“Put not / Beyond the sphere of your activity”: the fictional afterlives of Ben Jonson

Richard O'Brien

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

190 Downloads (Pure)


This article investigates the cultural assumptions which underpin five twentieth and twenty-first century fictional depictions of Ben Jonson. Despite the wealth of documentary evidence for Jonson's dramatic and fractious biography, its particular richness has rarely captured the imagination of contemporary authors. To account for the much-reduced presence Jonson occupies in the ongoing fictionalization of the English Renaissance, the author outlines the development of a pseudo-biographical narrative of Jonson's life which evolved over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in relation to the emerging narrative of Shakespeare's.

Jonson came to be presented as pedantic, ponderous, and ultimately outclassed by the dramatist who was his main contemporary rival, whose early reputation he was instrumental in creating. Furthermore, this gradual diminution of Jonson's own complexities was directly linked to his success within his lifetime. Outliving Shakespeare and offering an alternative model for theatrical achievement, Jonson presented a threat which had to be neutralized in the service of a protective impulse towards Shakespeare's reputation as a unique genius.

The article offers some early instances of semi-fictional anecdotes about Jonson and Shakespeare which present the two dramatists as interchangeable subjects. It then assesses at length more recent Jonson-characters in Brahms and Simon's No Bed for Bacon, Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, Edward Bond's Bingo, Rudyard Kipling's “Proofs of Holy Writ”, and Jude Morgan's The Secret Life of William Shakespeare in the light of the historical reframing of Jonson's life and temperament. Finally, it makes the case for Jonson's story as one particularly suited to our current cultural landscape.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-191
Number of pages23
JournalBen Jonson Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016


Dive into the research topics of '“Put not / Beyond the sphere of your activity”: the fictional afterlives of Ben Jonson'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this