1 year ago
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Surely there's a place this week for the story of one of the great writers -- poet, playwright -- in the history of our English literture: Ben Jonson.
To many scholars, he was the greatest dramatic genius of the Elizabethan theatre, after Shakespeare.
He is best known for his satirical plays and his lyric poems. He was a man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for getting into trouble.
What makes him interesting is this: he started out as a bricklayer.
Like most bricklayers of 400 years ago he was unable to go to university, so he decided to educate himself. He became one of the best-educated men in the country.
Ultimately, Oxford, which previously wouldn’t have allowed him to so much as deliver a pizza to the back door, granted him an MA.
He was also contentious and very argumentative. His story consisted of a rap sheet that was almost unbelievable. He had killed a soldier in man-to-man combat in the Low Countries, and he killed another man in a duel. He was locked up in prison from time to time for “leude and mutynous” behavior, which seemed to sort of sum up his life.
It’s worth pointing out that the report of his heroic man-to-man combat experience while he was in the army came from him; no one else ever mentioned it.
As for the duel, that actually happened, and Ben J. was in trouble; he could have been hanged for such a killing. He managed to get off by using a legal ploy, something that says a lot about Elizabethan life. He got off by pleading “benefit of clergy.”
It worked, even though there were few who would have described Ben Jonson as clergy, or even having much to do with clergy.
However, there were so few educated people in England at that time that authorities decided it would be best not to execute a person if he could prove he could read and write. In that case he would be considered to be “clergy.” Ben did well in this test: he aced the exam by reciting a Bible verse in Latin. He got off lightly: he was just branded with the mark of a felon.
This tough guy was capable of magnificent writing; how many bricklayers do you know who could beguile the reader with a poem as light and lovely as “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” which he did.
As for the profession of playwrighting, it was at that time a dangerous business. Write the wrong words in a script and your punishment could be severe. In Ben Jonson’s play “Eastward Ho!” he committed the fox pass of appearing to suggest that King James the One had accepted payment for creating knighthoods. That was a mistake. He not only wound up in jail but endured torture. Will Shakespeare was careful throughout his career to keep his nasal passages clean; he stayed out of trouble. Ben sort of stayed in trouble.
As an example of what could happen, the playwright Thomas Nashe wrote a play titled “The Isle of Dogs,” which the Privy Council did not, to say the least, like very much. Aware of the possible impending imprisonment and torture – everyone was aware that the horrible rack, among other such devices, could be waiting for them – Nashe hurriedly left town and hid out in the country. The Privy Council threatened to tear down all the theatres. That would have brought the Golden Age of Theatre to a grinding halt, not to mention Will Shakespeare’s career along with it. Fortunately, the Council never got around to actually carrying out its threat.
If Ben Jonson were around today, my guess is he would be a writer of plays for off-off-Broadway, and he would usually be dressed, even for formal occasions, in worn-out jeans and a dirty T-shirt with an offensive motto printed on the front, and he would be sporting a huge bushy beard, with bits of whatever he had for breakfast embedded in it.
Ben Jonson was William Shakespeare’s friend/competitor/nag and general pain in the neck. He regarded with amusement his pal Will’s efforts to turn himself into a gentleman. It would seem he especially got a kick out of the Shakespeare coat of arms, with its “Not Without Right” motto. We know this because Jonson proceeded to write a play that features a character who has received a coat of arms (which he got through bribery); the character, by the way, is a clown.
His coat of arms has a picture of a boar, with a three-word motto beneath: “Not Without Mustard.”
Everyone who was in any way connected with the theatre in London at that time undoubtedly found that hysterically funny. It’s probable that Our Will wasn’t as amused.
As a totally irrelevant side comment, Pocahontas – yes that Pocahontas – was in England and was actually in the audience for one of Ben’s productions.
Ben Jonson died on Aug. 6, 1637. His story ends in this way: once he was safely dead, the country decided that he was the foremost man of letters of his age and he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
(He was one up on his friend Will; Shakespeare was not buried in Westminster Abbey.)
Ben was buried under a slab on which was carved the words, “O Rare Ben Jonson!”
He was rare; there were none rarer.