Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare: Critical Reference Edition, Vol. 1

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Date and Authorship:

Companion 538–42

Reception History:

Modern 20, 2101

In his preface to the play in the 1605 quarto of SEIANUS HIS FALL (Wiggins #1412) Ben Jonson acknowledged that 'this Booke, in all nūbers, is not the same with that which was acted on the publike Stage, wherein a second Pen had good share: in place of which I haue rather chosen, to put weaker (and no doubt lesse pleasing) of mine own, then to defraud so happy a Genius of his right, by my lothed vsurpation' (STC 15789, sig. ¶2v). Jonson's statement is the foundation of the scholarly consensus that the lost original text of Jonson's tragedy was written in collaboration with an anonymous playwright. The New Oxford Shakespeare accepts the hypothesis of many scholars, from Peter Whalley (1756) to Anne Barton (1984), that the 'second Pen' was Shakespeare. The 1616 edition of Ben Jonson's Workes (STC 14751) specifies that SEIANVS his FALL: A Tragedie (Gg4r) 'was first acted, in the yeere 1603. By the K. Maiesties Servants', with 'Will. Shake-Speare' listed on the top line of the 'principall Tragoedians', alongside 'Ric. Bvrbadge' (Oo3v). Thus, 'that which was acted on the publike Stage' was presumably the play first performed by the King's Men, including Shakespeare, in 1603.

We cannot recover the 'good share' written by the 'second Pen', which Jonson subsequently erased and replaced. But there is one element of the text that precedes the printed quarto, published in the fall of 1605. Edward Blount, in the Stationers' Register entry on 2 November 1604, identified the play in his possession as 'the tragedie of Seianus' (Arber, III.273). The same title appears in the Register again on 6 August 1605, when Blount transferred his rights to another stationer, Thomas Thorpe (Arber, III.297).

The running title, through quires B–N, is simply the name 'SEIANVS'. Thus the title 'SEIANVS HIS FALL' appears only on the title-page. As was usual, the preliminaries (in this case quires ¶ and A) were set last, probably soon after 5 November 1605 (Cain, 4). This means that Jonson could have changed his mind about the title for the play as late as October 1605. The very unusual Sejanus His Fall was later echoed in Jonson's Catiline His Conspiracy and the unfinished Mortimer His Fall, so there is no doubt that it is Jonson's preference, not the publisher's. (The 'His' in all three is the early modern genitive, so the title would be equivalent to modern 'Sejanus's Fall'.) We thus have good documentary evidence for a change of wording in the play's title at some point between 6 August 1605 and 5 November 1605. The wording of the printed title is unmistakably Jonsonian; but the title in the two earlier manuscript references to the play is not. Instead, the earlier manuscript title echoes a formula found in Finis the Tragedie of Titus Andronicus (1594), The Tragedy of King Richard the third (1597), The Tragedie of King Richard the Second (1597), The Tragedy of Othello (1622), and the eleven examples of The Tragedie of [proper name] in the 1623 Shakespeare Folio. Of course, Shakespeare did not have a monopoly on that formula. But Jonson did not use it in any of his work. So it could well represent the title given the play in 1603 by the King's Men, including Shakespeare. Indeed, Jonson's 'Sejanus His Fall' might be a deliberate strategy to differentiate his literary single-author play from the collaborative theatrical text of 1603.

pg 1230Works Cited

Barton, Anne, Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge, 1984).

Cain, Tom, 'Sejanus: Textual Essay', Online essay hosted by Cambridge University Press to accompany The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (2014).

Jonson, Ben, Seianvs His Fall (1605).

Jonson, Ben, The Workes of Beniamin Ionson (1616).

Whalley, Peter, ed., The Works of Ben Jonson (1756).pg 1231

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