Wednesday, February 2, 2011

For "Writer's Island" and "Story"

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.


Margaret said...

I just love these "behind the curtain" glimpses of life long ago.

Trulyfool said...


Absolutely love this literary history! My memory of reading B.J. centers mostly around Volpone, but somehow this wild man you describe (as I also somewhat remember reading about) misfits with my 'perceived knowledge' of his lyrical form.

I carry with me a notion that Ben, with his Latin models, rolled 'Horatian' odes into English by heavy use of couplets.

Again, to me, that almost presages a later 17th and 18th Century fetish with couplets as the mark of orderliness, a verbal echo of rational and scientific precision.

No expert here. Which is why I'm one of your fans.


Brigid O'Connor said...

What a great post. I love your description of him if he were alive today. To be considered 'rare' now thats a compliment.

Leslie: said...

Once again, a fascinating mini-bio of someone we've probably all heard of, but not known well.

ds said...

O, rare indeed, Ben Jonson! Wonderful stuff, Berowne. Thank you so much for sharing it. I suspect his shade is lurking about somewhere off-off-Broadway--brilliant description!

spacedlaw said...

So interesting.

Berowne said...

Trulyfool: "...that almost presages a later 17th and 18th Century fetish with couplets."
What about today? I'm no expert on the subject, but it's my understanding that both rapping and hip hop are usually in couplet form.

Berowne said...

My thanks to Margaret Bednar, Brigid, Leslie, ds and spacedlaw for their friendly comments.

Tess Kincaid said...

A bricklayer? Only you would know this, Mr. B. Interesting post, as always.

Linda said...

Fascinating period in time, although I can't say I am familiar with today's subject. He sounds like quite the character of his day.

Berowne said...

Tess K.: "Interesting post, as always."
Interesting prompt, as always. :-)

Trulyfool said...


I guess the experts are in the street (or in recording studios somewhere near the Hollywood freeway) as we speak.

They do use (inordinate) rhyme, but I'm not sure it's a 'couplet' so much as a combo of end- and internal- 'exact' rhyme.

Their problem is content. Just plain complaint or ego unalloyed with connection outside the most obvious immediate.

Call me a snob? Some line has to be drawn.

The A. Popes of the world, rare birds, had great satirical brains as well as technical skill. I'm not a big Augustan poetry fan, but it is worth noting?

(You know all this)


Maggie said...

OMG, I know two men who fit this description of Ben and Will! Loved this so much. : )

Helena said...

I love these little step back in time, with your own take on history. I can now have a 'Ben Jonson' show-off quiz period with the boys tonight!!

Berowne said...

thingy: "Loved this so much."
It's comments like this that make our day. :-)

Kathe W. said...

splendid excellent post! Thank you!

Strummed Words said...

Oh rare Ben Johnson. Even a bricklayer can aspire to literary greatness. Thanks for reminding us about him.

Roan said...

Very enjoyable look into literary history. Loved the way you described him as he would be today.

RJ Clarken said...

I love coming to your site because while I never know what to expect (regards subject matter) I absolutely do expect to be enlightened. Thanks! This was a brilliant and fascinating study,

And yes, I do feel a bit enlightened now, too, which, all things considered here, is not sO rare,

Anonymous said...

A beguiling take on today's prompt. You made the man come to life, both then and in your invented present day persona. I loved your fox pass parody!

flaubert said...

A fantastic post on a person whom I knew
little to nothing about. Thanks for that.

Elizabeth said...

His really was an inspiring life story and an encouragement to all of us that no matter what our backgrounds or personal circumstances, we can achieve great things. I bet the feathers flew between him and Will when they got together;Ben is one of those guys that it would've been interesting to meet once or twice but a bit too on the controversial and irritating side to hang around with on a regular basis. He was the first person to use the name 'Polly' in connection with parrots, apparently, though what obscure reason he may have had eludes me. x

Jae Rose said...

Yes, Berowne, I agree these essay's really inform - but more imortantly, they make me smile as you show the charcter of the person and your admiration of them..Great write..Jae

Old Egg said...

This is a delightful glimpse into the past. How did he get away with it in those dangerous times for the non-conformist?

Most enjoyable.

Gemma Wiseman said...

You have brought the blurry persona of Ben Jonson ("blurry" in comparison with Shakespeare)alive! So much spunky rebellious character in this guy! A great post!

Berowne said...

My sincere thanks for such enthusiastic comments:
Greyscale: "A great post!" oldegg: "Most enjoyable." jaerose: "Great write." flaubert: "A fantastic post." vivinfrance: "A beguiling take." lightverse: "I love coming to your site." BJ Roan: "Very enjoyable."

Abigail Bunting said...

Why haven't I heard of this man before?!
Thank you for writing this essay and breathing life into a little-known playwright.
'on paper wings'

ms pie said...

thank you for opening a door to ben and will... i've already written it down for further reading... as who can turn away such a good story.. and an excellent magpie at that!!

Josie Two Shoes said...

A very interesting bio of a man I knew little about but am now prompted to read more of... thank you, great post!

Altonian said...

'Oh for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention' - as our Will said.
Well, we've got one, and his name is Berowne. Your mix of fact and fiction (well, pizzas to the back door of Oxford University!!) is a magnificent read; and you keep coming up with the same standard time and again. Wonderful stuff to read, thanks.

Berowne said...

>>Old Altonian: "Oh for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention" - as our Will said. Well, we've got one, and his name is Berowne.<<
Seiously, Old A., that may be the nicest comment I've yet received -- thanks.

Pat said...

With head hanging in shame I have to admit to confusing Ben Jonson with Boswell.

Berowne said...

Pat: "...confusing Ben Jonson with Boswell."
Usually folks confuse Ben Jonson with DOCTOR Johnson -- a different chap in a different century. :-)

linda may said...

That's really cool. I learned something with this. Today he wouldn't be so different from many of us eh. Your description sounds a bit like my son, well except for the dirty beard, thank goodness.

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