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Friday, May 17, 2013

Shakespeare and Ben Jonson's Conversion



In May 1610, the famous poet and playwright Ben Jonson renounced his Catholic faith and became a Protestant -- again.




Jonson was born into a Protestant household. 

He lived his life as an observant and law-abiding Protestant.

But in 1598, when he was 26 years old, and becoming famous and infamous for the plays he wrote, he killed a man named Gabriel Spencer.




Jonson went to jail, and while in jail he renounced his Protestant faith and became a Catholic.

Why did he do this?

Jonson, like many people in England at the time, may have been sympathetic to Catholics, who had to remain underground for fear of persecution by Queen Elizabeth.

Jonson may have been of the opinion that the war with Spain would not go well for England, there might even be a Spanish invasion, and sooner than later there would be a Catholic monarch on the throne of England.

I think the answer is much more simpler and personal. 

The most persuasive answer to me is that Jonson really was a Catholic in his heart. 

He was concerned that he would be executed for his crime and he wanted to receive Catholic absolution for his soul.

He was not executed, and he went free from jail.

Spain did not invade England, and Elizabeth remained Queen -- at least until 1603.

Jonson had to keep his new faith quiet. He had to stay underground for many long years.

When James was crowned King of England in 1603, Jonson may have been optimistic that there would be greater toleration of Catholics.

He was wrong. King James did not make the situation any better for Catholics.

But his wife, the Queen Consort Anne, was a secret Catholic like Jonson.

Anne became Jonson’s un-official patron. She especially liked the court masque entertainments he wrote -- and which she would occasionally star in.





He may have found a certain degree of religious freedom at court, and especially with Anne.

But in November 1605, with the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic conspiracy to kill King James and blow up Parliament, Jonson would have been terrified that he might be arrested because of his faith.

He had good reason to fear. The Gunpowder Plot conspirators frequently met at the Mermaid Tavern -- the same tavern that Jonson visited the most.

In fact, he was accused of recusancy. He had the habit of slipping out of church during the sacrament, in order to not offend his Catholic conscience.

He and his wife went to court to answer for their recusancy. For some reason, perhaps because of his fame and his status at court, he was punished lightly with a fine.

But the ultimate test of Jonson’s Catholic faith came in 1610.

As I have recently written, King Henry IV of France was killed on 14 May 1610 by a Catholic  assassin.



Assassination of King Henry IV of France

Jonson publicly renounced his Catholic faith. He was afraid that Catholics would be punished like they had after the Gunpowder Plot.

Was his conversion sincere?

I don’t think so. He probably remained a secret Catholic in his heart.

I often wonder, was Jonson the true man of the times?

Or was Shakespeare?

Was Jonson -- who changed his faith back and forth, but was most likely a secret Catholic his whole life -- more representative of the Elizabethan era than Shakespeare?

Shakespeare -- as far as we know, was born a Protestant and stayed that way his whole life.

He did not find himself in trouble like Jonson did.

He did not seem to want to go looking for trouble like Jonson did.

And I have a hard time imagining that Shakespeare would ever kill a man in a duel -- or put himself in the position to have to defend his honor with a weapon.

Jonson may in fact have been more the man of the times than Shakespeare. 

After all, King Henry IV of France was baptised a Catholic, became a Protestant and then converted back to being a Catholic again.

The English Reformation was a tumultuous and confusing time. Change was often sudden and violent.

Jonson seemed to change with the times.

Shakespeare did not. He seems more constant, almost above the fray as it were.

But as I look deeper into his life and times, and as I have written in this blog and in my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare emerges as a more fascinating man.

He emerges as a man who was deeply involved with the politics of the time and religious change -- friends with and patronized by some of the most powerful and historically important people of the time, like Ferdinando Stanley, Robert Devereux, Henry Wriothesley, and many more.

But his brilliance was putting all of the energy he had -- regarding the English Reformation, Queen Elizabeth and King James -- into his plays.

As I have written before, Shakespeare fought his own personal fight in the Reformation, but he fought it with a quill pen and not a sword.

He did not take up arms in the streets or slip out of church. He was famous for not going to taverns often. He stayed in his lodgings, and wrote words.

His plays, while full of topical and controversial issues, always seemed to stay within the lines. His plays passed the royal censors, and he built upon his success so when even he would get in trouble, he was too influential to be silenced.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, Ben Jonson famously said: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

I think Jonson did not intend this to be taken entirely as a compliment.

I think he resented Shakespeare for not having taken a more active part in the politics of the day.

Jonson was also admitting that he, Jonson himself, was of the age in which he lived.

Jonson could probably tell that while he would enjoy his greatest success while he lived during his own lifetime, he knew that Shakespeare would enjoy his greatest success forever after.

Cheers,