As an elderly and unwell man in the 1630s, Ben Jonson was given comfort by a pet fox, ‘which creature, by handling, I endeavoured to make tame’. The sprightly Reynard was a thoughtful gift from a friend with a rather Jonsonian name himself, Sir Thomas Badger. The cub was both a pleasant companion and a symbolic tribute to Jonson’s most admired work, Volpone, or The Fox (1606). This and his slightly later hit The Alchemist still play brilliantly on the modern stage, and in their own day they defied and rewrote the conventions of comedy. They are clever, cruel, uncompromising satires, tremendously funny and deeply unhappy. These classics, along with Jonson’s huge corpus of now lesser-known works, are placed subtly and comprehensively back in their time by Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: A Life.
Jonson was born in 1572 and suffered from a problem of public identity which afflicted most Elizabethan actors and dramatists. At large, they were regarded as dissolute vagrants. They found their home ground in the taverns, where secular plays were traditionally put on before the growth of the