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Ben Jonson, Governor

By Ian Donaldson

During his early forties Ben Jonson was invited to act as tutor or “governor” to a couple of notoriously difficult young men. He may have won these commissions on account of his sheer physical strength as much as his equally formidable intellectual qualities. Jonson had long been renowned as a fighter. Serving with Elizabeth’s forces in the Low Countries in the 1590s, he had been picked to fight in single combat against the chosen champion of Catholic Spain, whom he had killed (as he liked to boast in later life) in full view of both the armies. Challenged to a duel in Hoxton fields a few years later by a quarrelsome fellow-actor, he again killed his opponent, whose sword, so Jonson later claimed, was ten inches longer than his own; for which offence he was “almost at the gallows.” Later still, it was rumoured that he had once torn out a boy’s eye. Whether this tale was true or false, it added to the legend of Jonson’s volatile temperament and his ferocious strength.

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of "Volpone" at the Mayan Theatre. Source: Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

The first of the difficult young men whom Jonson was recruited to look after was the young William Sidney, son of Lord and Lady Lisle of Penshurst Place in Kent: a moody and troublesome boy, subject to fits of melancholy and disinclined to study. After exchanging words with his previous tutor at Penshurst, a certain Mr Bird, William had stabbed him with a knife. The wounded Mr Bird, who had behaved insultingly to Lady Lisle, was dismissed from service, and the more robust and presentable Ben Jonson appointed in his place. Jonson spent several weeks at Penshurst tutoring his new charge during the summer of 1611. He must have written his great poem of praise to the Sidney family and their estate, “To Penshurst” (The Forest, 2), during this period of residence, as well as a birthday ode to William on achieving his majority, in which he sharply reminded William of his duty to maintain the honour of his family’s name.

‘Twill be exacted of your name, whose son
Whose nephew, whose grandchild you are;
And men
Will then
Say you have followed far,
When well begun;
Which must be now;
They teach you how.
And he that stays
To live until tomorrow hath lost two days . . .
(The Forest, 14.41-50)


The note of urgency in these lines was warranted. William Sidney had little time to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, Robert, or of his even more celebrated uncle, Philip, or his grandfather, Henry (lord-deputy of Ireland, and president of Wales), for the following year he was to die of smallpox at the Earl of Pembroke’s London residence, Baynard’s Castle. Jonson was to maintain his deep admiration for the literary and musical accomplishments of the Sidney family, for their political ideals, and their modest and generous style of living. Tutoring the wayward William can’t have been an altogether easy task, but his devotion to the family would have made this for Jonson a challenge worth embracing.

Ian Donaldson is the author of Ben Jonson: A Life and Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has written many books on Jonson and is a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of the forthcoming seven-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. An eminent scholar, Donaldson is a Fellow of the British Academy and past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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