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The canon

Because Jonson was unusually careful about issuing his texts in authorized forms, his canon has remained comparatively stable over the years, with little dispute at the edges. Nonetheless, the editions of Peter Whalley, Gifford, and Herford and Simpson (as already indicated) have each added new items, and the Cambridge Edition draws three recently discovered texts into the canon for the first time. These are the elegy on Thomas Nashe, identified by Katharine Duncan-Jones in 1995; The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse, found by James Knowles in 1996; and fragments of The Merchant Taylors’ Entertainment, first identified by David Lockie and described publicly by Gabriel Heaton and James Knowles in 2003. In addition, new information has come to light about some of Jonson’s lost works, such as The Merchant Adventurers’ Entertainment and the unperformed royal entry for Charles I. The textual database also includes images of some marginalia and inscriptions which have not previously been reproduced.

Although Jonson defined his own canon (by publishing the collected volume of Works in 1616 and preparing some parts of a second folio issued posthumously), considerable information survives about several texts which he wrote but chose not to print, or which have been destroyed or lost. The most important of these are five (of the undoubtedly more numerous) unacknowledged early plays; two civic entertainments and the royal entry of 1625; The May-lord, a pastoral drama or eclogue; and the various works listed in the ‘Execration upon Vulcan’ as having been burned during the 1623 fire in Jonson’s library. Such facts as we have about these lost texts are presented at the relevant points in the chronological sequence, and in the annotation to The Underwood, 43. The Print Edition also includes the Informations to William Drummond of Hawthornden (Drummond’s private record of Jonson’s opinions based on the time he spent with him at Christmas 1618–19; called Conversations with Drummond in some previous editions). The surviving letters written to Jonson by other correspondents are all located in the Electronic Edition, with the exception of letters from William Drummond of Hawthornden, which are also placed in the Print Edition alongside the letters of Jonson to which they respond. Following a similar rationale, the letters written by George Chapman and Ben Jonson from prison during the troubles over Eastward Ho! are grouped together in the Print Edition. (Drummond’s and Chapman’s letters are printed in italic, Jonson’s in roman fount.)

Other texts on the margins of the canon have been placed in the Electronic rather than the Print Edition because their authorship is uncertain. The most important of these are the ‘new additions’ to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy printed in 1602. These might be the ‘adicians’ and ‘new adicyons for Jeronymo’ for which Philip Henslowe paid ‘Bengemen Johnson’ in 1601 and 1602 (Foakes, 2002, 182, 203). However – as argued more fully by Hugh Craig in the Electronic Edition – linguistic tests do not support the attribution to Jonson. Another uncertain text is a section of Sir Walter Ralegh’s 1614 History of the World (parts of book 5, chapter 2), which possibly represents material originally drafted by Jonson and subsequently worked over by Ralegh. These texts are reproduced in the Dubia archive, alongside the body of miscellaneous poetry to which Jonson may or may not have some claim. Other items which have been attributed to Jonson, but which in the view of the editors are unlikely to be his, are discussed in the Dubia but not reproduced.

Like many Renaissance dramatists, Jonson sometimes collaborated on the writing of plays, though less frequently than some of his fellows. The major collaborative text, Eastward Ho!, written with George Chapman and John Marston, is included in full in the Print Edition. So too is Sejanus, a play evidently first written in collaboration with another author (possibly George Chapman), whose contribution Jonson excludes from the published version, as he states explicitly in his address ‘To the Reader’. A Tale of a Tub has sometimes been regarded as only partly Jonsonian, but the Cambridge Edition assumes it to be entirely Jonson’s own. Brief accounts of plays that Jonson wrote collaboratively near the beginning of his career but which no longer survive are given at the appropriate chronological place in the Print Edition.

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