The most important fact about Ben Jonson (1572–1637) is that he was not Shakespeare. It may be objected that this comment is futile, since nobody can be blamed for not being Shakespeare. But a major reason for making the point is that Jonson was constantly making it himself. Not to be Shakespeare was an essential element in his self-definition, in life as in literature.

He was a Londoner whose métier, even in his two Roman tragedies, was satirical comedy, producing the “violent laughter” which Volpone finds restorative: Shakespeare was a provincial whose romantic recipe for comedy was mocked by a character in Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1600) as “a duke to be in love with a countess, and that countess to be in love with the duke’s son, and the son to love the lady’s waiting-maid: some such cross-wooing, with a clown to their servingman.” This...

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