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Once every century since Ben Jonson’s death in 1637 (so it would seem) a new attempt is made to prepare a complete edition of his collected writings. Each new edition is designed to meet the scholarly needs and expectations of its day, and each has succeeded in being, in some way or another, more ‘complete’ than its predecessor. In 1640–1 a three-volume folio edition brought together as many of the writings of the recently deceased author as were then available. This edition, the second folio, included the contents of the ambitious (if selective) first folio of his Works which Jonson himself had assembled in mid-career in 1616, and added two further volumes containing many of his subsequent writings. The new tastes of eighteenth-century readers, and the growing demand for critical and scholarly explication, led to the publication in 1756 of Peter Whalley’s seven-volume octavo edition of Jonson’s works. This was a more compendious collection than that of 1640–1, for it included a number of texts that had surfaced belatedly (some of which had already appeared in a third folio edition of Jonson’s works – in other respects, a reprise of the 1640–1 folio – published in 1692). William Gifford’s nine-volume edition in 1816, ‘with notes critical and explanatory and a biographical memoir’, incorporated the rapidly developing editorial skills and interests of the Romantic period. It reflected also the passions of an editor determined to restore the reputation of an author who, in his view, had been unjustly neglected by those too narrowly obsessed by Shakespeare’s supposed pre-eminence. Gifford’s edition was revised and expanded in 1871 by Francis Cunningham, who added a number of further works by or about Ben Jonson that had recently been discovered by J. P. Collier and David Laing. For readers throughout much of the twentieth century, C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson’s monumental eleven-volume Oxford Ben Jonson of 1925–52 – which enlarged the canon in other ways – served as the definitive scholarly edition of Jonson’s works. More is said about the qualities of the Oxford Ben Jonson below, as well as in the acknowledgements to this edition, while the textual essay that follows this introduction assesses in further detail all of these early attempts to present a collected or ‘complete’ edition of Jonson’s writings.
The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson differs significantly from all of its predecessors not merely in its content, but in its formal arrangement and in its medium of delivery. The edition presents Jonson’s complete writings for readers of the twenty-first century in the light of current editorial thinking and recent scholarly interpretation and discovery. It offers a clear sense, afforded by no other previous edition, of the shape, scale, and variety of the entire Jonsonian canon, and its chronological progression. It provides well-annotated modernized texts for pleasurable reading by students, scholars, theatrical practitioners, and anyone wishing to explore the work of Shakespeare’s great contemporary. Through the innovative use of new technology, the edition also makes available, in searchable format, a large and continually renewable stock of ancillary material, likely to serve the interests not merely of students of Ben Jonson, but of scholars working more generally in the early modern period or on particular aspects of social, textual, bibliographical, or performance history.