Marking his Place: Ben Jonson's Punctuation
Sara van den Berg
University of Washington

van den Berg, Sara. "Marking his Place: Ben Jonson's Punctuation." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 2.1-25 <URL:

  1. "Ben:Jonson", perhaps the most distinctive authorial signature in the English Renaissance, is noteworthy for its spelling and, even more, its punctuation.[1] In an era before English spelling and punctuation were normalized, Jonson indulged his own preferences. He dropped the "h" from his surname, thereby making it stand out from the mass of common "Johnsons" and especially from his own family.[2] He inserted a double punctus, or colon, between his first and last name, an act that no critic, to my knowledge, has discussed. It was common practice among bishops, archbishops, and college masters at Oxford and Cambridge to use a colon to abbreviate their first names when they Latinized their signatures. By adopting this usage, Jonson may have sought to identify himself with men in authority, or with learned men who shared his interest in books. Jonson's use of the colon may also have the effect of setting up a problematic relationship between his Christian name and his surname. On the one hand, the colon may establish the two names as appositives, each carrying equal or complementary meaning. On the other hand, the colon may signify the disjunction of the two names, separating the personal "Ben" from the public "Jonson", much as the stanzaic split of "Ben/Jonson" in the Cary-Morison ode mimics the split of the living Cary and the dead Morison, a relationship of separation in life and reunion in art (Und. LXX.84-85).[3] At once appositive and disjunctive, the mark that links "Ben" and "Jonson" is part of his signature, essential to Jonson's act of naming himself. Each name is a kind of sentence, yet the full meaning of his name requires both terms. As Jonson writes in The English Grammar, the colon (which he describes as a "double prick") marks "A Distinction of a Sentence, though perfect in it selfe, yet joyned to another" (HS VIII.552). The mark also identifies Jonson as an adherent of Humanism, eager to introduce into English the new punctuation marks developed by continental Humanist writers, editors and publishers. Among these were the question mark, the exclamation point, and the double punctus.

  2. Although Jonson's name as it appears on the title page of his printed texts does not have the inserted double punctus, the signature he inscribed on the title page of many of the books he owned displays the problem of punctuation that confronts those who undertake to edit his works. In the case of Jonson's works as in that of any early modern text, the editorial goal of authenticity (a concern for the claims of the original text) competes with that of accessibility (a concern for the needs of the modern audience), the result too often a compromise that muddles the original text while still befuddling modern readers. The problem is especially acute in the case of Ben Jonson because he was so concerned to punctuate his own texts. Anyone who edits Jonson's work edits an editor. To investigate his punctuation is to investigate not only his specific practices but, even more importantly, his theory of the text. A review of historical scholarship and a survey of representative passages from his works reveals that Jonson's editorial practices conformed to continental Humanist theory. This theory, I contend, is based on the assumption that a text is an organic whole, not a set of autonomous sign systems (e.g., spelling, capitalization, fonts, punctuation). As a body, the text preserves the presence of its author; its punctuation signifies the nuances of the human voice at once preserved and suppressed in written language.

  3. Those who choose to modernize the text find themselves torn between allegiance to Jonson's heavy punctuation in the 1616 Folio and modern conventions of increasingly light punctuation. Even those who want to prepare a diplomatic text must reconcile the different punctuation in the Quartos, the 1616 Folio, and the 1640 Folio. Some of these differences reflect changes in Jonson's practice, while others can be attributed to the printers. Printers usually had responsibility for the punctuation of the texts they printed, and the habitual practices of the printing house compositors complicate our ability to know the extent of his editorial activity. For example, Jonson's Oxford editors argue that the printers of the 1640 edition introduced mis-corrections into the texts as they "modified and conventionalized Jonson's elaborate punctuation" (HS IX.121).[4]

  4. Jonson's Oxford editors survey the problem of punctuating his works in the fourth volume of their edition, and return to it again in the ninth (HS IV.190-92, 338-43; IX.48-51, 121). They concern themselves primarily with the issue of authenticity, and try to honor Jonson's intentions. They regard the 1616 Folio as more authoritative than the Quarto editions of Jonson's plays, and they assume that variants in the Folio reflect Jonson's close supervision and correction of its printing: "The author dropped in at the press once or twice a day, looked over the newly taken pulls, and corrected such errors as caught his eye in a cursory reading [but] The uncorrected sheets were not kept separate, still less were they destroyed; they were bound up at haphazard with those which the author had corrected"(HS IX.51). To determine which variants are authorial corrections, Herford and the Simpsons survey the whole of Jonson's works in order to identify his characteristic practice. They regard the autograph manuscript of The Masque of Queenes as "The authority for Jonson's punctuation, and for the changes which he made in it in reading the proofs of the Folio" (HS IX.50). They remark on the heavier pointing of the Folio text, and suggest that Jonson was concerned in the Quartos to guide the actor's rhetoric, while the Folio was geared to express the logic of the text for the leisurely reader. Apart from these speculative comments, which have been generally accepted by subsequent editors and critics, the Oxford editors do not offer any theoretical explanation of Jonson's practices. Except for a comparison of the way Jonson, Donne, and Milton use the metrical apostrophe, they make no attempt to discuss Jonson's punctuation in its historical context.

  5. Jonson's punctuation, although it may seem puzzling or unnecessarily heavy to modern readers, is not idiosyncratic. He derived his understanding of punctuation mainly from Ramus, whose work provided the model for Jonson's English Grammar.[5] I propose that the Humanist theory of punctuation governed Jonson's editorial choices as he prepared his texts for the printer. That theory and Jonson's express attitudes about punctuation can guide our understanding of his work. The increasingly heavy punctuation of his texts from the Quartos to the 1616 Folio to the 1640 Folio reflects his increasing allegiance to the Humanist mode of punctuation. He codifies his practice in The English Grammar (1640). Underlying the Humanist theory and practice of punctuation, moreover, is the theory of a text, and of language, as a corpus, a body, an organic whole. That organic theory can be traced back to classical rhetoric, which began by including the gestures of the body as a component of language but soon used the body as a trope to figure the nature of language itself.[6] The written text was considered a body in its own right, its materiality replacing that of the orators physical form. This classical trope, so common as to conceal the force of the theory it supports, proved equally compelling to Humanist editors and writers.

  6. Malcolm B. Parkes, in his magisterial study of punctuation, argues that Humanist writers replaced the Scholastic practice of equiparative punctuation, which marked the logical propositions of a text, with a new balance of logical marking to clarify the elements of a text, and rhetorical marking to indicate its real or imagined oral delivery.[7] Scholarly debate about seventeenth-century English punctuation has largely centered on the competing importance of these two functions.[8] The Humanists also introduced a third function of punctuation: hermeneutic analysis. Punctuation guides interpretation, indicating relationships and nuances in a text. Because punctuation performs these three different functions in a written text, Humanists marked texts heavily and invented new marks (the semi-colon, the exclamation point, the question mark, parentheses). These are the marks Jonson takes care to identify and explain in his English Grammar.[9]

  7. As the printing trade grew and the rate of literacy increased, punctuation (both the form of marks and their usage) was standardized largely in accordance with Humanist practices. The classical texts prepared by Humanist editors were widely disseminated, and served as models for writers of new works. In his English Grammar, Jonson, alone among English grammarians, relied on excerpts from texts to illustrate his text. According to David Riggs, Jonson includes 118 quotations from twelve different authors, ranging from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, in his 15-page section on syntax.[10] Jonson most frequently cites Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Foxe, Norton, Jewel, and the English Humanists Sir Thomas More and Sir John Cheke. The influence of Henry Denham, the English printer who was the first to follow Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) and other continental Humanist printers in using the semi-colon "with propriety," is evident in Jonson's quotation from Holinshed's Chronicles at the conclusion of The English Grammar (HS VIII.553).[11] As Parkes shows, Jonson bypasses several editions of the Chronicles in order to quote the excerpt cited in Cheke's The hurte of sedition -- the first book in which the printer (Denham) introduced the semi-colon.[12]

  8. As a man well-read in Humanist texts, Jonson emulated Humanist practices in punctuating his poems, prose, and plays. He adopted the new marks and defined their proper usage in The English Grammar (although he did not oversee its publication, which, ironically, was rife with errors and inconsistencies). I believe he implicitly includes punctuation when he remarks at the end of the first chapter of The English Grammar that "Prosodie, and Orthography, are not parts of Grammar, but diffus'd, like the blood, and spirits through the whole" (HS VIII.467). If, in the body of a text, logical punctuation marks its skeletal structure, rhetorical punctuation marks its breath. The analogy was frequent among English grammarians, and Jonson adopts it as his own in the concluding chapter of The English Grammar: "There resteth one generall Affection of the whole, dispersed thorow every member thereof, as the bloud is thorow the body; and consisteth in the Breathing, when we pronounce any Sentence; For, whereas our breath is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake long together; it was thought necessarie, as well as for the speakers ease, as for the plainer deliverance of the things spoken, to invent this meanes, whereby men pausing a pretty while, the whole speech might never the worse be understood" (HS VIII.551). Walter Ong traces this analogy to its origin in the works of late classical and medieval grammarians, "for whom punctuation was first of all a system demanded by the exigencies of breathing in oral delivery."[13] Breath, he argues, is distinct from syntax and elocution as a factor determining the punctuation of a text. I suggest that for Ben Jonson breath is a figure for, not a determinant of, the punctuation of his printed works. The metaphor has endured. Theodor Adorno, for example, describes punctuation marks as "friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language."[14]

  9. Jonson insists on the importance of rhetorical punctuation only after completing his survey of logical punctuation (analyzing the use of period, comma, semi-colon, and colon to convey complete and imperfectly completed sentences). The hermeneutic function of punctuation is implicit in his final image of the text as body. It is the hermeneutic function of punctuation to clarify "the general Affection of the whole, dispersed thorow every member thereof, as the bloud is thorow the body." Blood and breath: punctuation conveys the life of a text, its stops paradoxically creating a sense of its motion as utterance and idea.

  10. Although punctuation, as Parkes argues, is a function of written language,[15] the use of marks to echo or guide oral expression is clear in Jonson's remarks about "the speakers ease" and "the plainer deliverance of the things spoken." Jonson insists on the importance of both logical and rhetorical punctuation as hermeneutical guides in his satirical epigram about punctuation, "To Groome Ideot" (Ep. 58):

    Ideot, last night, I prayd thee but forbeare
    To reade my verses; now I must to heare:
    For offring, with thy smiles, my wit to grace,
    Thy ignorance still laughs in the wrong place.
    And so my sharpnesse thou no lesse dis-ioynts,
    Then thou didst late my sense, loosing my points.
    So haue I seene at CHRIST-masse sports one lost,
    And, hood-winkd, for a man, embrace a post. (HS VIII.45)

    This account of a poetry reading from hell rests on the contrast Jonson draws between Groome Ideot as private reader, who cannot get the sense, and as public listener, who "laughs in the wrong place." Losing Jonson's "points," Groome Ideot mistakes both the punctuation and the argument of the poetry. That argument, moreover, includes both the poet's "sense" and his tone ("sharpnesse"). The body of work is dismembered, disjointed, by the uncomprehending reader or auditor. Lose the point, lose the man.

  11. Jonson was not the only writer to make comic art of the problem of punctuation. The plot of Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, a play written for an academic audience urged to be punctilious about written language, depends in part on a mispunctuated letter read with deliberate mockery by Merygreeke: "Sweete Mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all, / Regarding your substance and richesse chiefe of all, / For your personage, beautie, demeanour and wit, / I commende me vnto you neuer a whit." The scrivener who transcribed the letter defends himself by attacking Merygreeke's reading and by distinguishing sense from punctuation: "But in reading and pointyng there was made some fault" (III.iv-v).[16] In A Midsummer Night's Dream, which appealed both to a court and a city audience, Peter Quince stumbles through the prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe:"If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to offend, / But with good will...All for your delight, / We are not here." "This fellow doth not stand upon points," Theseus observes. "His speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered" (MND V.i.108-115; 118, 125-6).[17] In both plays, the hermeneutic joke lies in the disparity between the logic and the rhetorical delivery of the lines, a disparity made possible by the punctuation.

  12. As an actor and a playwright, Ben Jonson retained a special sensitivity to the function of punctuation as a rhetorical guide to expression. When he edited the 1616 Folio of his Workes, however, he introduced a notably heavy punctuation: heavy because, in moving his play-scripts from stage to page, he sought to emulate the Humanist model of logical, rhetorical, and hermeneutic punctuation. That Humanist mode of punctuation was intensified in the even more literary 1640 Folio. The model for that punctuation in his earlier works would seem to be the poems. Because so many of them are addressed to someone, the punctuation often helps create a sense of rhetorical delivery. In addition, the marking suggests the logical and hermeneutic structures of the text. William Drummond records that Jonson wrote his poems first in prose, "for so his master Cambden had Learned him" (HS II.143). The subsequent versification would surely have included the use of punctuation to clarify and heighten the sense of the argument. Punctuation is one of the several devices of representation that Jonson uses in editing his plays, masques, prose, and poems to construct what Joseph Loewenstein describes as an "obtrusive and distinctive Jonsonian format, which offers itself as the complex product of the compounded poet and scholar."[18]

  13. In modern times, punctuation practice has shifted in the general direction of ever-lighter pointing, giving guidelines to rhetorical delivery with some minimal marking of the logical units of a text. This mode is especially prevalent in American English, and not surprisingly the topic of Jonson's heavy punctuation vexes the editors of the Yale Jonson, volumes designed for the American college classroom. Jonas Barish, in his Yale edition of Sejanus, remarks that "Modernization, while it makes a text more usable for modern readers, involves its penalties, especially in the realm of punctuation."[19] Light punctuation blurs, if it does not entirely erase, many caesural effects. Barish argues that the heavy punctuation of Jonson's texts cannot be preserved, but at least some of it should be if an edition is to serve its ultimate goal, which is to lead a modern reader toward Jonson's original text.[20] Stephen Orgel, in the Yale edition of Jonson's masques, undertakes the modernization of the text "gingerly".[21] A problem worse than spelling, he declares, is punctuation: "To reduce Jonson's practice to ours is as impossible as it is misguided.... [Modernization] is purely a visual aid; the resulting syntax is rarely any less peculiar by modern standards...Jonson is not being careless, nor is Elizabethan syntax sloppy. Jonson writes admirable Elizabethan English; and the burden of historical awareness is on us."[22]

  14. Examples from one Jonsonian text, The Alchemist II.3, illustrate that the punctuation of Jonson's 1616 Folio is preferable to that in modern editions or even in the 1612 Quarto. An example of logical punctuation occurs early in the scene, when Subtle speaks approvingly to Mammon:

    Sonne, I doubt
    Yo'are covetous, that thus you meet your time
    I'the iust point: prevent your day, at morning. (II.3.4-6)

    Most modern editions use a comma instead of a colon after "point" and omit the comma after "day".[23] I would suggest that inserting a comma actually violates modern usage and makes Jonson's line harder to understand. Some modern editors also use "Youre" instead of "Yoare", changing the implicit pronunciation and emphasis of the contraction. "You're" emphasizes the pronoun, "Yo'are" the verb. Jonson's original contraction makes more sense as rhetorical and hermeneutic marking. Herford and the Simpsons, commenting on the printed texts of Sejanus, note that compositors frequently made just that mistake and were corrected by Jonson himself.

  15. Later in the same speech, several lines seem egregiously over-punctuated:

    If you, my Sonne, should, now, preuaricate,
    And, to your owne particular lusts, employ
    So great, and catholique a blisse; Be sure,
    A curse will follow, yea, and ouertake
    Your subtle, and most secret wayes. (II.3.19-23)

    This passage is always heavily altered by modern editors, who seem eager to reduce the number of commas from twelve to as few as four. Editors have been especially quick to alter Jonson's characteristic, even idiosyncratic, use of a comma to separate two adjectives modifying the same noun ("So great, and catholique a blisse"; "Your subtle, and most secret wayes"). This habit is so pronounced in Jonson's works that it seems to be a deliberate indication of the way he wanted such constructions to be spoken. This pattern of punctuation, however, is advocated by Aldus Manutius in Interpungendi Ratio (1561).[24]

  16. Of special interest is the first line of this passage. Almost every word is set off by commas, which might seem to a modern reader so excessive as to make the line incomprehensible. Yet close attention shows that this punctuation makes clear sense. "My Sonne" is appropriately set off by commas as the appositive of "you." "Now" is set off by commas to indicate a rhetorical pause, and to mark a meaningful emphasis as well. The comma after "preuaricate" marks the logical end of the clause. What seems excessive turns out to make logical, rhetorical, and hermeneutic sense. The line is a paradigmatic example of the Humanist theory of punctuation in practice.

  17. An example of rhetorical and hermeneutic punctuation occurs later in this scene, when Sir Epicure Mammon details the "pious uses" to which he will put his gold:

    Founding of Colleges, and Grammar Schooles,
    Marrying yong Virgins, building Hospitals,
    And now, and then, a Church. (II.3.50-52)

    The 1612 Quarto omits the comma after "then". Most modern editors punctuate the line to read "And, now and then, a Church." They use commas to set off the phrase "now and then." In the 1616 Folio, however, Jonson deliberately breaks up the phrase, creating a dramatic and escalating line that sets "And now" in tension with "and then," only to conclude, as Mammon knows he must, with "a Church." To give up Jonson's punctuation is to give up much of the humor of Mammon's shift from philanthropic fantasies to rueful religiosity.

  18. Modernization, far from being a common sense approach, may be an exercise in wishful thinking. Nothing can artificially relieve the distance between modern readers and early modern texts (even if we try to do so when we call them "early modern"). Authors like Ben Jonson are better served if we acknowledge that difference and try to bear the burden of historical awareness rather than to lighten it prematurely. Jonson's heavy punctuation will give us pause, often, inviting us to move to the realms of logic and interpretation that we might well miss without the help of his commas, semi-colons, and colons. Heavy punctuation makes sound visible, and sense as well.

  19. Several modern critics have demonstrated the usefulness of Jonson's punctuation as a guide to the reading of his poems, plays, and prose. Susanne Woods develops interpretive readings that integrate attention to prosody and punctuation.[25] Michael McCanles, in Jonsonian Discriminations, offers many examples of the way Jonson uses punctuation to set up "junctures" in a text, emphasizing contrasts in phrases and ideas.[26] In place of plainspoken Ben, McCanles presents a nimble, quick-witted Jonson alert to every nuance of expression and multiple meaning. In his protest against modernization, McCanles attacks Ian Donaldson's Oxford edition of Jonson's poetry. However, Donaldson has long celebrated the quick-witted Jonson who so skillfully escapes the nets of leaden-footed moralists who try to claim him as their own,[27] or over-zealous annotators who "root up the Muses' garden," to use Jonson's own caustic phrase.

  20. When Jonson's modern editors revise the punctuation of his texts, their stated or implied reason is to clarify the meaning of those texts for modern readers. Yet the argument is specious: because the body of the text is Renaissance language, only Renaissance punctuation can be its breath and blood. I am not merely arguing for "authenticity," as though there were some nostalgic value in preserving an unreadable relic. I am arguing that modern punctuation cannot be a reliable guide to an early modern text. We need to preserve early modern punctuation as the only model that permits the equipoise of logical, rhetorical, and hermeneutic analysis to operate in the text. If we lose the points of Jonson's punctuation, we may lose the point of his art.

  21. The "we" referred to in the preceding sentence includes the entire possible audience of Jonson's works: students, general readers, and scholars. For students and general readers of Jonson's works, little or no modernization of punctuation is necessary. Many contemporary readers are drawn to the original texts, complete with interesting printers' devices (different typefaces, decorative devices, and word placement), because the physical appearance of the text calls attention to its historical character. Although the complex textual representation anchors Jonson's work in its historical moment, it has a new and opposite potential capacity to appeal to a modern reader. The very complexity of the printed text resembles the textual play that many contemporary computer users are able to call forth in their own writing. Replicating Jonson's original text, that is to say, at once honors and overcomes our awareness of its historicity. Even if a text is modernized, it should be the goal of an editor to lead readers toward the original text. Given the new capacities of readers to generate electronic texts of new representational complexity, modernization may interfere with the very goal it is designed to serve. Scholars, of course, require the original text. As John Coldewey argues, "For close readings, especially of poetry, original spelling and punctuation must be consulted if the text has any authority whatsoever."[28] Many scholars, moreover, are interested in the materiality of texts and their production, and are giving students and general readers new reasons to want access to authentic original texts. For these scholars, accessibility and authenticity are not opposite goals. To paraphrase (and reverse) John Donne, they value not only the idea of a text, but what it was.

  22. Underlying the debate about modernization is the status of different elements of the literary text. If all the elements (spelling, punctuation, such "accidentals" as printer's devices and white spaces) are part of an organic whole, then to modernize spelling and to retain original punctuation is not just inconsistent but nonsensical. Once we tinker with a text we construct a new one, and should follow consistent principles in every aspect of that construction. If, on the other hand, punctuation, spelling, and the material aspects of a text can each claim a different or autonomous status with an integrity of its own, then we can change one element and not another. The text is not an organic whole but a set of signs. Or, perhaps, a text is not a thing but an idea -- a "thing of nothing."

  23. The choice between these conceptual models rests on different principles, and on a different concept of an editor's proper role -- as invisible conservator, or active co-author (to overstate the case). An editor may be a kind of translator, conveying the spirit of the text. The issue then becomes how much of the editor/translator's own spirit will or should shine forth to illumine and/or blind the reader. Insofar as the editor is the first reader of a text, it is crucial to articulate the different philosophies of editing that underlie debates about how much can or should be changed in attempts to make a text "accessible" to other readers and how those changes may run counter to its "authenticity." Ben Jonson subscribed to the belief that a text was an organic whole, not a network of sign systems or a non-material idea that materiality could only approximate. Because of the material inconsistencies of the surviving copies of his work, modern editors often feel compelled to make interpretive choices that draw from different copies and result in a text that never existed in Jonson's day. To prohibit interpretive choices would make editorial work impossible, but editors should be expected to state their theory of the text and, in Jonson's case, that of the author whose works they seek to preserve and present.

  24. Ben Jonson creates a remarkable illusion of his own presence in the written texts of his poems and in the prefaces to his plays. I would also argue that the distinctive punctuation common to the Folio edition of his plays, congruent with that of his poems and masques, is essential to creating that consistent illusion. Punctuation is the crucial element in Jonson's dramatization of his own speaking voice in his texts.[29] Walter Ong has argued that speech is personal, print impersonal.[30] Jacques Derrida, in his critique of the illusion of personal presence in texts like those of Ben Jonson, famously contends that writing as a system of signs and language as a play of signs are prior to personal speech, which as a singular instance of communication intrudes upon and disrupts that system.[31] A signature like "Ben:Jonson" asserts the perpetual "nowness" (maintenance) of the writer's presence even in the obvious fact of absence.[32] Punctuation, as a system of signs designed to mark where an utterance stops, introduces the illusion of time into the timeless space of written language. Punctuation is punctual: pointed. Punctuation introduces not only the time of speech but the time of thought into written language, marking the author's personal idea -- its nuances, emphases, and motion. At the same time, paradoxically, because punctuation marks have a logical-semantic autonomy, they not only articulate language and thereby bring writing closer to voice, but, as Theodor Adorno notes, they "have become separate from both voice and writing, and they come into conflict with their own mimetic nature."[33] Adorno, commenting on the increasingly "ascetic" use of punctuation (a progression which scholars have observed from early to late Medieval texts, from early to late seventeenth-century texts, and from early to late modern texts), suggests that "In every punctuation mark thoughtfully avoided, writing pays homage to the sound it suppresses."[34]

  25. Ben Jonson used the resources of print to assert his authorial presence, and thereby played a major role in establishing the modern institution of authorship critiqued by Michel Foucault.[35] Harold Love, following Walter Ong, has argued that the uniformity of print renders a text less personal than speech or handwriting.[36] Ben Jonson's distinctive punctuation of his works, in print as in his handwritten signature, is an important vehicle for the creation and maintenance of his authorial presence. The body of his texts is kept alive, maintained, by the breath of punctuation, the illusion of the time and motion of utterance. Perhaps the most important pun in his work is not that of text and self as "body" or corpus, but, as he declares in the Tribe of Ben epistle, text and self as "character" (Und. XLVII.73).[37] Jonson takes the impersonal, newly codified system of punctuation and, in accordance with the Humanist privileging of individuality, uses it to create and define his authorial presence. Individuality is not idiosyncracy, but the central action of the community Jonson sought to join, maintain, and critique. Despite their profound differences, Jonson and Derrida write their presence in their distinctive texts and in their signatures. Jonson would privilege self over representation, while Derrida would reverse that priority and challenge the entire concept of "presence" in a text, but both men are engaged in the work of relating the representation of themselves to the act of representation. Unlike Derrida, who plays with his own signature as the "counterfeit sign" of the presence he seeks to deny,[38] Jonson marks his place with his name, his punctuation, his writing.


1. This essay originated as a brief commentary presented to the Ben Jonson conference at the University of Leeds in July, 1995. In revising and extending the argument, I have tried to respond to the generous criticism of David Bevington, Robert Entzminger, W. David Kay, Stephen Orgel, and other members of the conference. Additional debts to Marshall Brown, John Coldewey, and Catherine Connors, my colleagues at the University of Washington, are indicated in the notes. David McPherson surveys Jonson's signatures in the books Jonson owned. Jonson customarily inscribed his books "Sum Ben:Jonsonij Liber" but on twelve occasions wrote only "Ben:Jonson." See "Ben Jonson's Library and Marginalia: An Annotated Catalogue," Studies in Philology 71.5 (December 1974), 19. For an example of the way Jonson uses a double punctus to mark both an abbreviation of a title and an appositive to a name, see the inscription in his copy of Plato: "Sum Ben:Jonsonii ex dono amplissimi illustrissq' Herois: Henrici Com: de Oxenford/" (McPherson 87). Other autographs of the early modern period are recorded in John Gough Nichols, Autographs of royal, noble, learned, and remarkable personages conspicuous in English history, from the reign of Richard the Second to that of Charles the Second (London: J.B. Nichols and Son, 1829).
2. David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1989), 114. Riggs traces the change to 1604, but the spelling also occurs in a 1602 manuscript of an epitaph for Thomas Nashe. See Katherine Duncan-Jones, "Jonson's epitaph on Nashe," TLS 4814 (7 July 1985), 4-6. I am grateful to W. David Kay for noting the significance of the spelling of Jonson's name in this manuscript.
3. Ben Jonson, ed. C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1925-1952), 11 vols., 8:246. All references to Jonson's works are to this edition, designated "HS", and are incorporated in the text.
4. Harold Love, in Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1993), notes that printers usually controlled the punctuation of the texts they published (90 ff.). See also Percy Simpson, Proof-Reading in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries (London: Oxford UP, 1935) and Donald F. McKenzie, "Printers of the Mind," Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969), 1-75.
5. David Cram, "Seventeenth-Century Punctuation Theory: Butler's Philosophical Analysis and Wilkins' Philosophical Critique," Folia Linguistica Historica 8 (1989), 316. See also Vivian Salmon, "English Punctuation Theory 1500-1800," Anglia 106 (1988), 285-314.
6. The trope of a writer's work as corpus or body probably derives from the long tradition of connecting the orator's language with his display of his actual body. See, for example, Petronius, Satyricon 2.2. I am indebted to Catherine Connors for this reference. Although the editors of the OED do not record such a use of corpus or body prior to the 18th century, several critics have discussed the importance of this trope in Jonson's works. See Richard Helgerson, Self-crowned Laureates (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), Joseph Loewenstein, "The Jonsonian Corpulence; Or, The Poet as Mouthpiece," ELH 53 (1986), 491-518, and Sara van den Berg, The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1987), 143-169.
7. Malcolm B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993), 81-91.
8. Walter Ong, "Historical Backgrounds of Elizabethan and Jacobean Punctuation Theory," PMLA 59 (1944), 349-60. See also Vivian Salmon, 285-314, and David Cram, 309-49.
9. Other innovative marks did not survive; one, for example, marked a question as rhetorical. It is significant that the marks Jonson includes in The English Grammar have remained in common use. Peter Ramus, whose 1585 grammar was the model for the structure and content of Jonson's grammar, advocates a four-point system of pauses. However, as Vivian Salmon notes, for Ramus' subdistinctio (which designates a pause briefer than a comma) Jonson substitutes the semi-colon (which designates a longer pause). He also assigned to the mark ":" not the name colon, but pause. See Salmon, 296-97.
10. Riggs, 347.
11. See Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities, rev. William Herbert (London, 1786-90), cited by Parkes, 53.
12. Parkes, 53. See also Mindele Treip, Milton's Punctuation and Changing English Usage 1582-1676 (London: Methuen, 1970), 42.
13. Ong, 359.
14. Theodor Adorno, "Punctuation Marks," trans Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Antioch Review 48 (1990), 300. I am grateful to Marshall Brown for calling my attention to this essay.
15. Parkes, 1.
16. Hilary Jenkinson, "Notes on the Study of English Punctuation of the Sixteenth Century," Review of English Studies 2 (1926), 152-58. Jenkinson wonders whether any common practice in punctuation unites the sixteenth-century archive writer, prose writer, dramatist, and poet. Jenkinson suggests that the incident in Ralph Roister Doister demonstrates that "the idea that punctuation should have a meaning is not uncommon, but no one has settled definitely what the meaning is to be" (156).
17. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969). It has often been remarked that editors have freely modernized Shakespeare's texts, perhaps because, unlike Jonson, he had little interest in preparing them for publication himself. Jonson's care, and subsequent editors' concern for authenticity, may have made Jonson's works more difficult to read, and therefore less accessible, than Shakespeare's modernized works.
18. Joseph Loewenstein, "Printing and 'The Multitudinous Presse': The Contentious Texts of Jonson's Masques," in Ben Jonson's 1616 Folio, ed. Jennifer Brady and W.H. Herendeen (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1991), 181.
19. Ben Jonson, Sejanus, ed. Jonas Barish (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1965), 205.
20. Barish, 206.
21. Ben Jonson, The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1969), 43.
22. Orgel, 44.
23. In addition to HS, I have surveyed a facsimile of the 1612 Quarto (Scolar, 1970), and editions prepared by G.E. Bentley (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1947), John R. McCollum, Jr. (Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, 1965), F.H. Mares (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1967), Alvin B. Kernan (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), Ian Donaldson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985), Martin Butler (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), and Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995). Campbell's text is the most lightly punctuated of these editions.
24. Manutius offers this description of the use of the comma to indicate "the least degree of separation" of words and ideas: "This mark does not indeed close a complete sentence, nor yet the parts of a sentence, but it separates names, or words, that differ only slightly from each other, as, when we say, An upright, and learned man." A translation of this text is printed as Appendix B in T.F. and M.A. Husband, Punctuation: Its Principles and Practice (London: Routledge & Sons, 1905), 130-136. Manutius discusses comma usage on 131.
25. "Ben Jonson's Cary-Morison Ode: Some Observations on Structure and Form," SEL 18 (1978), 57-74, and "The Context of Jonson's Formalism," Classic and Cavalier, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1982), 77-90.
26. Michael McCanles, Jonsonian Discriminations (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992), 3-20.
27. Ian Donaldson, "Jonson and the Moralists," Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, ed. Alvin Kernan (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1977), 146-64.
28. John C. Coldewey, "'Bare rn'wd quiers': Sonnet 73 and Poetry, Dying," Philological Quarterly 67 (1988), 2. I want to thank John Coldewey for his assistance as I prepared this essay. I am indebted to him for several references and, more importantly, discussion of Renaissance texts and modern editorial practices.
29. I discuss the issue of "voice in relation to speech and writing in Jonson's poems in The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry, 32-35.
30. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982), cited by Harold Love, 141-46.
31. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), cited by Harold Love, 141-46.
32. Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context," in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of chicago P, 1983), 329.
33. Adorno, 305.
34. Adorno, 305.
35. I discuss the importance of Foucault's essay, "What is an Author?", for a reading of Jonson's works in "Ben Jonson and the Ideology of Authorship," Ben Jonson's 1616 Folio, ed. Jennifer Brady and W.H. Herendeen (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1991), 111-37.
36. Harold Love, 141-46. Love cites John Jowett's argument that the Quarto of Sejanus, because it emulates the conventions of manuscript, is more "personal" than the 1616 Folio text, in which the works are uniformly presented to conform with the conventions of print. I would suggest that these conventions are disrupted and "personalized" by Jonson's insistent editorial activity. See John Jowett, "The iconography of Jonson's Sejanus, 1605: copy-text for the Revels edition," in Editing Texts: Papers from a Conference at the Humanities Research Centre, ed. J.C. Eade (Canberra, 1985), 47-53.
37. I discuss Jonson's use of the tropes of corpus and character in The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry, 160-69.
38. Derrida, "Signature Event Context," 332. A moral attitude about the "ownership" of one's signature underlies Derrida's play that would only emerge with the institution of authorship critiqued by Michel Foucault in "What Is an Author?". See Language, Counter-Memory, Practices: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), 113-38. As Hilary Jenkinson observed in 1926, neither the moral attitude nor the play with presence and absence was assumed in Jonson's time: "For a modern copyist to write the signature of another man, without any indication that is not by the signatory's own hand, is a thing definitely wrong, against the canons: the sixteenth century, and the periods before and after it, had no such canon" (156). I would suggest that Jonson's insistence on a distinctive signature helped establish the convention of presence that Derrida critiques.

Works Cited

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(RGS, rev. 28 February 1998)