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From the first months following its appearance in bookshops around St Paul's Churchyard in the late fall of 1616, The Workes of Beniamin Jonson attracted a vigorous critical response. Other literary collections containing plays written for the private and public stages had preceded it: nine assortments of plays and poems by Samuel Daniel were published between 1594 and 1611; The Monarchic Tragedies, a quartet of closet dramas by Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, appeared in a 1604 quarto and 1616 octavo edition; the three quarto printings of George Gascoigne’s work included a comedy, a tragedy, and a masque. However, the scope of the Jonson collection as well as its use of the word ‘Workes’ in the title set the folio apart from earlier volumes, and almost immediately after it was issued, voices of criticism and praise began to appear in print: the preacher (and later Dean of Canterbury) John Boys sniffed, ‘yea, the very plays of a modern poet, are called in print his works’ (1617, sig. I1v), while the satirist Henry Fitzjeffrey decried all the ‘Books, made of ballads: Works, of Plays’ (1617, sig. A8). After Jonson’s death (but before the second volume of his works was completed), the folio also became a memorial to the poet himself, a tomb he constructed:
… none so fit appears
To raise his tomb, as who are left his heirs:
Yet for the cause no labour need be spent,
Writing his Works, he built his Monument.
The conceit of a bricklayer’s son building a monument from words reappeared half a century later when Gerard Langbaine commented that Dryden sought ‘to demolish the statues and monuments of his ancestors, the works of those his illustrious predecessors, Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson’ (Bradley & Adams, 1922 426).
In the eighteenth century, the editorial work Jonson carried out before and during the printing of his Workes slowly became a topic of serious discussion. Early editors of Jonson recognized that F1 showed signs of Jonson’s hand. Peter Whalley prefaces his 1756 Works of Ben. Jonson with the observation that the folio was printed ‘under [Jonson’s] own inspection, so that we have an authentic copy for our pattern, and which we have found of great use in correcting the mistakes of subsequent editions’ (H&S, 9.139). In William Gifford’s ‘Memoirs of Ben Jonson’ that accompanies his 1816 collected Works of Ben Jonson, he writes that in 1616 Jonson ‘seemed to have meditated a complete edition of all his works; but he apparently grew weary towards the conclusion of the volume and never (unless peculiarly called upon) had recourse to the press afterwards’ (Gifford, 1.xcii-xciii). Gifford’s notes to the text indicate that he at least collated F1 against extant quartos, and his sense of Jonson’s declining involvement may have come from this as well as from Whalley’s preface. By the beginning of the twentieth century it had become a commonplace that Jonson personally oversaw the printing of F1. Even a cursory examination of the Q1 and F1 texts of Every Man In His Humour reveals the significant amount of editorial work Jonson carried out in preparation for the play’s publication in folio, and the other plays all show similar, though less radical, signs of authorial revision. One can readily understand how earlier critics might have interpreted the modification of individual plays as proof of Jonson’s oversight of F1 as a whole.
The groundwork for a sustained debate of Jonson’s editorial involvement in the texts of F1 was first laid down at the turn of the twentieth century when a group of textual scholars centered at the University of Louvain and led by Willi Bang began issuing type-facsimile editions of early modern English drama based for the most part on their first quarto versions (notable exceptions include Bang’s edition of the first half of F1 in 1905). This group also began producing essays that called into question earlier claims of the folio’s editorial value. In 1903, B. A .P. van Dam and C. Stoffel published an article examining the textual differences in the final scenes of the Q1 and F1 Every Man Out of His Humour and asking ‘whether the proofs of [the] 1616 edition can have been submitted to Ben Jonson for revision’ (van Dam & Stoffel, 384). They concluded they were not, and that instead ‘the editor or the printer of the Folio edition, who was undoubtedly ignorant of Greek’, made the changes (387). This idea was restated and expanded in the 1930s in the introductions to a series of Jonson plays edited not from F1 but from the earlier quartos, and published by Henry de Vocht. None of the arguments put forward by these parties found much sympathy among Jonson scholars, based as they were on densely argued comparisons between quarto and folio readings and sprinkled occasionally with denigrations of the printer William Stansby’s skill.