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Monday, September 24, 2012

Ben Jonson, Duellist


On September 22, 1598 the playwright Ben Jonson fought a duel with a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer in Hogsden (Hoxton) Fields in Shoreditch.





He was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for murder. He pleaded guilty and would have been executed if he had not claimed the right of clergy. 

The right of clergy was a legal ploy by which he could be sentenced by an ecclesiastical court, where he recited a bible verse (the neck-verse) and was spared execution. He had to forfeit all of his possessions, and his left thumb was branded.

While he was in jail, he converted to Catholicism. 12 years later he would become an Anglican.






Ben Jonson was born 11 June 1572, in Westminster. His father died before he was born, and his stepfather was a master bricklayer. Jonson became a bricklayer himself after deciding not to go to university.


Soon after, he became a soldier, serving in the Netherlands, where he claimed to have killed a man in single combat.


He eventually became a playwright, and his first real success was his play Every Man In His Humor which he had performed for the first time, only days before the duel in Shoreditch.


The play was performed at the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. William Shakespeare played a part in the show, possibly in the role of the elder Knowell.


After the duel and subsequent trial, Jonson would become a very popular playwright, second only to Shakespeare -- a fact which probably never ceased to infuriate Jonson.


After Shakespeare died, Jonson is famous for having said of him "He was not of an age, but for all time." I have always thought that Jonson's words were tongue in cheek, and bitter -- not truly sincere or heartfelt.



Marlowe


The playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was also known as a hard-drinking "brawler" and "duellist,"  had died under suspicious circumstances in 1593. His political activities may have cost him his life. His dear friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, who was also rather politically motivated, was interrogated and tortured by the authorities and died not long after from those wounds.


This story gives us an idea of what playwrights were like in those days.

Shakespeare, as far as we know, did not fight duels, and was never put in prison.


But that is not to say that Shakespeare was an angel, who never got into trouble.

He may have been very much like Jonson, and Marlowe. His politics may have gotten him in trouble. 

We know that his men were questioned after the failed Essex Rebellion in February 1601. There has never been a satisfactory account of what Shakespeare knew about the Rebellion and when he knew it.


Did Shakespeare do time in The Tower?


In my version of Hamlet, I wrote an account of Shakespeare's relationship with Essex, and where and what he did during the Rebellion.

While there is no record that Shakespeare was punished for the Essex Rebellion, I have Shakespeare imprisoned in The Tower for a short time. Not for the Rebellion itself, but for having written the Hamlet play in honor of Essex, who inspired the Hamlet character.

It may have been the one and only time that Shakespeare was punished for his plays. 

Jonson however, would get in and out of trouble just about his entire life. It would seem that he could never stop duelling.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer




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