Ben Jonson Haiku

To shut the fuck up

And stay out of clink is for

Losers like Shakespeare.

It’s Sunday and I declare it to be Playwright Week. I’ll start with Ben Jonson, of whom we know a lot more about than his rival Shakespeare. Why? Because Ben Jonson liked to start shit.

Jonson was born in 1572. He got a bitchin’ education and was going to attend Cambridge, but his bricklayer stepfather made him lay bricks instead. After that, he had a stint as a soldier in the Netherlands (including killing a dude in single combat) before going to London to be a playwright.

Despite royal patronage, he kept getting in trouble with the monarchy due to ill-considered allusions in his plays. (This involved being jailed for ‘leude and mutynous behaviour’.) He also liked to squabble with other playwrights, particularly during the War of the Theatres, when writers, banned from putting satire to paper, dissed each other on the stage. (Like an early rap battle, with more tights and ruffs.)

Then he killed a dude in a duel and very nearly got hanged. How did he escape? Let me tell you about the ‘benefit of the clergy’.

Due to early dust-ups between English kings and the church, clergy couldn’t be charged in secular courts. They’d prove their clergyness by showing up in court in their proper dress. This got turned into a literacy test, which meant reading Psalm 51. (So if you were illiterate but had memorized the verse, you were golden.) By Jonson’s time, they changed this by making it a one-time deal for laypeople and limited what crimes it could be used for. Because he was charged for manslaughter, not murder, it worked.

Jonson converted to Catholicism during his prison stay, but converted back after Henri IV of France’s assassination. He symbolized this by downing a chalice-full of communion wine.

His writing skills degraded in his later years and people told him so. He responded by writing a poem about how his audience sucked. Nevertheless, when he died in 1637, everybody showed up for the funeral and he got a spot in Westminster Abbey.

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