The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson


Leeds is one of three centres around the globe - the others being Canberra and Chicago - from which editorial work for the new complete edition of Ben Jonson (1572-1637) has been directed. Jonson was one of the most important and voluminous authors of the English Renaissance. He left seventeen complete plays, over three dozen court masques and entertainments, three collections of verse, a grammar of the English language, two translations of Horace's Art of Poetry, a commonplace book containing his thoughts on ideas and manners, a sheaf of letters, and many scattered poems, inscriptions and marginal doodlings that were either not collected or not published in his own lifetime. In addition, his traces are to be found all over the cultural and intellectual circles of Elizabethan and early Stuart England. A gregarious and combative personality, Jonson either knew everybody or fought with everybody, and trying to establish his impact on his times has been a life's work in itself.

The previous comprehensive reprinting of Jonson's works was the 11-volume Oxford edition, edited by C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson and Evelyn Simpson. A truly heroic work of scholarship, the Oxford Jonson took its three editors more than fifty years to complete. Fortunately for Oxford University Press, Percy Simpson proved to be extremely long-lived, but by spreading the workload, the Cambridge Jonson has taken rather less than fifty years. The edition was announced at a conference at Leeds in 1996. To accomplish this, the three general editors - Martin Butler at Leeds, Ian Donaldson at Canberra and David Bevington at Chicago - assembled a team of twenty-three contributing editors, each of whom was responsible for one or more texts. There were additionally a music editor, six consultants (some of whom also edited texts), an in-house design team from Cambridge University Press, an electronic editor, and two research associates who were funded by a five-year grant in excess of £500,000 awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The overall team comprised more than fifty individuals based in Britain, North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Two of these are based at Leeds, Martin Butler and David Lindley (who edited eleven of the masques); one, Karen Britland (who edited the Dubia), previously worked at Leeds for four years as the Ben Jonson research associate; and a fourth, the late Inga-Stina Ewbank (who has edited Catiline) was a distinguished former member of the School of English.

Why do we need a new edition of Jonson? At the simplest level, the Cambridge edition is the first to include the newly discovered works that have come to light in recent years - the Entertainment at Britain's Burse (1609), the surviving verses for the Merchant Taylors' Entertainment (1607), and some previously uncollected poetry, including Jonson's poem in memory of the writer Thomas Nashe. Had we discovered one or more of the half-dozen lost plays that Jonson wrote but deemed not worth publishing, we would have been very pleased indeed. But, of course, the Jonson canon has not changed that much. What is more important is the range of evidence that the new edition draws on, the changed perception of Jonson's career that it reflects, and the more user-friendly manner of its presentation. The Oxford edition was based on a detailed comparison of as many of the surviving manuscripts and early print copies of Jonson's texts that its three British editors could reach. In today's global scholarly community, the range of evidence we can draw on is considerably more extensive, using materials beyond Britain and Europe to which the previous editors did not have access. For example, one important volume is The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, an interim collection of texts published by Jonson in 1616. For our edition, over fifty copies of this volume were compared. By studying the minute but plenteous differences between these copies, we can build up a very detailed picture of its printing. Similarly, for the poetry, there are over six hundred surviving manuscripts that contain transcriptions of Jonson poems, some of which incorporate changes that show the author's hand at work. Our edition has edited the poems on the basis of a much greater survey of the manuscripts than has previously been undertaken, and allows us to see for the first time how Jonson's poems circulated outside the realm of print.  One revolutionary decision we have made is to sequence the order of the texts in the edition chronologically by date of publication. No previous edition has attempted this, and it allows the shape of Jonson's career and its inner relationships to be apparent as never before.

The Cambridge edition also includes a great deal of supporting material that helps to explain and contextualize Jonson's writing, some of it never previously published. We have included the first complete edition of the original or early musical settings of songs in the plays, and the dance tunes used in the court masques. There is a complete listing of the books that remain from Jonson's library, many of which carry his characteristic annotation and underlings. (Many of Jonson's books survive - the Earl of Pembroke gave him cash to buy books every Christmas, which he would do, but then sell on as his funds diminished, meaning that rare book collections around the world now possess volumes with his signature in them). Our edition also includes a complete reprint of surviving legal records relating to Jonson's life, the first fully comprehensive collection of documents relating to the performance of the masques (such as eye-witness accounts and payments for costumes and scenery), a census of all known performances of his plays, an archive of material referring to Jonson from his death down to 1700, transcripts of the early attempts to write his biography, and a complete listing of the criticism written about him by modern critics. As a resource for work on Jonson, the edition aims to fulfil as many scholarly needs as it can.

Then there is the matter of how you reach your readers and what use they will make of the edition. Many Jonson editions tend to be rather intimidating. Jonson was a formidably learned writer, and the Oxford editors loftily declined to translate his Latin and Greek, presuming that readers would possess the same linguistic abilities as the poet. Our edition not only does the translations, but prints the texts in modern spelling, a choice that allows Jonson to be read as an equal alongside his great contemporary Shakespeare, who always has his old spellings modernized in today's editions. This should allow Jonson to reach a much larger readership than has been the case in the past. Notwithstanding this decision, the Cambridge edition also caters for scholars who need the old spellings and the look of the original texts on the page, for we have published in two formats simultaneously - a seven volume modern-spelling edition in print, and an electronic edition which has the texts in old-spelling and as many digitized images of the manuscripts and early print editions as we were able to squeeze in. And because the edition is published electronically as well as in print, the total corpus is rapidly searchable and will continue to respond flexibly to many as yet unformulated questions that we cannot at this point precisely anticipate. Of course, if you don't want the whole edition but just (for example) Volpone or The Alchemist, then it may be possible to buy those parts separately, as 'derivative' editions of anthologies or single texts for the larger market are being planned. If you want to see more details of the whole project, do consult the online edition web pages at


Project website