King of Players, Player of Kings

ImageToday is the birthday (in 1566) of James VI & I of Scotland and England. Although Shakespeare and Jonson are classified as Elizabethan poets, it was under the reign of James, and under his personal patronage, that they both did their greatest work.

James called himself  “The Cradle King,” quite accurately, because he took over the monarchy of Scotland at the tender age of thirteen months, when his infamous mother, Mary, either eloped with or was abducted by the Earl of Bothwell, to make a bid for taking the crown of England away from her cousin Elizabeth.

James, of course, didn’t actually start to rule until his teens, and he was raised with all the advantages of a humanistic education, learning to “speik Latin ar I could speik Scotis.” As he matured, he asserted his absolute right to kingship and resisted both his mother’s and his cousin Elizabeth’s interference in the chaos of the civil war between powerful Scots families, and between Catholic and Protestant factions. His chief supporter, the charismatic Esmé Stuart, has been identified by some biographers as James’s first great love, but James was accustomed to calling the political shots long before he assumed the throne in earnest at the age of 22.


His marriage to Anna, princess of Denmark, was the stuff of storybooks – he claimed to have survived a witchcraft-caused storm at sea to reach her side to solemnize their marriage in Denmark. The alleged attack by the Berwick Coven was taken very seriously by James, whose fascination with witch-hunting he detailed in his own book, Daemonologie

James had won Elizabeth’s trust by agreeing not to protest her execution of his mother in 1587. Although she never formally named him her heir, her counsel assumed he was the best possible Protestant choice, and England welcomed him and his attractive family joyfully in 1603.

One of James’s very first actions as king was to take the most successful theatrical company into his household. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, headed by Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare, became the King’s Men, and scholars agree that all the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603 are essentially written with the King in mind as his primary audience.

Jonson, too, thrived under James, quickly stepping up to become James’s chief maker of masques and entertainments –


Masquing girls – costume design by Buontalenti, courtesy of

— a relatively new art form imported by Anna from the continent in which courtiers danced and displayed themselves to the accompaniment of music and recited poetry, before a powerful invited audience of courtiers. James did not perform in the masques but his wife and children all did, and Jonson perfected the art of flattering the king while gently instructing the court on what qualities good nobles should possess.


For all his strengths, however, James soon became unpopular with the English people. He was extravagant, condescending, antisocial, and physically awkward (he suffered from nervous twitches and had a speech impediment); he was overly attached to a series of handsome male “favorites,” but worse than his possible homosexuality, in the eyes of his subjects, was his pacifism. He refused to fight on behalf of the European Protestants against Catholic Spain, preferring to create alliances through marriages to his children than take up (expensive) arms.

He was intensely aware that kingship was a form of performance, writing in Basilikon Doron, his book of kingly advice to Prince Henry, “It is a trew old saying, That a King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly doe behold”

This fact is frequently noted when scholars investigate his commitment to drama in spite of his own distaste for theaters and public appearances. Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure is often assumed to be imitating James when he says,

I love the people,Image But do not like to stage me to their eyes:
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and Aves vehement;
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.

In spite of his distaste for “staging,” Vincentio disguises himself as a monk to spy on his people — alluding, possibly, to James’s own unsuccessful attempt  to visit the Royal Exchange while disguised as a commoner, in order to investigate the business dealings of the merchants occupying this early version of a shopping mall.

A complex and contradictory man, James – even more than his predecessor Elizabeth – can be credited with inspiring the greatest plays and characters to appear on the English stage. Macbeth, Volpone, Othello, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Justice Overdo – all the figures who use their wits to negotiate the shifting tides of power in spite of their flaws and passions – are in some ways aspects of James.

Further reading:
James Stewart, The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I, Chatto & Windus, 2003.
Jonathon Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature, Stanford Univ. Press, 1989.
Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright, Yale Univ. Press, 1997.
Kristen McDermott, Masques of Difference: Four Court Masques by Ben Jonson, Manchester Univ. Press, 2007.
Gary Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.


Happy Birthday, dear Ben

ImageBenjamin Jonson was born on this date in 1572 in Westminster, England. We are so fortunate to have had a new biography and a new edition of his complete works appear in the last year; perhaps at last he will have a place in the popular imagination equal, if not to Shakespeare’s, at least to his own deserving.

Legacy was all to Jonson. He was obsessed with how he would be remembered and read after he was gone – an unusual attitude for a poet in his time. Jonson was the first major author to self-publish his own collected works in 1616. It seems quite clear that Jonson’s Works were the impetus for Shakespeare’s colleagues to publish a compendium of his plays seven years later in 1623.Image

So why is it that Ben Jonson, a man who singlehandedly spawned a poetic industry, who was the anointed court poet for King James I, who was the most famous author of his age, is so little read today? Literary critics from the 18th century onward have contrasted Jonson and Shakespeare as the poets of intellect and emotion, respectively. John Dryden said of the two, “I admire Jonson, but I love Shakespeare.” In my experience as a teacher, this seems to be a common reaction on the part of students who read both authors. I had a similar outcome when I taught a seminar on Jonson and John Donne, a poet with whom Jonson had much more in common than with Shakespeare, including a birth year. My Jonson/Donne students, asked to write a short final essay on which of the two poets they would continue to read after the course was over and why, overwhelmingly chose Donne.

I can understand. The exuberant passion and playfulness that Shakespeare and Donne share in their poetic styles is muted and rigidly controlled in Jonson. Ben’s own contemporaries joked that “Shakespeare’s works are plays, but Jonson’s plays are work.” Not that Donne is easy to read – far from it. Even Jonson predicted, “Donne[‘s poems], for not being understood, would perish.” But perhaps it all comes down – as many things do – to sex.

Donne’s poems reward the attentive reader with provocative meditations on sexual passion and the mysteries of carnality. Shakespeare’s extravagant lovers have become the models for countless romantic tales. Jonson presents young lovers only as plot devices, reserving his detailed characterizations for conmen and witty manipulators.

I don’t think it was because Jonson was not interested in love, however. I think it was because he didn’t think poetry – a form he valued for its control and refinement – could represent something as messy and boundless as human love. Jonson, unlike Donne and Shakespeare, drew a clear boundary between the heart and the head. Not that he didn’t value the heart – in fact, he valued it so highly that he didn’t think poetry could capture it adequately.

In this, he expressed the values of his own age, but these values were supplanted in later years by the ideals of the Romantics, who passionately argued that the heart and the head were not and should not be separate from one another. They embraced Shakespeare as their patron saint at the same time that they created the English Literary Canon.

It’s too bad. What I love about Jonson’s works is exactly what makes them less successful on the stage – you can see Jonson in each of his characters, hear his own fierce intellect in each of his lines. To read Jonson is to know the man. Shakespeare, trained as actor, famously disappeared within his characters – there is no poetic personality, it seems, standing between us and Hamlet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Lear, Juliet. Each character lives his or her own life. But Volpone, Face, Subtle, Adam Overdo, Pug the Devil – all these characters are aspects of Jonson himself, birthed whole from his forehead. You have to love Jonson himself to love his characters, and he was not an easy man to love. He was belligerent, adulterous, arrogant, insecure, self-destructive – “passionately kind and angry,” as his friend William Drummond put it, “a great lover and praiser of himself, a condemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth).” However, he never stopped trying to make himself and his world a better place. He also never hesitated to admit his own failures to do so. I love Shakespeare and Donne for their art, but I love Jonson, in all his messy humanity, for himself.

The poem that clinched it for me was this one, in which Jonson worries that the woman he met and fell for in Scotland found him too fat and ugly to love. He wishes that she could love him like she loves his words:

I now think, Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be,
That she
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my suit behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtil feet,
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

Oh! but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

These are the words of a man who knows himself, and his value, even when the rest of the world doesn’t.

Back in Print

“O merchant fortune! Do not run away.”

After a brief hiatus that unfortunately included both the 2012 holidays and Shakespeare’s birthday 2013, William Shakespeare: His Life and Times is back in print in the US! Here’s a sample:

25 February, 1613

My Child,
I am coming home, and to stay this time.
Thou marvell’st at my words! I know. I have spoken of it for nigh ten years now, and you and Mother grow weary of my promises. But I speak true as Troilus, and you will see me before Shrovetide so that we may share our Lenten pancakes together.
‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown.’ Thus begins the end of The Tempest, my last play. My Prospero shall speak these lines (and more, when I finish them!) as he retires from his island, abandons his magical arts, and returns to his life at home. I write this missive to you with the selfsame words ringing in my ears…