Undiscovered Countries: Shakespeare’s Britain

‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.

What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.

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Pedants’ Corner: When did Ben Jonson die?

Not actually a picture of Ben Jonson. As accurate an image as the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare, though.

An actor personating Ben Jonson in a risible film. The surviving portrait of the poet suggests a young Tom Baker or Rory McGrath would make a better likeness

Each year, on August 6, the world stops to commemorate Ben Jonson’s death. Well, that’s obviously overstating it, but a few ‘on this day’ tweets go round; likewise, we get the odd mention in almanacs and lists of memorable anniversaries. Westminster Abbey, where Jonson is both buried and commemorated in Poets’ Corner, gets in on the act too. Thing is, this work of mourning also takes place – to a much lesser extent – on August 16 each year, and it would surely be beyond the extravagance even of big Ben to have had two deaths. Indeed, there’s long been confusion over exactly when the most celebrated poet of his age closed his account – and when I say ‘long’, I mean right from the month it actually happened.

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Taking a Roundabout Way

Cranach opening 1 detail

Hamlet greets the travelling players – Edward Gordon Craig, from the Cranach Press Hamlet, 1930

The experience of theatrical touring has long been woven from contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the undeniable romance of the road, the fun of exploring new places, but on the other – well, there are the sometimes grim discomforts of being stuck for weeks on end in transit or deeply dodgy accommodation, surviving on an unbalanced diet of pot noodles and gallows humour. Something of these indignities was captured beautifully in Ben Jonson’s evocation of the travelling player in Poetaster: the player Histrio there has the prospect of success as a poet dangled before him, with the singular benefit that he will ‘not need to travail [meaning both ‘travel’ and ‘labour’] with thy pumps full of gravel any more, after a blind jade and a hamper, and stalk upon boards and barrel heads to an old cracked trumpet.’

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