Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Ben Jonson The Staple Of News 1625

“I will take home the Lady to my Charge,

And these her Servants, and leave you my Cloke,

To travel in to Beggers Bush!”

Ben Jonson stood at the centre of the theatrical and literary life early modern England. He was connected with many writers who used the phrase Beggars Bush. Beggars Bush is mentioned in his late play when the character Peni-Boy senior reveals himself to his errant son, Peni-Boy junior. The usage is characteristic of the literary use of the phrase by Jane Anger and others. Peni-Boy junior, expecting an inheritance will instead fall into penury through his own folly. It is a state of being, not a geographical location.

The Staple of News

The Staple of News was Jonson’s first new play for a decade. It was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre by the King’s Men late in 1625, not long after King Charles’s Coronation. In the Induction he speaks of the author in the tiring house “rowling himselfe up and downe like a tun” sweating excessively as he gives last-minute notes to the actors.

The play concerns Peni-Boy senior, and his son Peni-Boy the younger, who he tests by putting out news that he is dead. The play follows the common theme of the innocent young man in the big city (see The Oath at Beggars Bush). The profligate son is soon surrounded by hangers on, and is lead by the lawyer Picklock into seeking the hand of Pecunia, a rich heiress. Pecunia happens to be the ward of the boy’s unscrupulous and mean uncle, the third Peni-Boy. The father disguises himself as a beggar to bring the news of his own death to his son, and then threatens to disinherit him when he sees how his son behaves. They are reconciled by uniting against the scheming Picklock.

The Staple of News itself is a curious office set up by the character Cymbal to collect and sell news to subscribers, in competition to the printed news. It is not clear if it a vain project, or a fraud on the desire of the gullible for private news. This reflects the development at the time of Corantos, the earliest equivalents to newspapers, which were largely based on information from the Low Countries.

The play makes much use of cant; the disguised Peni-Boy the elder is described as a “Canting Beggar” on his first appearance, and elsewhere as a “clapper-Dudgeon”, “a Rogue, a very Canter . . .one that maunds upon the pad”, and a “Patrico” . In this it follows the renewed interest in cant that is also shown in The Beggars Bush by Fletcher & Massinger in 1622.

It also features a section in which the mean uncle Peni-Boy loses his reason and has a mock trial of his two dogs. As well as the usual theatrical Prologue and Epilogue there are “intermeans” between the acts, which feature fashionable but stupid comments on the play by “Gossip Mirth, Gossip Tattle, Gossip Expectation, and Gossip Censure, Four Gentlewomen, Lady-like attired.” They disapprove of it as dull until Peni-Boy junior starts to waste his inheritance, and then complain about the moral denouement.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) was a poet and playwright. He was the posthumous son of a Clergyman of Scottish origins. His mother then married again in London, probably a Robert Brett who become Master of the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Company by 1609. Jonson studied at Westminster School under William Camden, the antiquary, and there met Robert Cotton, the collector of books and manuscripts. He had a good grounding in classical writings. Jonson is believed to have spent some time at St John’s College, Cambridge but to have returned to help in his stepfather’s business. Although Jonson “could not endure” the work he paid dues to the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Company from 1595 until 1611, possibly to provide the chance of income when he was “resting” from the theatre, although it may also have enhanced his social standing.

At some time in the early 1590s Jonson joined the English forces in the Low Countries. Little is known of what he did, although he claimed to have taken part in formal single combat. Nor is it known when he first became an actor. It has been plausibly suggested that he travelled with Pembroke’s Company, who toured in 1595–6, and acted in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Philip Henslowe later paid Jonson for writing “adicians” to Kyd’s play. John Aubrey asserted that he “was never a good Actor, but an excellent Instructor”.

As Jonson was married in 1594 near Southwark he may then have been working as an actor on or near the Bankside. Jonson’s earliest surviving play The Case is Altered was performed by Pembroke’s Company in 1597. The Isle of Dogs written with Thomas Nashe was performed by the company at the new Swan Theatre on the Bankside in the same year caused grave offence. The Privy Council ordered the closure of all the London theatres because of the “greate disorders” caused “by lewd matters that are handled on the stages, and by resorte and confluence of bad people”. Jonson and two fellow actors were arrested, imprisoned and charged with “Leude and mutynous behavior”. Jonson converted to Catholicism while in prison.

Over the next two years Henslowe employed Jonson regularly as one of his writers, noting payment for a number of plays that today are known only through their titles. Jonson is connected with about 30 in all. These include Hot Anger Soon Cold, written with Henry Porter and Henry Chettle (1598). In 1598 Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia nominated Jonson among those he reckoned “our best for Tragedie”. Every Man in his Humour performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, established Jonson’s reputation and the arrival of a new kind of vernacular comedy.

Jonson had a reputation for being short-tempered. Chapman later accused him; “didst thou not put out a boies Right eye that Croste thy mankind poute?”. In 1598 Jonson was indicted at Shoreditch on a charge of manslaughter, having killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Jonson claimed that Spencer had challenged him to this fight, with a sword 10 inches longer than his own, and wounded his arm before being killed. Jonson escaped execution by pleading “benefit of clergy”, reading the so-called “neck-verse” (Psalm 51: 1), but his goods were confiscated, and he was branded on the thumb as a convicted felon. He wasn’t the only playwright to be accused of killing someone; in the following year John Day killed his fellow playwright, Henry Porter, with whom Jonson had collaborated.

After the accession of James to the throne Jonson became a firm favourite with court, presenting masques for many years in collaboration with the designer Inigo Jones. However, despite this his writing and his personal life were subjected to close examination. Jonson’s comic masterpiece Volpone was performed at the Globe by the King’s Men in 1606. Epicene (1609) illustrates the difficulties faced by dramatists seeking to refer to current events. It was banned after complaints from the king’s cousin Arabella Stuart concerning references that she interpreted as being a slur upon her. After the first performance of Sejanus (1604) he was summoned before the Privy Council to answer charges “both of popperie and treason”. After Eastward Ho! (1605) he was impeached “by Sir James Murray to the King for writting something against the Scots” in this play, and “voluntarly Imprissonned himself” fearing “that they should then had their ears cutt and noses”. Following his release from prison, Jonson went to a supper party in October 1605 also attended by many of the leading conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, for which he received a warrant to attend before the Privy Council.

Jonson was presented for recusancy three times in 1606. He returned to the Church of England about 1610, though he retained some Catholic associations. Jonson had been friends with the John Donne since the 1590’s and was a member with his of the Mermaid Club, which met at the pub of that name.

In 1612–13 Jonson travelled in France, and Germany. Jonson set much store by his epigrams and was widely respected as a writer. He was granted a substantial royal pension. A folio edition of Jonson’s Workes was published in 1616. Jonson himself appears to have taken an unusually close interest in its production.

In 1618 Jonson, almost 20 stone in weight, walked to Scotland, along the Great North Road. John Taylor the Water Poet followed by a more westerly route, and the two men had a friendly meeting at Leith.

Much of what he know of Jonson’s opinions come from conversation recorded on this tour by William Drummond of Hawthornden which were included in later editions of Jonson’s works. However, Drummond was not entirely positive about his guest; “He is a great lover and praiser of himself . . a contemner and Scorner of others, given rather to losse 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) a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well bot what either he himself, or some of his friends and Countrymen hath said or done.”

Jonson spent much of his life a guest of wealthy patrons, and seems to have spent large periods away from his wife. It is possible that by 1623 he was resident at Gresham College, and lecturing there. Jonson had been working on various scholarly works when his library was burned. During the final years of James’s reign, however, Jonson came to feel increasingly marginalized from the life of the court.

After The Staple of News in 1625 Jonson’s health declined. He appears to have suffered a paralytic stroke, was grossly overweight, and affected by palsy. He was also becoming dependent on the charity of King Charles, his patrons, and friends. He was briefly appointed city chronologer “To collect and set down all memorable acts of this City and occurences thereof”, but didn’t, and for some time his stipend for this was suspended. His court pension was increased from 100 marks to £100 per year, augmented by a tierce (42 gallons) of Canary Spanish wine from Charles’s store at Whitehall.

Izaak Walton described Jonson in his final years, tended by “a woman that govern’d him … and that nether he nor she tooke much Care for next weike: and wood be sure not to want Wine: of which he usually tooke too much before he went to bed, if not oftner and soner”. In his great work The Compleat Angler Walton mistakenly attributed the play, The Beggars Bush, byFletcher and Massinger to Jonson.

Jonson died in 1637, leaving only just over £8. His funeral procession was attended by “all or the greatest part of the nobilitie and gentry then in the town”, and he was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey.

Throughout much of the seventeenth century Jonson’s writing was at least as often read and respected as Shakespeare’s. Catiline, Volpone, The Alchemist, The Silent Woman, Sejanus, and Bartholomew Fair were each referred to more frequently than any play of Shakespeare. Although still admired as a writer his plays gradually fell out of production in the eighteenth century. His reputation was partly restored by the approval of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, and a new complete edition of his works is in production.


The Staple of News

Posted: April 9th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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