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Ben Jonson was Shakespeare’s last drinking companion

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Saturday, 26 January 2013

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This edited article about Ben Jonson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Ben Jonson, picture, image, illustration

Ben Jonson was a drinker, a brawler and on of England’s greatest poets and playwrights by Angus McBride

In the year 1598, at Hog’s End Fields, Shoreditch, two men faced each other with rapiers ready. One was Gabriel Spencer, a bad-tempered actor. The other, older, with a pock-marked face, was Ben Jonson, poet.

Nobody knows the cause of their quarrel. Spencer had the longer sword and wounded Jonson in the arm. The poet then drove his blade under the actor’s guard and Spencer fell dead.

Ben Jonson was tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of murder but reprieved.

In the sixty-four years of his brawling, but learned, life, Benjamin Jonson was imprisoned many times, angered everyone that mattered, including King James I, and even in death did not lie at rest, for his coffin was set upright in Westminster Abbey. His plays, his poems, his dauntless spirit, are honoured to this day.

He was born in 1573, lived in Charing Cross and daily walked through the grounds of the Royal Palace of Whitehall to Westminster School, where his tutor, the scholar William Camden, revealed the classic world of Greece and Rome. His parents were poor, and when he failed to get a scholarship he was apprenticed to a bricklayer.

Ben’s heart was set on the theatre, but he wanted to mirror life in classical style without the airy fancies he criticized in the plays of his actor friend Will Shakespeare.

His first classic play, Every Man In His Humour, was a success. Other plays were not, but he was undismayed, and in his epilogue to Cynthia’s Revels cheekily wrote his own verdict: “By God, ’tis good.”

His masterpieces, Volpone and The Alchemist, both attacked greed – “the evil glitter of gold.” He drew inspiration from the classics, and his famous poem To Celia – “Drink to me only with thine eyes” – was written not in ardour for a lady fair but fashioned out of five prose passages by the Greek writer Philostratus.

Truly Ben Jonson was a contradiction – a scholar but a red-blooded one. He drank mightily, roistered with his cronies in the Mermaid Tavern, had a large collection of riddles and enjoyed hearty jokes.

He died in 1637 an honoured man of letters, and the apt inscription on his tomb in the Abbey says simply: “O rare Ben Jonson.”

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