This Day In Literary History
On September 22nd, 1598, the legendary English playwright, poet, and actor Ben Jonson was arrested and charged with manslaughter. It would not be Jonson's first brush with the law.
He and fellow playwright Thomas Nashe had been previously jailed for obscenity following a performance of their play The Isle of Dogs, which, sadly, has been lost, as all existing copies of the script were destroyed by the authorities.
Jonson's arrest for manslaughter came about as the result of his duel with Gabriel Spenser, an actor who belonged to the same company, that of Philip Henslowe, who managed the Rose Theatre.
Jonson was known for his foul temper and frequent quarrels with other actors - especially those performing in his plays. However, the exact reason for his duel with Spenser is not known.
Swords were the chosen weapons for this particular duel. Although the blade of his sword was ten inches shorter than that of his opponent, Jonson killed Spenser (who, ironically, had previously killed another man in an earlier duel.) to win the duel.
He was immediately arrested, charged with manslaughter, and incarcerated at Newgate Prison. Jonson pled guilty, but avoided the hangman's rope by converting to Catholicism.
He then invoked the Benefit of Clergy, which allowed a defendant to request that he be tried under canon law by a bishop instead of under secular law by a judge.
At his trial, Jonson was able to avoid the death penalty and receive a light sentence by reciting a bible verse (Psalm 51) in Latin and reading a passage from the Bible to prove his literacy.
He was sentenced to be branded on his left thumb (to mark him as a convicted criminal) and to forfeit his property to the Church, after which, he was released from prison and returned to writing plays and acting.
Earlier that year, Jonson had enjoyed his first big success as a playwright when he staged a production of his classic play, Every Man in His Humour. The play was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, at the Curtain Theatre.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men were England's most famous acting company. One of the first actors to be cast in the play was the legendary actor, playwright, and poet William Shakespeare.
Although Jonson would also become famous for his criticisms of Shakespeare's plays - he once quipped that Shakespeare never revised his plays when they should have been revised heavily - he actually admired Shakespeare.
He said of the Bard, "there was ever more in him to be praised than pardoned." When Jonson learned of Shakespeare's death, he said, "he was not of an age, but for all time."
Quote Of The Day
"Art hath an enemy called Ignorance." - Ben Jonson
Today's video features a full cast reading of Ben Jonson's classic play, Every Man in His Humour. Enjoy!