Call for Papers: Special Issue of Shakespeare on “Shakespeare and Jonson”

Expressions of interest and submissions of abracts due: 16th May 2014

The critical pairing of Jonson and Shakespeare might not always be one of the most illuminating comparisons in literary history, but it is one of the most enduring. The distinctiveness of the Jonson-Shakespeare pairing lies in the often implicit assumption that these two somehow function as each other’s alternative; that between them they define a crucial axis of literary possibility – between learning and imagination, or inspiration and labour. The comparison has often served to elevate Shakespeare over Jonson, on grounds sometimes less aesthetic than crudely moral – Jonsonian envy or ethical failure used to highlight Shakespeare’s generosity or singular virtue. This, in turn, has generated responses which are sometimes guilty of partisanship or defensiveness.

These tendencies are still visible today in academic and popular evocations of “Shakespeare and Jonson”. Yet in other ways the pairing itself might seem archaic. The vastness of the Shakespeare industry has ensured that the Bard (when not assumed to be beyond compare) has benefited from a much less restrictive set of comparisons. For Jonson, the picture is more mixed. He has benefited from attention in areas with a less obviously Shakespearean relevance, such as the court masque, and unlike the Oxford Middleton the new Cambridge edition of Jonson is not modelled on a Shakespearean template. To that extent, he is no longer automatically fated to a disadvantageously comparative approach. In other ways, though, he is receding from view. The RSC has not staged a Jonson play for almost a decade, while the Globe has never mounted a full production of one of his works.

What value, then, is to be found in reviving the old double act? How, now, can they speak to each other? What can their conjunction reveal that might otherwise remain obscure? This, in a year that sees the quatercentenary of the publication of Jonson’s first folio and of Shakespeare’s death, is what we seek to find out with this special issue of Shakespeare on “Shakespeare and Jonson”. We would be happy to consider essays from any approach, although we would wish them to avoid merely retreading the old pas de deux. Essays might shed light on the early years of their comparison, or episodes in its history that illuminate it anew. We would be interested, too, in essays seeking to bring Shakespearean and Jonsonian thematic or methodological concerns together. What might happen if Shakespearean concerns are transferred to the Jonsonian corpus, and vice versa? Examples of possible approaches might include, though are not limited to:

  • Staging and performance history, especially recent critical developments. Is there any value in considering “Jonson in parts”, for example?
  • Page and stage: in recent years, Shakespeare studies has debated the relative merits of approaching the plays as the work of a man of theatre and/or a ‘literary’ dramatist – how might Jonson appear in the light of such debates?
  • Religion, Catholicism and Judaism (why, for example, is Shakespeare’s entirely speculative “Catholicism” wrangled over while Jonson’s conversions receive comparably little interest?)
  • Nationality and ‘Britishness’;
  • The politics of monarchy, republicanism, or the monarchical republic;
  • Genders and sexualities
  • Historicism and presentism: do Shakespearean debates here illuminate the Jonsonian corpus or concerns?
  • Literary heritage, including neoclassical, Greek and/or medieval influences. The influence of post-medieval, vernacular drama upon Shakespeare is well-documented, while Jonson is often considered a consciously neoclassical dramatist. Is it time to revisit this distinction?
    Literary celebrity. Shakespeare’s reputation as national bard is firmly cemented, but the recently-discovered account of Ben Jonson’s walk to Scotland suggests a kind of “royal progress” between London and Edinburgh. Might this breathe new life into old debates? What might we learn about early modern ideas of literary fame, its social and political significance, or the history of the author as celebrity?

Other ways of staging the conjunction are no doubt possible, and we would be delighted to consider them.

Please send expressions of interest or abstracts for papers of 6500-7000 words to and by Friday 16th May 2014.