It’s the birthday of the playwright Ben Jonson (books by this author), born on this day in London, probably in 1572. His plays include Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). A contemporary, friend, and rival of Shakespeare’s, Jonson was a heavy drinker and a fighter, no “Gentle Will.”
Jonson’s father died before he was born, and his stepfather was a bricklayer, so after a good education, young Ben spent some time laying bricks and then went off and joined the army. The story goes that he ran to the front of the lines and challenged a random soldier to single combat, then killed him. He went back to London, where he got work as an actor. Apparently he wasn’t a very good actor, but he was a good playwright. In 1597, he co-wrote a play called The Isle of Dogs, which got him in trouble with the government—it was too subversive, and he was thrown in jail for “leude and mutynous behavior.” He was let out after a few months, but a year later, he killed a fellow actor named Gabriel Spenscer in a duel. He was arrested and he should have been hanged, but he pulled out a legal defense called “benefit of clergy”—since he could read the Bible in Latin, he got to go in front of a more lenient court, which rarely sentenced well-educated men. Instead, he got another stint in jail, and was branded on his thumb to remind him that he had almost been executed. In 1604, he co-wrote a play called Eastward Ho! that mocked Scotland—since James VI of Scotland had taken over the throne from Elizabeth, making fun of Scotland was not tolerated, and Jonson was once more thrown in jail and informed that his ears and nose would be cut off. This threat never materialized, and when he was released, he hosted a banquet with friends to celebrate yet another narrow escape.
Jonson’s plays were more classically inspired than Shakespeare’s, less dependent on bawdy jokes and flashy duels. Jonson made plenty of disparaging comments about Shakespeare. He complained that his fellow playwright had “small Latine, and less Greeke.” And Jonson was probably alluding to Shakespeare, who did have a tendency to rip off plots from other people, when he wrote:
Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own :
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours ;
He marks not whose ’twas first : and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece?
Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson was known as a slow, meticulous writer. After Shakespeare’s death, Jonson wrote: “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. […] I loved the man and do honor his memory on this side of idolatry, as much as any: he was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.”
Ben Jonson was famous for his ability to drink—it is said that when he converted from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church in 1610, he downed the entire chalice of wine during his first communion. His bar of choice was the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, where he was the ringleader of a group of literary men. There are stories about the great debates and battles of wit that Jonson and Shakespeare had over their pints at the Mermaid, surrounded by the likes John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, and Francis Beaumont—but this is probably not true. More likely it was Jonson and some younger literary disciples who were regular patrons. After Jonson’s death, the playwright Jasper Mayne wrote an ode, “To the Memory of Ben Jonson,” and he wrote: “Such thy drought was, and so great thy thirst, / That all thy Playes were drawne at th’ Mermaid first.”