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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ben Jonson Dines With Gunpowder Plotters

408 years ago, on 9 October 1605, Ben Jonson was invited to a supper party at a tavern called the Irish Boy, on the Strand.

The party was given by Robert Catesby, and the other guests included Francis Tresham, Robert Wintour, John Ashfield, Sir Josceline Percy and Lord Mordaunt.

Catesby was the man in charge of the Gunpowder Plot, and these other men were ringleaders in that treasonous plot to kill King James, his family and as many Parliamentary leaders as possible on the opening day of Parliament, 5 November 1605 -- less than a month away.

What was Ben Jonson doing there?

Did he know these men? Was he friends with some or all of them? Was he just acquainted with them? Did he have any idea who they really were and what they had in mind?

Ben Jonson had a very colorful life, and he was in and out of trouble almost all the time.

His father had been a Protestant priest, yet Jonson rejected his father’s faith and lived as a secret Catholic.

The Gunpowder Plotters must have been aware of his secret. But why would they invite him to supper?

Jonson had served as a soldier in the low countries of Flanders, under the command of Sir Francis Vere. 

Guy Fawkes, one of the chief conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, had also served in Flanders under Vere. Perhaps Jonson and Fawkes met during their military service.

While he was fighting in Flanders, he claimed to have killed an enemy soldier in single combat.

Much later, Jonson killed an actor in a duel.

Ben Jonson's duel

Jonson had once been sent to jail for writing a play, the Isle of Dogs, that insulted Queen Elizabeth.

When Jonson was invited to this supper party in 1605, he had just been released from prison. He had served a brief sentence for having insulted King James and his court with his play, Eastward Ho.

To the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, like Robert Catesby, Ben Jonson -- a secret Catholic, a man who could fight and kill, and who was courageous enough to defy both Queen Elizabeth and King James -- would have seemed like a kindred spirit. 

But why would they invite him to a party?

Is it possible that they wanted him to remember them? Is it possible that they wanted him to write something after the Gunpowder Plot, a poem or a play perhaps, to celebrate their victory against King James?

For all they knew, there was nothing stopping them from successfully blowing up the King and Parliament.

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot c. 1823. By Henry Peronett Briggs

Even if they did not succeed, and if they were all caught and killed, they still might want someone to write an account of their lives and their mission.

Ben Jonson seemed like a very good candidate to write such a record.

And of all the playwrights and poets in London at the time, he was just about the only choice.

Shakespeare had been in trouble with Queen Elizabeth after the Essex Rebellion in 1601.

Essex and his followers, who were friends of Shakespeare's, had paid Shakespeare to perform his Richard II play the day before Essex and his army attempted, and failed, to overthrow the government.

But since Queen Elizabeth died, and King James inherited the throne, Shakespeare had been promoted to become a King's Man -- the official royal playwright to King James.

While it is possible that Shakespeare knew Catesby, it is doubtful that he knew Fawkes or any of the other Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

Essex wanted Shakespeare's play to be performed to build support for the Rebellion. Did Catesby want Jonson to write something before or after to build support for the Gunpowder Plot?

No one knows why Jonson was invited to that party.

But it is one of the greatest unanswered mysteries surrounding the events of the Gunpowder Plot.


David B. Schajer

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