Ben Jonson: Not just another pretty face

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You don’t know the half of Ben Jonson.

In this case, a half would be about 140 pounds, for he tipped the scales at 280.  Ugly little sucker, too: his chum Thomas Dekker described him as “a staring Leviathan” with “a terrible mouth” and “a parboiled face … punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan.”

He’s not nearly so bad looking on the cover of Ian Donaldson‘s new Ben Johnson: A Life.  See right.

The Spectator reviews it here.  An excerpt:

“What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism.

A few months after the bishops of Canterbury and London, in 1599, declared the writing of satire illegal, what did Jonson produce? Every Man out of his Humour, a self-declared ‘comical satire’. The writing of history was also proscribed — Tacitean history being a particular sore point. So in 1603 Jonson produced Sejanus, a history play based on Tacitus. Epigrams were banned too. By 1612, Jonson got round to publishing some.

“Anyone would think he didn’t want to get on. Yet get on (despite the odd spell in chokey, and a fusillade of letters begging for forgiveness) is exactly what he did. He was the stepson of a bricklayer, with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and a serial writer of plays that gave offence to court favourites — yet he became the pre-eminent dramatist and deviser of court entertainments of his era.”

Inevitably, the comparisons with William Shakespeare: “Though Shakespeare proved (in Jonson’s words) ‘for all time’, Jonson himself was eclipsed. What happened? He was classical, where Shakespeare was romantic.”  My goodness.  What on earth does those distinctions mean in the context of the 16th and 17th centuries?  The anonymous reviewer doesn’t quite figure this out.

The brush with murder is hardly a shocker, if you know how Christopher Marlowe was done in.  I wrote about that here (though the portrait that accompanies the story is almost certainly not Marlowe)  following the publication of David Riggs’s bio of Shakespeare’s rival poet, who may have been offed on orders of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moreover, Marlowe had tried his own hand at murder, or at least manslaughter:

“At the time of his death, Marlowe was a more prominent playwright than Shakespeare,” Riggs notes. By then, “Shakespeare had written Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, and they aren’t as good as Tambourlaine or Doctor Faustus.

In addition to being a revolutionary playwright, Marlowe was a blasphemer, a homosexual, a secret agent, “someone involved with a wide range of criminal activities,” Riggs says. In all probability, he wasn’t killed in a brawl but in a political hit, very likely on orders of Queen Elizabeth. …

Even in this unusual company, Marlowe stood out and was himself a subject for surveillance. He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marlowe was held in Newgate, a “gloomy, rat-infested hold” for part of the time before he was discharged at trial.

By the way, David Riggs has his own 1989 biography of Jonson. See right.

Among these unsavory characters, the hardworking Shakespeare appears positively clean-cut, doesn’t he?


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One Response to “Ben Jonson: Not just another pretty face”

  1. Notebook Love Blog Says:

    Not Just Another Pretty…

    […] . He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marl […]…

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