| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
JONSON—"EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOUR"
 OF all the dramatists who were Shakespeare's friends, of those
who wrote before him, with him, and just after him, we have
little room to tell. But there is one who stands almost as far
above them all as Shakespeare stands above him. This is Ben
Jonson, and of him we must speak.
Ben Jonson's life began in poverty, his father dying before he
was born, and leaving his widow poorly provided for. When Ben
was about two years old his mother married again, and this second
husband was a bricklayer. Ben, however, tells us that his own
father was a gentleman, belonging to a good old Scottish Border
family, and that he had lost all his estates in the reign of
Queen Mary. But about the truth of this we do not know, for Ben
was a bragger and a swaggerer. He may not have belonged to this
Scottish family, and he may have had no estates to lose. Ben
first went to a little school at St. Martin's-in-the-fields in
London. There, somehow, the second master of Westminster School
came to know of him, became his friend, and took him to
Westminster, where he paid for his schooling. But when Ben left
school he had to earn a living in some way, so he became a
bricklayer like his step-father, when "having a trowell in his
hand he had a book in his pocket."
He did not long remain a bricklayer, however, for he
 could not
endure the life, and next we find him a soldier in the
Netherlands. We know very little of what he did as a soldier,
and soon he was home again in England. Here he married. His
wife was a good woman, but with a sharp tongue, and the marriage
does not seem to have been very happy. And although they had
several children, all of them died young.
And now, like Shakespeare, Jonson became an actor. Like
Shakespeare too, he wrote plays. His first play is that by which
he is best known, called Every Man in His Humour. By a man's
humor, Jonson means his chief characteristic, one man, for
instance, showing himself jealous, another boastful, and so on.
It will be a long time before you will care to read Every Man in
His Humour, for there is a great deal in it that you would
neither understand nor like. It is a play of the manners and
customs of Elizabethan times which are so unlike ours that we
have little sympathy with them. And that is the difference
between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, although he
wrote of his own time, wrote for all time; Jonson wrote of his
own time for his own time. Yet, in Every Man in His Humour there
is at least one character worthy to live beside Shakespeare's,
and that is the blustering, boastful Captain Bobadill. He talks
very grandly, but when it comes to fighting, he thinks it best to
run away and live to fight another day. If only to know Captain
Bobadill it will repay you to read Every Man in His Humour when
you grow up.
Here is a scene in which he shows his "humor" delightfully:—
"BOBADILL. I am a gentleman, and live here obscure, and to myself. But were I known to Her Majesty and the Lords— observe me—I would undertake, upon this poor head and life, for the public benefit of the State, not only to spare the entire lives of her subjects in general, but to save the one half, nay, three parts,  of her yearly charge in holding war, and against what enemy soever. And how would I do it, think you?
EDWARD KNOWELL. Nay, I know not, nor can I conceive.
BOBADILL. Why thus, sir. I would select nineteen more, to
myself, throughout the land. Gentlemen, they should be of good
spirit, strong and able constitution. I would choose them by an
instinct, a character that I have. And I would teach these
nineteen the special rules, as your punto,
your reverso, your
stoccata, your imbroccata, your passada, your montanto; till they
could all play very near, or altogether, as well as myself. This
done, say the enemy were forty thousand strong, we twenty would
come into the field the tenth of March, or thereabouts, and we
would challenge twenty of the enemy. They could not in their
honour refuse us. Well, we would kill them. Challenge twenty more,
kill them; twenty more, kill them; twenty more, kill them too. And
thus would we kill every man his twenty a day. That's twenty
score. Twenty score, that's two hundred. Two hundred a day, five
days a thousand. Forty thousand; forty times five, five times
forty; two hundred days kills them all up by computation. And this
will I venture by poor gentleman-like carcase to perform, provided
there be no treason practised upon us, by fair and discreet
manhood; that is, civilly by the sword.
EDWARD KNOWELL. Why! are you so sure of your hand, Captain, at
BOBADILL. Tut! never miss thrust, upon my reputation with you.
EDWARD KNOWELL. I would not stand in Downright's state then, an
you meet him, for the wealth of any one street in London."
(Knowell says this because Bobadill and Downright have had a
quarrel, and Downright wishes to fight the Captain.)
"BOBADILL. Why, sir, you mistake me. If he were here now, by
this welkin, I would not draw my weapon on him. Let this gentleman
do his mind; but I will bastinado him, by the bright sun, wherever
I meet him.
MATTHEW. Faith, and I'll have a fling at him, at my distance.
EDWARD KNOWELL. Ods so, look where he is! yonder he goes.
[DOWNRIGHT crosses the stage.
DOWNRIGHT. What peevish luck have I, I cannot meet with these
 BOBADILL. It is not he, is it?
EDWARD KNOWELL. Yes, faith, it is he.
MATTHEW. I'll be hanged then if that were he.
EDWARD KNOWELL. Sir, keep your hanging good for some greater
matter, for I assure you that was he.
STEPHEN. Upon my reputation, it was he.
BOBADILL. Had I thought it had been he, he must not have gone
so. But I can hardly be induced to believe it was he yet.
EDWARD KNOWELL. That I think, sir— [Re-enter DOWNRIGHT.
But see, he is come again.
DOWNRIGHT. O, Pharaoh's foot, have I found you? Come, draw, to
your tools. Draw, gipsy, or I'll thrash you.
BOBADILL. Gentlemen of valour, I do believe in thee. Hear me—
DOWNRIGHT. Draw your weapon then.
BOBADILL. Tall man, I never thought on it till now— Body of
me, I had a warrant of the peace served on me, even now as I
came along, by a water-bearer. This gentleman saw it, Master
DOWNRIGHT. 'Sdeath! you will not draw!
[DOWNRIGHT disarms BOBADILL and beats him.
MATTHEW runs away.
BOBADILL. Hold! hold! under thy favour forbear.
DOWNRIGHT. Prate again, as you like this, you foist
consort is gone. Had he staid he had shared with you, sir.
BOBADILL. Well, gentlemen, bear witness, I was bound to the
peace, by this good day.
EDWARD KNOWELL. No, fait, it's an ill day, Captain, never reckon
it other. But, say you were bound to the peace, the law allows you
to defend yourself. That will prove but a poor excuse.
BOBADILL. I cannot tell, sir. I desire good construction in fair
sort. I never sustained the like disgrace, by heaven! Sure I was
struck with a planet thence, for I had no power to touch my
EDWARD KNOWELL. Ay, like enough, I have heard of many that have
been beaten under a planet. Go, get you to a surgeon! 'Slid! and
these be your tricks, your passadoes, and your montantos, I'll
none of them."
When Every Man in His Humour was acted, Shakespeare took a part
in it. He and Jonson must have met each other often, must have
known each other well. At
 the Mermaid Tavern all the wits used
to gather. For there was a kind of club founded by Sir Walter
Raleigh, and here the clever men of the day met to smoke and
talk, and drink not a little. And among all the clever men
Jonson soon came to be acknowledged as the king and leader. We
have a pleasant picture of these friendly meetings by a man who
lived then. "Many were the wit-combats," he says, "betwixt
Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish
great gallion and an English Man of War: Master Jonson (like the
former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his
performances. Shakespeare, with the English Man of War, lesser
in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack
about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his
wit and invention."
Another writer says in a letter to Ben,
"What things have we seen,
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtile flame
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to pit his whole wit in a jest."
And so we get a picture of Ben lording it in taverns. A great
good fellow, a stout fellow, he rolls his huge bulk about laying
down the law.
So the years went on. Big Ben wrote and fought, quarreled and
made friends, drank and talked, living always on the verge of
poverty. At length, in 1603, the great Queen Elizabeth died, and
James of Scotland came to the English throne. All the way as he
journeyed he was greeted with rejoicing. There were everywhere
plays and feasts given in his honor, and soon after he arrived in
London a Masque written by Jonson was played before him. The new
king was fond of such
enter-  tainments . He smiled upon Master Ben
Jonson, and life became for him easier and brighter.
But shortly after this, Jonson, with two others, wrote a play in
which some things were said against the Scots. With a Scottish
king surrounded by Scottish lords, that was dangerous. All three
soon found themselves in prison and came near losing their noses
and ears. This was not the first time that Ben had been in
prison, for soon after Every Man in His Humour was acted, he
quarreled for some unknown reason with another actor. In the
foolish fashion of the day they fought a duel over it, and Ben
killed the other man. For this he was seized and put in prison,
and just escaped being hanged. He was left off only with the
loss of all his goods and a brand on the left thumb.
Now once more Jonson escaped. When he was set free, his friends
gave a great feast to show their joy. But Ben had not learned
his lesson, and at least once again he found himself in prison
because of something he had written.
But in spite of these things the King continued to smile upon Ben
Jonson. He gave him a pension and made him poet laureate, and it
was now that he began to write the Masques for which he became
famous. These Masques were dainty poetic little plays written
for the court and often acted by the Queen and her ladies. There
was much singing and dancing in them, and the dresses of the
actors were gorgeous beyond description. And besides this, while
the ordinary stage was still without any scenery, Inigo Jones,
the greatest architect in the land, joined Ben Jonson in making
his plays splendid by inventing scenery for them. This scenery
was beautiful and elaborate, and was sometimes changed two or
three times during the play. One of these plays called The
Masque of Blackness was acted by the Queen and her ladies in
1605, and when
 we read the description of the scenery it makes us
wonder and smile too at the remembrance of Wall and the Man in
the Moon of which Shakespeare made such fun a few years earlier,
and of which you will read in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Besides his Masques, Jonson wrote two tragedies, and a number of
comedies, as well as other poems. But for a great part of his
life, the part that must have been the easiest and brightest, he
wrote Masques for the King and court and not for the ordinary
stage. He knew his own power in this kind of writing well, and
he was not modest. "Next himself," he said, "only Fletcher and
Chapman could make a mask."
He found, too, good friends among
the nobles. With one he lived for five years, another gave him
money to buy books, and his library became his great joy and
Ben Jonson traveled too. For a time he traveled in France with
Sir Walter Raleigh's son, while Sir Walter himself was shut up in
the Tower. But Jonson's most famous journey is his walk to
Scotland. He liked to believe that he belonged to a famous
Border family, and wished to visit the land of his forefathers.
So in the mid-summer of 1618 he set out. We do not know how long
he took to make his lengthy walk, but in September he was
comfortably settled in Leith, being "worthily entertained" by all
the greatest and most learned men of the day. He had money
enough for all his wants, for he was able to give a gold piece
and two and twenty shillings to another poet less well off than
himself. He was given the freedom of the city of Edinburgh and
more than 200 pounds was spent on a great feast in his honor.
About Christmas he went to pay a visit to a well-known Scottish
poet, William Drummond, who lived in a beautiful house called
Hawthornden, a few miles from Edinburgh. There he stayed
 two or three weeks, during which time he and his host had many a long
talk together, discussing men and books. Drummond wrote down all
that he could remember of these talks, and it is from them that
we learn a good deal of what we know about our poet, a good deal,
perhaps, not to his credit. We learn from them that he was vain
and boastful, a loud talker and a deep drinker. Yet there is
something about this big blustering Ben that we cannot help but
Ben and his host had many a long talk together, discussing men and books.
In January sometime, Jonson set his face homeward, and reached
London in April or May, having taken nearly a year to pay his
visit. He must have been pleased with his journey, for on his
return he wrote a poem about Scotland. Nothing of it has come
down to us, however, except one line in which he calls Edinburgh
"The heart of Scotland, Britain's other eye."
The years passed for Jonson, if not in wealth, at least in such
comfort as his way of life allowed. For we cannot ever think of
him as happy in his own home by his own fireside. He is rather a
king in Clubland spending his all freely and taking no thought
for the morrow. But in 1625 King James died, and although the
new King Charles still continued the poet's pension, his tastes
were different from those of his father, and Jonson found himself
and his Masques neglected. His health began to fail too, and his
library, which he dearly loved, was burned, together with many of
his unpublished manuscripts, and so he fell on evil days.
Forgotten at court, Jonson began once more to write for the
stage. But now that he had to write for bread, it almost seemed
as if his pen had lost its charm. The plays he wrote added
nothing to his fame. They were badly received. And so at last,
in trouble for to-morrow's bread, without wife or child to
comfort him, he died on 8th August, 1637.
He was buried in Westminster, and it was intended
 to raise a fine
tomb over his grave. But times were growing troublous, and the
monument was still lacking, when a lover of the poet, Sir John
Young of Great Milton, in Oxfordshire, came to do honor to his
tomb. Finding it unmarked, he paid a workman 1s. 6d. to carve
above the poet's resting-place the words, "O rare Ben Jonson."
And perhaps these simple words have done more to keep alive the
memory of the poet than any splendid monument could have done.
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