Monday, March 1, 2021

Shakespeare, Jonson, Plague

 Last year at this time, I wouldn't have dreamt we'd be walking around with masks on our faces in March of 2021. I remember trying to buy some dust masks at the hardware store back then, thinking they might be useful over the next few weeks. (They were already sold out.) A month after that, when I wrote this post, I would have been equally surprised to hear that it would still be relevant, or even understandable, in 2021. But it is. So I'm posting it again: a look back to how things seemed, Shakespeare-wise, Ben Jonson-wise, and Covid-wise, a year ago.

I hope I'm not posting this a third time in 2022. 

April, 2020. This month, in our time of modern-day plague, I shall not write yet one more claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear or Macbeth while quarantined for the "pest," as they called it. (He did not.) Instead, I am offering my parody of a poem by Shakespeare's greatest rival, his brilliant contemporary, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson (pictured left of Will), who inhabited the early modern theater world alongside Shakespeare and enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they

varied greatly in their temperaments and in their ideas of how to write comedy. In fact, plays by each written during the "Theater Wars" of 1598-1601 hilariously satirize not just each other's ideas, but each other. Shakespeare's melancholy Jaques in the 1599 As You Like It, with his penchant for useless social commentary, lampoons Jonson, while Jonson's Sogliardo -- a social climber from the country with a new-bought gentleman's crest, in his 1598 Every Man Out of His Humour -- is a parodic figure of Shakespeare. It's hard to know how tense Jonson's and Shakespeare's relations sometimes were, or whether the mutual mockery was all in good fun. We can only guess it was good for business. We also can't know whether Shakespeare was ever a guest at one of Jonson's famous poet-gatherings at London taverns, attended by aspiring writers who called themselves the "Sons of Ben" (Robert Herrick was one). At eight years Jonson's senior, Shakespeare is not likely to have considered himself one of Ben's "sons," and whether his spirit lent itself to the kind of convivial festivity we see among Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night is part of the mystery surrounding Shakespeare's private life. Still, I like to think the pair hung out together on occasion, and such possible tavern episodes are the basis of scenes in two of my novels about Shakespeare, Will and Gunpowder Percy. 

Jonson's famous poem "Inviting a Friend to Supper" shows his enthusiasm for hosting such gatherings: parties marked not just by good food and wine, but by the exchange of interesting ideas, as well as by the threat that someone might read a poem. "Inviting a Friend" is a fascinating poem, in that it mingles mouth-watering descriptions of savory dishes with the caveat that the host, Jonson, may not be able actually to obtain any of their ingredients -- he may have to steal the wine -- and also because its reassurance that the guest will not have to fear being spied on, with his perhaps renegade political views reported to the authorities, seems designed to make the invitee more nervous than he might have been without that reassurance. What things were to be feared? In 1616, quite a few. Jonson was, for a time, a covert Catholic (which was not precisely illegal, but a cause for suspicion in early seventeenth-century England). He was also jailed several times for mocking the new Scottish king, James I, on the stage, and he barely escaped trouble for killing a fellow actor in a duel. Shakespeare tended to be less religiously suspicious and more circumspect in his political satire, but he and his fellow players also ran into legal difficulties around the turn of the seventeenth century for unseasonably staging Richard II, a play whose deposition scene was seen by some as an invitation to unseat the then-reigning monarch, Elizabeth. So Jonson's fellow poets would have understood a caution against spies and informers. In any case, I like to imagine Shakespeare being the hoped-for guest to whom Jonson's poem is addressed, and to wonder whether Will showed up for one last hurrah before he passed into eternity.

We'll never know, and must continue to imagine. But what we can also do, and what I asked some of my students to do in this fraught time of distance-learning and twenty-first century plague, is to enter insofar as we could into the minds of such Renaissance authors by writing "imitations." We reworked versions of Jonson's poem or other Renaissance poems, framed to our own circumstances. I myself wrote this Jonson parody. If you're up for a poem or two, I'd suggest reading Jonson's poem first (click here) Mine, below, is called:


Tonight, my friends, my dusty house and I
Do equally desire your company,
Though ’tis illegal now to hold a party,
Since dread as deep as Holmes’ of Moriarty
Governs assemblies, and chills family meetings,
Casts doubt on friendships, and stills jovial greetings.
Despite that, bearing fresh dust masks and spray,
We’ll plan a banned, illicit holiday.
But where to get the beer? Oberon’s lacking.
A trip to Bell’s might get the township tracking
My vehicle, and strict town sheriff crying,
“Is amber lager worth the risk of dying?”
For carry-out, there’s Saffron, for to pick a
Fine chutney, though they’re out of chicken tikka.
Some wine I’ll serve, actual, though now potential,
If I can make that errand seem essential.
We’ll fear no plague at our convivial feast,
We’ll sit, aye, six feet distant, at the least.
My man will scrub the tarts (if we can get ’em)
And not doff plastic gloves. We will not not let ’im.
Fear not that I’ll read poetry. All verses
On paper, whether elegies or curses,
Are now stored in the bathrooms, behind locks,
Placed there to reinforce our dwindling stocks.
No civic spies, no tell-tales, we’ll allow
At table, to inform good townsmen how
We broke the rules of quarantine, all sitting
At board together, social talk permitting.
How would they know? They cower in their dens,
Consuming Netflix, eating M&Ms.
Yet we’ll stay safe, some garbed in haz-mat suits,
Sneezing in elbows, disinfecting fruits,
Hands sanitized, waving across the room,
Thinking, perchance, we should have met on Zoom.
All things must pass. Tonight we’ll drink to that:
To Lysol, latex, and a curve that’s flat.

-- Grace Tiffany

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