include his complex frontispiece, with its symbolic claims for the importance and classical influence of his writing; the table of contents, listing selected plays, collections of poetry, and court entertainments; and an interesting example of an early modern child’s doodle found in the University of Oregon’s copy. This copy is likely to have belonged to the 17th-century Sir William Henry Skipwith, and his son, Henry Skipwith, 1st Baronet of Prestwould, a poet himself who would have been an admirer of Jonson.