The Ben Jonson Show

When Jonson and his companion left Welbeck on the morning of 6 August, walking on towards Gervase Clifton’s house at Hodsock Priory and the great north road beyond that, they were bringing the curtain down on one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole adventure. Yet while what happened here, as recorded in the ‘Foot Voyage’, is remarkable in itself, it is also significant for what it says about who Ben Jonson was – or, at least, could be.

Velazquez, Bacchus

Velazquez, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629

The predominant note is one of unbridled and well lubricated festivity. During his visit to nearby Worksop, we find Jonson going in search of a Welsh goldsmith whose drinking ‘cans’ he has seen at Belvoir, a pair of which he now wishes to acquire for himself. At the workshop they find some exceptionally capacious vessels, and filling these according to the proverbially generous ‘London measure’ they hand them round to anyone passing by. On their last day in the Cavendish household, the account seems to suggest that dinner was punctuated by some kind of pissing contest – you can almost picture the diners staggering off, one after the other, to attempt the toilet challenge that has somehow struck them as a good idea. If this interpretation is even half right, then there would seem to be little sign here of any conformity to ideals of refined and noble hospitality. Earthy humour, rather, would seem to be the order of the day.

This is just as evident in the extraordinary licence allowed to Jonson by his hosts: twice, the account says, he is explicitly granted the freedom of Welbeck when his hosts leave to visit Jane Talbot, Countess of Shrewbury, at Rufford:

Sir William with my old Lady Candish and his own lady went to Rufford, and resigned the whole house to my gossip etc., commanding his steward and all the rest of the officers to obey my gossip in all things, which authority he did as freely put in execution.

The account goes on to say how he used his new authority, making preparations for another feast of venison, and throwing open the wine cellar. Yet equally significant is that he began to play the part of the lord of this particular manor – appointing a local gentleman as his ‘woodman’, a kind of forest officer, and perhaps even – on one reading of a somewhat enigmatic sentence – making ‘fat Harry Ogle’ – one of Sir William Cavendish’s kinsmen and most trusted of retainers – ‘mistress’ of the household over which he was now presiding.

The ‘Foot Voyage’ also highlights how this role-playing continued once the real mistress of the house returned, with Jonson acting the part of an irascible host, barking at his staff like an overbearing and ill-tempered alpha-boss:

Presently upon our return the ladies came, whom Mr Jonson welcomed to his house, and at supper bid them want nothing, for if they did it was not his fault. Chafed at the table for lights, and checked the waiters because there was no more new bread, which freedom of his mingled with a great deal of mirth much delighted the ladies.

The important point here, of course, is that Jonson was acting up for his patron’s amusement – this was a comic performance, for which he adopted a persona calculated to entertain his chosen audience. This is something, I would suggest, that we see quite a lot in Jonson’s writing, though we’re not perhaps as good at spotting it as we should be. Jonson is one of the most self-conscious of early modern writers, in the sense of attempting to cultivate a particular kind of authorial persona. That persona can seem unsympathetic, to say the least, to many readers. When posturing in this way, Jonson comes across as pompous, self-aggrandising and pretentious. We have become used to seeing him, in this mode, as unintentionally comic, with his aspiration towards authorial glory given the lie by his scholarly pedantry, his rejection by theatre audiences, or the embarrassingly proximate and far more substantial achievement of Shakespeare.

Yet this particular joke may be on us, after all. At Welbeck we see Jonson self-consciously playing the role of overweening Ben, in the context of a festive interlude in which he is set up – to his apparent delight – as a kind of lord of misrule. Perhaps, when we recoil from or laugh at his impersonation of the pompous poet, we are mistaking the kind of self-consciousness there on show; perhaps, some of the time at least, ‘Ben Jonson’ is actually one of Ben Jonson’s finest comedic creations.

de Vos, Bacchus

Cornelis de Vos, The Triumph of Bacchus

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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