Chapter XLVIII: Jonson--"Every Man In His Humour"
OF all the dramatists who were Shakespeare's friends, of those who wrote before him, with him, and just after him, we have little room to tell. But there is one who stands almost as far above them all as Shakespeare stands above him. This is Ben Jonson, and of him we must speak.
Ben Jonson's life began in poverty, his father dying before he was born, and leaving his widow poorly provided for. When Ben was about two years old his mother married again, and this second husband was a bricklayer. Ben, however, tells us that his own father was a gentleman, belonging to a good old Scottish Border family, and that he had lost all his estates in the reign of Queen Mary. But about the truth of this we do not know, for Ben was a bragger and a swaggerer. He may not have belonged to this Scottish family, and he may have had no estates to lose. Ben first went to a little school at St. Martin's-in-the-fields in London. There, somehow, the second master of Westminster School came to know of him, became his friend, and took him to Westminster, where he paid for his schooling. But when Ben left school he had to earn a living in some way, so he became a bricklayer like his step-father, when "having a trowell in his hand he had a book in his pocket."*
He did not long remain a bricklayer, however, for he could not endure the life, and next we find him a soldier in the Netherlands. We know very little of what he did as a soldier, and soon he was home again in England. Here he married. His wife was a good woman, but with a sharp tongue, and the marriage does not seem to have been very happy. And although they had several children, all of them died young.
And now, like Shakespeare, Jonson became an actor. Like Shakespeare too, he wrote plays. His first play is that by which he is best known, called Every Man in His Humour. By a man's humor, Jonson means his chief characteristic, one man, for instance, showing himself jealous, another boastful, and so on.
It will be a long time before you will care to read Every Man in His Humour, for there is a great deal in it that you would neither understand nor like. It is a play of the manners and customs of Elizabethan times which are so unlike ours that we have little sympathy with them. And that is the difference between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, although he wrote of his own time, wrote for all time; Jonson wrote of his own time for his own time. Yet, in Every Man in His Humour there is at least one character worthy to live beside Shakespeare's, and that is the blustering, boastful Captain Bobadill. He talks very grandly, but when it comes to fighting, he thinks it best to run away and live to fight another day. If only to know Captain Bobadill it will repay you to read Every Man in His Humour when you grow up.
Here is a scene in which he shows his "humor" delightfully:--
"BOBADILL. I am a gentleman, and live here obscure, and to myself. But were I known to Her Majesty and the Lords-- observe me--I would undertake, upon this poor head and life, for the public benefit of the State, not only to spare the entire lives of her subjects in general, but to save the one half, nay, three parts, of her yearly charge in holding war, and against what enemy soever. And how would I do it, think you? EDWARD KNOWELL. Nay, I know not, nor can I conceive. BOBADILL. Why thus, sir. I would select nineteen more, to myself, throughout the land. Gentlemen, they should be of good spirit, strong and able constitution. I would choose them by an instinct, a character that I have. And I would teach these nineteen the special rules, as your punto,* your reverso, your stoccata, your imbroccata, your passada, your montanto; till they could all play very near, or altogether, as well as myself. This done, say the enemy were forty thousand strong, we twenty would come into the field the tenth of March, or thereabouts, and we would challenge twenty of the enemy. They could not in their honour refuse us. Well, we would kill them. Challenge twenty more, kill them; twenty more, kill them; twenty more, kill them too. And thus would we kill every man his twenty a day. That's twenty score. Twenty score, that's two hundred. Two hundred a day, five days a thousand. Forty thousand; forty times five, five times forty; two hundred days kills them all up by computation. And this will I venture by poor gentleman-like carcase to perform, provided there be no treason practised upon us, by fair and discreet manhood; that is, civilly by the sword. EDWARD KNOWELL. Why! are you so sure of your hand, Captain, at all times? BOBADILL. Tut! never miss thrust, upon my reputation with you. EDWARD KNOWELL. I would not stand in Downright's state then, an you meet him, for the wealth of any one street in London." *This and the following are names of various passes and thrusts used in fencing. Punto is a direct hit, reverso a backward blow, and so on. (Knowell says this because Bobadill and Downright have had a quarrel, and Downright wishes to fight the Captain.) "BOBADILL. Why, sir, you mistake me. If he were here now, by this welkin, I would not draw my weapon on him. Let this gentleman do his mind; but I will bastinado him, by the bright sun, wherever I meet him. MATTHEW. Faith, and I'll have a fling at him, at my distance. EDWARD KNOWELL. Ods so, look where he is! yonder he goes. [DOWNRIGHT crosses the stage. DOWNRIGHT. What peevish luck have I, I cannot meet with these bragging rascals? BOBADILL. It is not he, is it? EDWARD KNOWELL. Yes, faith, it is he. MATTHEW. I'll be hanged then if that were he. EDWARD KNOWELL. Sir, keep your hanging good for some greater matter, for I assure you that was he. STEPHEN. Upon my reputation, it was he. BOBADILL. Had I thought it had been he, he must not have gone so. But I can hardly be induced to believe it was he yet. EDWARD KNOWELL. That I think, sir-- [Re-enter DOWNRIGHT. But see, he is come again. DOWNRIGHT. O, Pharaoh's foot, have I found you? Come, draw, to your tools. Draw, gipsy, or I'll thrash you. BOBADILL. Gentlemen of valour, I do believe in thee. Hear me-- DOWNRIGHT. Draw your weapon then. BOBADILL. Tall man, I never thought on it till now-- Body of me, I had a warrant of the peace served on me, even now as I came along, by a water-bearer. This gentleman saw it, Master Matthew. DOWNRIGHT. 'Sdeath! you will not draw! [DOWNRIGHT disarms BOBADILL and beats him. MATTHEW runs away. BOBADILL. Hold! hold! under thy favour forbear. DOWNRIGHT. Prate again, as you like this, you foist* you. Your consort is gone. Had he staid he had shared with you, sir. [Exit DOWNRIGHT. BOBADILL. Well, gentlemen, bear witness, I was bound to the peace, by this good day. EDWARD KNOWELL. No, fait, it's an ill day, Captain, never reckon it other. But, say you were bound to the peace, the law allows you to defend yourself. That will prove but a poor excuse. BOBADILL. I cannot tell, sir. I desire good construction in fair sort. I never sustained the like disgrace, by heaven! Sure I was struck with a planet thence, for I had no power to touch my weapon. EDWARD KNOWELL. Ay, like enough, I have heard of many that have been beaten under a planet. Go, get you to a surgeon! 'Slid! and these be your tricks, your passadoes, and your montantos, I'll none of them."
When Every Man in His Humour was acted, Shakespeare took a part in it. He and Jonson must have met each other often, must have known each other well. At the Mermaid Tavern all the wits used to gather. For there was a kind of club founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, and here the clever men of the day met to smoke and talk, and drink not a little. And among all the clever men Jonson soon came to be acknowledged as the king and leader. We have a pleasant picture of these friendly meetings by a man who lived then. "Many were the wit-combats," he says, "betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great gallion and an English Man of War: Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English Man of War, lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."*
*Thomas Fuller, Worthies.
Another writer says in a letter to Ben,
"What things have we seen,
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtile flame
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to pit his whole wit in a jest."*
*F. Beaumont, Letter to Ben Jonson.
And so we get a picture of Ben lording it in taverns. A great good fellow, a stout fellow, he rolls his huge bulk about laying down the law.
So the years went on. Big Ben wrote and fought, quarreled and made friends, drank and talked, living always on the verge of poverty. At length, in 1603, the great Queen Elizabeth died, and James of Scotland came to the English throne. All the way as he journeyed he was greeted with rejoicing. There were everywhere plays and feasts given in his honor, and soon after he arrived in London a Masque written by Jonson was played before him. The new king was fond of such entertainments. He smiled upon Master Ben Jonson, and life became for him easier and brighter.
But shortly after this, Jonson, with two others, wrote a play in which some things were said against the Scots. With a Scottish king surrounded by Scottish lords, that was dangerous. All three soon found themselves in prison and came near losing their noses and ears. This was not the first time that Ben had been in prison, for soon after Every Man in His Humour was acted, he quarreled for some unknown reason with another actor. In the foolish fashion of the day they fought a duel over it, and Ben killed the other man. For this he was seized and put in prison, and just escaped being hanged. He was left off only with the loss of all his goods and a brand on the left thumb.
Now once more Jonson escaped. When he was set free, his friends gave a great feast to show their joy. But Ben had not learned his lesson, and at least once again he found himself in prison because of something he had written.
But in spite of these things the King continued to smile upon Ben Jonson. He gave him a pension and made him poet laureate, and it was now that he began to write the Masques for which he became famous. These Masques were dainty poetic little plays written for the court and often acted by the Queen and her ladies. There was much singing and dancing in them, and the dresses of the actors were gorgeous beyond description. And besides this, while the ordinary stage was still without any scenery, Inigo Jones, the greatest architect in the land, joined Ben Jonson in making his plays splendid by inventing scenery for them. This scenery was beautiful and elaborate, and was sometimes changed two or three times during the play. One of these plays called The Masque of Blackness was acted by the Queen and her ladies in
1605, and when we read the description of the scenery it makes us wonder and smile too at the remembrance of Wall and the Man in the Moon of which Shakespeare made such fun a few years earlier, and of which you will read in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Besides his Masques, Jonson wrote two tragedies, and a number of comedies, as well as other poems. But for a great part of his life, the part that must have been the easiest and brightest, he wrote Masques for the King and court and not for the ordinary stage. He knew his own power in this kind of writing well, and he was not modest. "Next himself," he said, "only Fletcher and Chapman could make a mask."* He found, too, good friends among the nobles. With one he lived for five years, another gave him money to buy books, and his library became his great joy and pride.
*Conversation of Ben Jonson with Drummond of Hawthornden.
Ben Jonson traveled too. For a time he traveled in France with Sir Walter Raleigh's son, while Sir Walter himself was shut up in the Tower. But Jonson's most famous journey is his walk to Scotland. He liked to believe that he belonged to a famous Border family, and wished to visit the land of his forefathers. So in the mid-summer of 1618 he set out. We do not know how long he took to make his lengthy walk, but in September he was comfortably settled in Leith, being "worthily entertained" by all the greatest and most learned men of the day. He had money enough for all his wants, for he was able to give a gold piece and two and twenty shillings to another poet less well off than himself. He was given the freedom of the city of Edinburgh and more than 200 pounds was spent on a great feast in his honor. About Christmas he went to pay a visit to a well-known Scottish poet, William Drummond, who lived in a beautiful house called Hawthornden, a few miles from Edinburgh. There he stayed two or three weeks, during which time he and his host had many a long talk together, discussing men and books. Drummond wrote down all that he could remember of these talks, and it is from them that we learn a good deal of what we know about our poet, a good deal, perhaps, not to his credit. We learn from them that he was vain and boastful, a loud talker and a deep drinker. Yet there is something about this big blustering Ben that we cannot help but like.
In January sometime, Jonson set his face homeward, and reached London in April or May, having taken nearly a year to pay his visit. He must have been pleased with his journey, for on his return he wrote a poem about Scotland. Nothing of it has come down to us, however, except one line in which he calls Edinburgh "The heart of Scotland, Britain's other eye."
The years passed for Jonson, if not in wealth, at least in such comfort as his way of life allowed. For we cannot ever think of him as happy in his own home by his own fireside. He is rather a king in Clubland spending his all freely and taking no thought for the morrow. But in 1625 King James died, and although the new King Charles still continued the poet's pension, his tastes were different from those of his father, and Jonson found himself and his Masques neglected. His health began to fail too, and his library, which he dearly loved, was burned, together with many of his unpublished manuscripts, and so he fell on evil days.
Forgotten at court, Jonson began once more to write for the stage. But now that he had to write for bread, it almost seemed as if his pen had lost its charm. The plays he wrote added nothing to his fame. They were badly received. And so at last, in trouble for to-morrow's bread, without wife or child to comfort him, he died on 8th August, 1637.
He was buried in Westminster, and it was intended to raise a fine tomb over his grave. But times were growing troublous, and the monument was still lacking, when a lover of the poet, Sir John Young of Great Milton, in Oxfordshire, came to do honor to his tomb. Finding it unmarked, he paid a workman 1s. 6d. to carve above the poet's resting-place the words, "O rare Ben Jonson." And perhaps these simple words have done more to keep alive the memory of the poet than any splendid monument could have done.Next