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Elizabethan great offers present-day lessons


“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the inscription on Jonson’s gravestone. Rare indeed! Even in William Shakespeare’s time (1570s-1616), Jonson was a rare man – bricklayer, soldier in Queen Elizabeth I’s army, actor, duelist responsible for the death of a fellow actor, a felon branded with a “T” on his thumb, a court poet anointed by Elizabeth’s successor, King James 1. Jonson should have written his own epitaph – perhaps he did.

Despite the evidence that someone else wrote this inscription, I’ve always felt that Jonson wrote it from the grave. Jonson was nothing if not a survivor. He was born with a chip on his shoulder the size of Big Ben. A friend and a rival of Shakespeare, Jonson was a heavy drinker, a barrel of a man who could have benefited from “The Biggest Loser” had reality television been in existence during the Elizabethan period.

Jonson tried to write tragedies, but he wasn’t capable of writing about life and death with the same scope that Shakespeare did. Satire always got in the way, especially in his 1603 “Sejanus.”

In this play, Jonson has his thumb on the pulse of political power and what it takes to plot and make it to the top – he might have been describing Congress. King James’s advisers must have felt this way. Jonson was thrown into prison for sedition.

Comedy – and human nature – was what he knew. His greatest works are comedies that strip away human foibles.

Plays such as “Volpone,” “The Alchemist” and “Bartholomew Fair” – staples of the Royal Shakespeare Company to this day – reveal Jonson’s understanding of human stupidity, greed, and lust. He was the Dr. Phil of his time, putting people on stage and asking them, “How’s that working for you?”

In “Volpone,” he shows how greed drives people to the “deathbed” of Volpone, a schemer who fakes a terminal illness to gain people’s money. For Jonson, the London middle class were all greedy materialists, waiting to cash in on death.

In “The Alchemist,” Jonson shows how an Elizabethan Bernie Madoff could scam his willing investors by promising them great returns on their investment.

In “Bartholomew Fair,” he thinks of London as a giant carnival with fools walking through and throwing away their money, hoping to get a prize. As much as Jonson despised fools with money, he couldn’t tolerate religious hypocrites. In “Bartholomew Fair,” he reserves his greatest humiliation for Londoners who pretend to be something they’re not. By the end of the play, the fair has demonstrated the foolishness of those who pretend to be religious, virtuous and chaste.

Until 1616, Jonson always risked being arrested and censored by the government. Having survived hanging in 1597 for sedition and in 1598 for murder, Jonson never learned. He later faced charges of “popery and treason” for having converted to Catholicism and for writing a play dealing with the abuses of royal power. Jonson finally decided to stop living on the edge.

In 1616 he published his first book. Like Dr. Phil, Jonson promoted his self-identity by collecting his own poetry, drama, prose work and court spectacle and published them. This folio, the same format that Shakespeare’s colleagues would use in 1623 to publish the Bard’s works after his death in 1616, announced Jonson’s arrival as an “author.” Jonson was certainly the entrepreneur. He made sure to publish his own works while he was alive. And it paid off.

Jonson became England’s first poet laureate. Quite a climb for the son of a bricklayer. Through luck, through talent, through sheer persistence, Jonson had climbed the ladder from tradesman to royal court poet. Unlike those born into social prominence, Jonson demonstrated the power of the self-made man, the entrepreneur who makes his own way.

As he weighed nearly 300 pounds, Jonson decided two years later to go on his own weight-loss plan: walking to Edinburgh, Scotland and back. King James had visited his native home two years earlier. Maybe Jonson wanted to walk in his monarch’s footsteps. In Scotland, Jonson spent time extolling his personal likes and dislikes to his host, William Drummond of Hawthornden. Since he didn’t have a cell phone and couldn’t text, Jonson made sure he had the next best thing. He told Drummond what he felt about everyone and everything.

Some of his more memorable – and perhaps candid – observations were recorded by Drummond. What do we learn about Jonson? According to Drummond, “He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him.” Jonson’s criticism included himself.

Jonson’s desire to be upright extended to the grave. Despite drinking away his money and burying his son decades before, Jonson found repose in the northern aisle of Westminster Abbey’s Nave. He’s the only figure buried vertically. Even in death, Jonson refused to stoop before any man. Even the king.

Hardin Aasand is an English professor and chair of the Department of English and Linguistics at IPFW. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.