Two important, unprecedented, folios appeared in 1616, both pointing, in differing ways, toward the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623: The Workes of Benjamin Jonson and The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James. Ben Jonson was Shakespeare’s rival, friend, and an accomplished playwright. He was the first major English dramatist to prepare a collection of plays and poems in folio format. Jonson carefully arranged for the publication, watched over its printing, and chose the material, deciding, for some reason to omit at least two of his plays. Jonson continued to write beyond 1616; thus, this folio is a kind of interim report. No English playwright before Jonson had been so ambitious about publication. The result is a beautiful book that dared to refer to plays as “works,” for which he received criticism.

No one criticized King James I for referring to his prose writings as “works,” in part because the folio format had typically been reserved for serious works of history, philosophy, natural history, and religion. Bishop James Winton took on the task of gathering the king’s pamphlets and speeches and creating this folio. The king was renowned as a writer, who, while in Scotland also published two volumes of poetry. This folio includes treatises on government and kingship, a pamphlet against tobacco, and one on demonology. No English monarch before or since James had published such material.



Jonson Folio

Ben Jonson. The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, 1616.

The Spencer Research Library possesses four copies of Jonson’s 1616 Folio: two are on display here. The first one opens to the beautiful, busy, and complex title page, which alludes to classical theater, in part because Jonson regarded himself as a classicist.  In fact, the title page includes the depiction of a classical theater below the top figure and the representations of Tragedy (left) and Comedy (right). This elaborate page resembles a triumphal arch, the likes of which Londoners would have seen on 15 March 1604 when the royal family made its official entry with attendant pageantry through the city. The central panel focuses on the book’s title and Jonson’s name; the name of the printer William Stansby is below.




The Catalogue

This page lists the contents of the Jonson Folio in the left-hand column and the dedicatees (the names of those to whom the work was dedicated) on the right. Jonson moves from his scholarly mentor William Camden down the list of institutions and aristocrats, ending with the “Earle of Pembroke,” who is William Herbert, a name that will surface in Shakespeare’s First Folio.  Herbert had become Lord Chamberlain in 1615 with wide-ranging responsibilities in the court, including overseeing the Master of Revels, who controlled which plays could be performed or published. Jonson dedicates Sejanus to Esmé Stuart, a member of the King’s Bedchamber and brother to Ludovic Stuart, Duke of Lennox. Jonson lived in Esmé’s house for five years. Clearly, Jonson seeks or acknowledges patronage.



Mary Wroth

 Jonson had dedicated the 1612 quarto text of The Alchemist to Mary Sidney Wroth, niece of Sir Philip Sidney. He carries the dedication over into the Folio. Wroth was herself a published poet and the first English woman to create a sonnet sequence.  Jonson seems to have known her well and obviously admires her and her distinguished family. He rests “safe in your judgement,” he claims. Dramatists dedicated a somewhat surprising number of plays in the period to women, who thereby served as potential or current patrons.



The Alchemist

This page lists the actors who performed the play in 1610. Such a list is uncommon in dramatic texts. These actors are from the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company and include Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, and John Heminge, special friends of Shakespeare.



Workes of King James

James I, King of England. The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James, 1616.

King James I of England had first been King James VI of Scotland, assuming the crown in 1567, scarcely a year old, following the forced exile of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. James spent a considerable amount of time and effort situating himself to succeed his cousin Queen Elizabeth I. This he did at her death in March 1603. James then began his journey to England, what looked like the Promised Land to him. He excelled in intellectual activities and enjoyed debating scholars and theologians, meanwhile mastering several languages. He was a skilled writer and orator, and he brought to England something this kingdom had not seen in decades: a royal family. Concerted efforts in the late 17th century did considerable damage to his reputation, which it has taken a century or so to overcome. The portrait, opposite the title page, by Simon van de Passe, displays the king in all his regal glory, carrying items most recently seen in the coronation of King Charles III. The portrait shows his motto: “Beati Pacifici,” blessed are the peacemakers.

The Severall Treatises

The list of “the Severall Treatises” indicates the impressive range of James’s interests. He was far ahead of the times in his opposition to tobacco and perhaps behind the times with his focus on demons and witches. His Basilicon Doron, published several times, is a guidebook aimed at the heir apparent, Prince Henry, with instructions for becoming a worthy prince and ruler. Some of the instructions, such as the necessity of being frugal, James did not himself succeed in following.