The Future of History

Saturday, 17 March 2012

He Should Be Stopped

How lucky am I, living so close to Stratford-upon-Avon?  It's a bus ride away - and a very pretty bus ride at that.

On Wednesday I hopped on the bus to go to the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street, next to the Birthplace, to hear Ian Donaldson give a talk about his biography of Ben Jonson.

Donaldson's Life of Ben Jonson is the first proper biography of Will Shakespeare's greatest literary rival in some thirty years.  It's also an excellent biography: detailed, reasoned and readable.  And Ian Donaldson spoke very entertainingly about it.

Seeing as he was in Stratford, he concentrated on the various stories, legends, anecdotes and myths surrounding Jonson and Shakespeare.  There is, for example, a tradition that it was Shakespeare who gave Jonson his big break in the theatre.  Modern biographers don't care very much for these 'traditions', which is a shame because the people who originally passed them on might have been trying to tell us something.  We ignore them at our peril - if, that is, we're keen on knowing what was really going on.

Ian Donaldson also ran through some of the dramatic exchanges between the works of Shakespeare and Jonson.  Thus, in the original version of Jonson's Every Man in his Humour (which Shakespeare acted in), there is a jealous husband named Thorello.  This seems to have inspired the jealous husband in Shakespeare's Othello.  The crucial handkerchief of that play reappears in Jonson's Volpone (which seems to have been written as an answer to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens).  Donaldson also suggested that The Tempest was Shakespeare's response to Jonson's The Alchemist.  And so on.

One thing that modern critics turn a rather blind eye to is the long-running tradition of bitter and nasty rivalry between the two poet-playwrights.  Right through the 18th century it was widely accepted that Ben Jonson had attacked Shakespeare on every available occasion.  Today, though, the claim is made that they were good friends who indulged in a little gentle mockery from time to time but who admired each other enormously.  Ben's contributions to the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 are cited as proof of his great love and utmost regard for Shakespeare's work.

This is unreasonable.  It overlooks a basic fact: that Jonson seldom praised any other human being unless he was after something.  Other poets of the time seem to have been in little doubt that Jonson's comments on Shakespeare were false, inspired by envy.  But, once again, it seems that contemporary evidence is overlooked by modern commentators.  Poets of the period didn't trust Ben Jonson.  So why should we?

When Jonson was 'helping' the long-term colleagues of Will Shakespeare - Heminges and Condell - to put together the First Folio of 1623, they seem to have had a disagreement about Shakespeare's merits.  The players remarked that Shakespeare 'never blotted out a line' (and they said as much in their dedicatory preface to the First Folio).  Ben Jonson snapped back, 'would that he had blotted out a thousand.'

The players didn't like this.  But Jonson later explained himself.  Shakespeare, he wrote, 'was (indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flowed with that facility, that it sometime was necessary he should be stopped.'

Adding a classical touch, Jonson then quoted Augustus Caesar: Sufflaminandus erat ('the brakes had to be applied').

Quite how chilling these remarks really are can best be shown by comparing them with the conclusion to a long note made by a secret service agent in 1593.  The Baines Note, as it is known, listed a host of accusations about another playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who, it was said, was a blaspheming atheist who enjoyed tobacco and boys.  The incriminating memorandum ended: 'I think all men of Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member should be stopped.'

And it was.  Marlowe was murdered on 29 May 1593.  It is commonly believed that he died in a tavern brawl.  But it was hardly a brawl and it certainly wasn't a tavern.  It was the home of a respectable widow with connections at the highest level of the Elizabethan State.

Returning to Shakespeare's Othello, we find that when Desdemona is desperately trying to protest her innocence, she begs her husband to call Michael Cassio, who can explain the truth of the situation.  Othello's response is: 'No, his mouth is stopped.'  Othello mistakenly believes that Iago has killed Cassio.  Hence, 'his mouth is stopped' - like a wine bottle is stopped with a cork.

Jonson's remark that Shakespeare wrote so freely that 'sometime it was necessary he should be stopped' hasn't received much attention from critics.  Broadly, they presume that Will occasionally needed someone to intervene and calm him down, to bring a little discipline to his writing.  That's how much Jonson admired Shakespeare - he thought he wrote too much!

But, realistically, Jonson's remark has nothing innocent about it.  The contemporary meaning seems to have been pretty clear.  'His mouth is stopped' - Othello believes that Cassio is dead.  'The mouth of so dangerous a member should be stopped' - someone needs to make Marlowe shut up, permanently.  'Sometime it was necessary he should be stopped' - sooner or later, Shakespeare was bound to go too far; he had to be silenced.

And so Shakespeare was 'stopped' - just like Christopher Marlowe.

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