Jonson—"Every Man in His Humour"
O F 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
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"
"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."
(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,
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
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
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, faith, 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
Another writer says in a letter to Ben,
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.
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
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
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
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