The role of the reader in the representation and construction of a writer’s authorial identity – Ben Jonson and John Taylor

As part of the Book History module I took part in I developed an essay surrounding Ben Jonson and John Taylor, and how the reader and consumer affect the construction of a writer’s authorial identity.

For me the notion of authorial identity is complex even by definition. It can be simply the person who has written the piece one is investigating or the person who came up with the original idea for it. It can be the personality of that writer transcending through the piece and it is almost impossible for authorship to remain uninfluenced by the readers own ideas and notions about the author and the context in which he is writing.The complete disparity between Ben Jonson and John Taylor are an example of this. Both part of the same country at the same time and yet their context could not be further apart.

The title page of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616)

If we first explore the frontispiece of Jonson’s Workes (1616) it is possible to get an insight into how the early modern readers and consumers of the time may have interpreted the piece and how this may have contributed to their notion of authorial identity. Sara Van Der Berg said in Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio “The multiple definitions of the word author worked out in Jonson’s Folio is implied in the iconography of the frontispiece. Because Ben Jonson took such care with the preparation of his book, the title page can be considered a visual depiction of his personal ideology in relation to the general ideology of authorship available in his culture.”(114) Peter Berek states that “Title pages functioned as a form of what we would call advertising: They tried to persuade potential customers to buy a book.” (The Book of the Play, 162)The intricate detail of the frontispiece proposes the idea that Jonson was either comfortable with this form of ostentatious display or else deeply desired to be among it. It is evident that he considered only the elite eligible to read his work. Van Der Berg also discusses how the frontispiece “links Jonson to the coterie audience of humanist scholars and aristocrats who presumably shared his classical learning and values.” (Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio 114) The early modern readers and consumers may have been repelled by Jonson’s arrogance or intimidated that they would not understand his work or indeed may have been attracted to the invitation for the elite only. Its elaborate columns and Romanesque architecture would have been relevant and would have appealed only to the upper educated classes.

The title page of John Taylor’s Workes

Contradictory to Jonson as Nigel Wheale argues in Writing and Society: Literary Print and Politics in Britain that “The life and works of John Taylor (1578-1653) arguably England’s first self-taught successful author, illustrate the new opportunities which literacy offered to low-status individuals” Wheale also includes the quote from Taylor’s Workes “’To any Reader He or She, / It makes no matter what they be’: / John Taylor the Water Poet” Taylor marketed himself as accessible to everyone unlike a quotation from Jonson’s frontispiece which makes his intentions entirely transparent.  “-neque, me ut miretur turba, / laboro: / Contentus paucis lectoribus” [I do not work so that I will be admired by the crowd, but am content with a few readers] (Van Der Berg, Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio 114) Taylor’s frontispiece is designed to embody what he himself represented and not who he wished to represent. It’s filled with boatman symbolism which demonstrations Taylor’s continual commitment to his literary persona. It is largely understated by comparison to Jonson’s and this is what made it attractive to readers of Taylor’s own class. While it is obvious he wishes to succeed in the upper classes especially considering the importance of patronage, Taylor never forgets his lower class audience. We see this by his use of marginalia throughout his Workes and again when we see who he often addresses his pieces too. In the text An Arrent Thiefe Taylor invites “To any Reader Hee or Shee, / It makes no matter what they bee.” (115) This unbiased and welcoming approach allowed Taylor to transition with ease through the classes.

This example of the title page is only the tip of the iceberg regarding how we as readers can influence the representation of the author subconsciously. But even though it isn’t an extensive example, it does give us reason to pause and reflect on our own interpretations and biased.

 

Works Cited.

Berek, Peter. “Genres, Early Modern Theatrical Title Pages, and the Authority of Print” The Book of the Play Playrights, Stationers, and readers in Early Modern England. Ed. Marta Straznicky. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2006. Print.

Jonson, Ben. The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. London. 1616. Early English Books Online. Web. 4 Jan 2014.

Taylor, John. The Workes of John Taylor the water-poet. London. 1630. Early English Books Online. Web. 4 Jan. 2014

Van Den Berg, Sara. “Ben Jonson and the Ideology of Authorship. Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio. Ed. Brady and Herendeer. Newark: University of Deleware. 1991. Print. (111-136).

Wheale, Nigel. “Penny Merriments, Penny Godlinesses” Writing and Society: literacy, print and politics in Britain, 1590 – 1660. London, Routledge. 1999. Print.  

 

Images Cited. 

Mzilikazi1939. The title page of All the Workes of John Taylor. Photograph. 2011. John Taylor. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Jan 2014. 

Reedy, Tom. The Workes of Beniamin Ionson. Photograph. 2010. Ben Jonson. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Jan 2014 

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