Ben Jonson, Works (1616; 1640)

First Folio, 1616

Ben Jonson's The Works, vol I, title page and portraitBen Jonson published the collected volume of his Works in 1616, when he was in his early forties.  It was an audacious act of self-promotion and a landmark event in English literary history. Prior to modern authorial copyright, the rights to printed texts were owned by stationers, or, in the case of plays, by theatre companies. Jonson took control of his own plays, insisting that they were his own intellectual labour, his works, by collecting and printing his plays, alongside his poems and masques, in his Works. The volume is carefully organised to present a coherent and magisterial career: Jonson leaves out his early plays, including The Case is Altered, and his collaborative plays, such as the troublesome Isle of Dogs; and he extensively revised his plays so that they are not so much scripts for performance as plays to be read in the comfort of a gentleman’s study. The resulting volume is an authoritative book: it is emblazoned with an engraved portrait of the author and an elaborate frontispiece, which identifies the book as a Renaissance classic, comparable to the works of Virgil and Horace.

Ben Jonson's The Works, vol I, title pageWork on the volume began in earnest in early 1615. Around this time, Jonson began working closely with the printer, William Stansby, known for the high quality of his work. Stansby worked in partnership with the bookseller, Richard Meighen, whose shop was on the Strand. It was Meighen who owned the copyright to Jonson’s texts. Typically, when authors sold their texts to a stationer, they relinquished their interest in the work as it went through the press. Jonson was very different, and therefore unusual in this period due to his close involvement in the printing of his Works. He worked closely with Stansby’s press-corrector in emending proofs to ensure the highest standards of production. The resulting book looks and was expensive. Paper was costly in this period; hence the generous layout of the pages, with their wide margins and ample white space, is indicative of the quality and the expense of the volume.

Second Folio, 1640-41

Ben Jonson's The Works, vol II, title pageJonson planned to bring out a second volume of his works, containing the later written works, with the publisher Robert Allot. The new printer did not live up to Jonson’s high expectations and only a small number were printed in 1631 before Jonson cancelled the project. Jonson died six years later and Stansby died the following year in 1638. Stansby’s rights to Jonson’s works were sold to Richard Bishop who then, in 1640, reprinted a corrected and emended version of 1616 volume for the publisher-bookseller, Andrew Crooke, which became the first volume of this Second Folio. The second volume included the as yet unpublished or uncollected plays, poems, entertainments and epistles.

The publication history of the Second Folio is complicated by a series of complex negotiations over the rights to the texts collected in this second volume. Philip Chetwinde, who had married Robert Allot’s widow, appears to have sold much of Allot’s stocks, including Jonson’s texts, to Richard Meighen, the bookseller involved in the original 1616 Folio. Crooke, who owned the rights to three of the plays printed in Allot’s 1631 edition, also sold his rights in these plays to Meighen. Hence, the title pages to the first and second volumes bear different publication details: the first volume has the notice that copies were ‘Printed by Richard Bishop and are to be sold by Andrew Crooke at St Paules Churchyard’; while the second volume simply states ‘Printed for Richard Meighen’

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