Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

Ben Jonson 1572-1637

Contrary as always, Ben Jonson could cast horoscopes – but didn’t believe in them. What, then, would he have made of his own?

In some ways, perhaps, he was born lucky: winter offered the worst chances of survival for an Elizabethan baby; Jonson was born in midsummer. Even so, he was fortunate to survive. One in fifty babies were dead within a day; one in twenty within a week; one in ten within a month; one in eight within a year. One in three would not live out their childhood. Wherever he was born, it was not in London, and in this he was lucky, too: mortality in the City was higher than anywhere else in the country.

He entered the world on 11 June 1572, the feast of St Barnabas. In Canterbury and Stratford-on-Avon, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both eight years old, were already at school. Spenser was still studying at Cambridge; Sidney had left Oxford – and friends like William Camden – before graduating and was now on the Grand Tour. It would be another four years before London would get a permanent theatre, its first since Roman times. The Elizabethan moment had yet to arrive.

Under the old calendar, the feast of St Barnabas was the longest day of the year. The people celebrated it as Barnaby the Bright; they cut flowers to garland the altars. But there was not a great deal else to celebrate for England that summer. Fear and suspicion were rife. May Day had seen the first demonstration before Elizabeth of London’s – and England’s –  trained bands, a Privy Council innovation to ensure that there was an adequate ‘home guard’ in case of invasion. Counties were required to ensure that their best men received ten days training a year in use of pike and musket, and in military discipline generally. On that May holiday, 3,000 of the finest from London’s City militia took part in a war game – perhaps around one in 20 of the adult male population.
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Shakespeare, Catholicism and pre-Reformation festive culture

It is hard to overstate the volume and variety of entertainers whom one might have encountered on England’s roads in the early 1500s. But then, it’s a phenomenon that we’re viewing through the filter of what occurred later, around the turn of the century and after, when theatrical and performance culture was forcibly narrowed, shaped into a metropolitan elite itself but also reordered to cater to a more elite, ‘sophisticated’ audience.

For my part, what surprises me most, perhaps, looking at the data, is the sheer number of patrons. A quick scan through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) index of patrons for Kent, say, reveals some 83 patrons of some sort over the course of the 16th century, of whom 50 supported troupes of players and 54 minstrels or other specifically named musicians, be they drummers, trumpeters, lutenists, pipers, or harpers.

These figures are, of course, no more than illustrative – the survival of any such information is arbitrary and the way in which clerks recorded such visits was prey to whim – but they do, I think, convey something of the rich texture of itinerant entertainment in the period. Kent, in fact, was in a particularly privileged position being so close to London while also benefiting from occasional visits from continental entertainers, among them, for example, the King of Poland’s bearwards, who were in Kent in 1521-2.

Bear-baiting was the other principal entertainment receiving patrons’ support: bearwards belonging to 21 different patrons are noted in the surviving county records . One bearward, John Sackerston, had a career that can be traced through four decades, from Shrewsbury in 1553-4 to Bristol in 1579-80, by which time he was in the service of the Earl of Derby. He was, it would seem, something of a legend; Sackerson, the famous bear at Paris Garden on the Bankside, close by the Globe, was named after him. ‘I have seen/Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him/By the chain’, boasts Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor.
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Richard Tarlton: the greatest star of the Elizabethan theatre

Richard Tarlton, a posthumous imageI have written elsewhere – see for instance my post on the life of Thomas Kyd – on the way in which the more or less arbitrary survival of documentary evidence distorts our ideas about the shape and richness of Elizabethan culture.

And for us, looking back, the theatre of the period looks like a writers’ theatre. Even discounting Shakespeare, a world that gave us Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton – never mind John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, et al – was clearly doing something right.

But again the nature of the surviving evidence has helped warp that picture. For contemporaries, in fact, it was very much an actors’ theatre. And while the best known tragedians, Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, are still familiar names to us by virtue of their associations with the great roles, the best illustration of that fact is nevertheless the career of the clown Richard Tarlton. All performance is ephemeral; comedy wholly so.

By the time Tarlton died of the plague in September 1588 – at a guess in his late thirties, since the earliest reference to him is in 1570 – he was something of a legend.

According to Thomas Fuller:

When Queen Elizabeth was serious, I dare not say sullen, and out of good humour, he could un-dumpish her at his pleasure. Her highest favourites would, in some cases, go to Tarlton before they would go to the queen, and he was their usher to prepare their advantageous access unto her. In a word, he told the queen more of her faults than most of her chaplains, and cured her melancholy better than all of her physicians.

Another anecdote, which seems to attest to Tarlton’s willingness to be ferociously provocative, has him performing at court in front of Elizabeth and interrupting the play to point at Sir Walter Ralegh and say, “See how the knave commands the queen!”

…for which he was corrected by a frown from the queen; yet he had the confidence  to add that [Ralegh] was of too much and too intolerable a power; and going on with the same liberty, he reflected on the over-great power and riches of the Earl of Leicester, which was… universally applauded by all that were present.

Tarlton was a member of the Queen’s Men – the premier troupe of actors in the 1580s – from its inception in late March 1583 and was almost certainly its principal draw. Sir Philip Sidney – who I have always thought of as a rather humourless man – was godfather to Tarlton’s son, also named Philip.

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Thomas Kyd: fragments of a life

A scene from The Spanish Tragedy

The life and work of Thomas Kyd offer a perfect example of the problems posed by the erosion of evidence over time – see my post here – since what little we do know seems wholly arbitrary in its survival, yet also hints at the enormity of what we have lost.

Kyd, a prosperous scrivener’s son whose family hailed from the area around Lombard Street, was born in 1558 – he was baptised on 6 November – six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe and fourteen before Jonson. By virtue of his age, therefore, Kyd belongs more than any of them to the hinterland of Elizabethan drama, before works began to appear in print.
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More on the Shakespeare authorship question

Many thanks to those who have taken the time to comment on my previous post on the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Since one of those, from Howard Schumann – sorry I can’t work out how to link to it – is from an Oxfordian perspective, I thought I should reply more fully.

My general point is that too much evidence is granted a weight of certainty it doesn’t possess. So, for instance, Howard writes that conventional chronology dates the sonnets to 1592-6. To be honest, I don’t know if that is conventional or not. I do know that there isn’t any evidence for it. A couple of sonnets were certainly written in the 1590s, since they appear in the 1599 Passionate Pilgrim collection. For the rest, the only this that is certain is that they were written by May 1609, when the book was registered.
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Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy?

Thank God. Someone (Dispositio, here, hat-tip Dainty Ballerina) is writing something sensible on the Shakespeare Authorship issue. The whole blog is worth reading, and the basic argument – more needs to be done to counter the conspiracy theorists – is surely right.

But I was particularly pleased to see someone say this: “the entire authorship controversy is Bardolatry’s evil twin”. I couldn’t agree more. In many respects, the Shakespeare industry deserves the plague of Oxfordians currently, well, plaguing it.

The fundamental flaw in the arguments of those who want to claim the plays for someone who wasn’t William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the contempt for anything approaching the norms of historical evidence. That is, contemporary sources within either the subject’s life-time, or within the life-time of those who knew him or her personally. (We do not, for example, ignore things said about Elizabeth I by those who knew her merely because they were written down after her death.)

By that unremarkable standard, there is no evidence that the works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were: fourteen of the plays were attributed to him in print in his lifetime, with the Folio – compiled by two former colleagues with the formidable authority of Shakespeare’s greatest competitor, Ben Jonson, behind them – attributing the other 24 seven years later. And that is not to mention the poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, again all publicly attributed in his lifetime. There is no counter evidence of similar weight. Ergo, there is a reason no-one questioned those attributions for some three hundred years: there is no historical basis for doing so.

But Shakespearean authorities are careless about such matters too, when it suits them. There has been far too much willingness – no, eagerness – among Shakespeareans over the last 150 years or so to assert as true things that are merely speculation: the overwhelming desire to flesh out our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life compresses possibilities into probabilities, and probabilities into facts.

In his book, Shakespeare’s Lives, which I can’t recommend highly enough, one of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography which illuminates this process. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realize that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.

Dispositio mentions the dating of the plays in this context – the presentation of literary guesswork as fact – but there are many other examples derived from the text of the plays: the nod to Marlowe’s death in As You Like It (“it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”), say, or the recollection of Leicester’s Kenilworth entertainments (written by George Gascoigne) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From recollection, Greenblatt’s Will in the World, is particularly flawed in this regard.

These “facts” share the same fault as those that form the basis of the anti-Shakespearean position: they are not facts. They are not evidence of anything; they are merely possible readings of the play-text, and readings, moreover, which are built out of a worldview in which all literature is reducible to – and rendered more explicable by – its sources. That is, they reflect the idea that there are hidden meanings and references woven – consciously or otherwise – into the texts which relate to external people, documents and events and which an appropriate depth of thought and expertise can elucidate. As a literary approach it is almost gnostic; as a historical approach it is nonsense.

To go back to my examples, tired though they may be: if Jonson, say, had mentioned Shakespeare’s elegaic nod to Marlowe in As You Like It, it might be different; but there is nothing approaching historical evidence that a) Shakespeare was intentionally referring to his dead rival, or, failing that, that b) contemporaries considered him to have done so. (To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced we can be sure Shakespeare would have known much of the circumstances of Marlowe’s death, but perhaps I’ll let that point pass for the moment.)

A particular bugbear of mine is the genuine historical facts get distorted by the pressure Shakespeareans put on them. We know, for example, that Shakespeare dedicated his two early poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton. Southampton was, therefore, a patron of his in the early-to-mid 1590s. There is no evidence that such patronage extended any further. It is inadmissable therefore to refer to Southampton as Shakespeare’s patron without offering some kind of qualification on date.

Cobbe portrait c.1610

This may sound petty, but what I am leading up to is the claim, put forward by Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust a couple of years ago, to much ballyhoo in the media, that the Cobbe portrait is a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare. This is Wells on the subject:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming. I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.

Circumstantial is a polite word. The evidence is shaky, to say the least. One of the central planks of the argument is the suggestion that the painting may have belonged to Southampton (two hundred years before it came into the possession of the Cobbe family, that is).

Well, so what? Everyone accepts, I think, that the painting dates to c.1610. On the evidence we have, that is 16 years after there was any link between Shakespeare and Southampton. How likely is it that the fourth earl would have commissioned a portrait of someone with little more status than a servant, who last served him 16 years previously? Not at all, I would suggest. (Even if Shakespeare were still in his service in 1610, I think the idea borders on the ridiculous, but that’s beside the point.) Is there any evidence that he did? No.

Another key argument, as I understand it, is that the Cobbe portrait is clearly related to the Janssen portrait, which used to be considered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare until it was restored in the 1960s and everyone realised it had been doctored to look like the genuine portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio. Mmmm.

So desperate are professional Shakespeareans like Wells for something as definitive as a portrait of their man, that they will happily ride roughshod over the proper cautions a historian – or anyone without a dog in the fight – would employ. It isn’t good enough. We know far more about Shakespeare than we do about any contemporary playwright with the exception of Ben Jonson, who was both a relentless self-publicist and an inveterate trouble-maker, and therefore in regular contact with the authorities over one scandal or another. That should be enough.

New facts may come from new documents; they will not come from over-thinking the documents we already have. That way hokum lies. And what hope have Shakespeareans have of retaining the intellectual high ground if they continue to chase after it?

UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on the authorship controversy – and the use of sources – here