‘[Overhearing]’: Printing Parentheses and Reading Power in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus





Textual scholarship, Ben Jonson, Interiority


This essay posits that the earliest printed edition of Sejanus shows how power is not inherent to particular statements or actions, but apprehended, rather, in their relationships to the responses around them. Conventionally, critics find the emperor Tiberius to be in control of events in the play, and textual scholars argue that Jonson shapes the text in order to ensure this interpretation. Here, though, I show how techniques of marking parentheses present different kinds of onlooking and overhearing on the page, and I suggest that these techniques mark a strategy of allowing and sustaining multiple interpretations of Jonson’s Tiberius.

Author Biography

Ian Roger Burrows, University of Cambridge

Ian Burrowns (irb23@cam.ac.uk) is a teaching associate in the English faculty at the University of Cambridge. He is the textual editor for the James Shirley play The Example (part of the OUP Complete Works), and is editing Fair Em for a forthcoming Collected Works of Thomas Kyd. He was awarded the 2014-15 Carl H. Pforzheimer Fellowship and is working on a monograph concerning punctuation and personality in early modern printed drama.


‘Principle Features of Editorial Method’, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online:

Tom Cain ed. Sejanus, in The Collected Works of Ben Jonson 7 vols, eds. David Bevington, Martin Butler., and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge, 2012).

Sejanus (London: George Eld for Thomas Thorpe, 1605).

Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore, 1983)

M. J. Kidnie ed. Sejanus (Oxford, 2000)

N. F. Blake, A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language (Basingstoke, 2002)

C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson, 11 vols (Oxford, 1925)

John Lennard, But I Digress: The Exploitation of Parenthesis in English Printed Verse (Oxford, 1991)

Sara Van den Berg, ‘Marking his Place: Ben Jonson’s Punctuation’, in Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995)

W. B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance (Cambridge, 2003)

Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (Oxford, 2007)

James Loxley, Ben Jonson (Abingdon, 2002)

William Slights, Ben Jonson and the Art of Secrecy (Toronto, 1994)


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