Library Spotlight: 'A Christmas Comedy' by Ben Jonson | Salisbury Cathedral

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Library Spotlight: 'A Christmas Comedy' by Ben Jonson

Written by Library Volunteer Ken Smith

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Library Spotlight: 'A Christmas Comedy' by Ben Jonson

Posted By : Guest Blogger Friday 21st December 2018

Written by Library Volunteer Ken Smith

The majority of the books in the Cathedral Library are what might be termed ‘non-fiction.’  The number of literary works is limited.  In view of where most of them originated, from clerical libraries, we should not be surprised.  There are a large number of devotional works, collections of sermons, concordances and other theological tomes.

Recently, I chanced on a literary work, a book of comedies by Ben Jonson.  This has lost its title page but appears to have been printed in 1641, just a few years after Jonson’s death.  The small folio volume, in its contemporary calfskin binding, contains plays, masques and Jonson’s observations on various topics.

One of the comedies caught my eye as we are in the festive season.  This Christmas masque was performed for the Jacobean court in 1616.  The court of James I followed the practice, established by Queen Elizabeth I, of having plays or masques to occupy the court during the long Christmas celebrations.  Today that tradition survives as many of us attend and enjoy pantomimes at this time of year.  The court would include many hundreds of people, expecting not only rich food and drink, but also appropriate entertainment during the cold, dark days from Christmas into the New Year.

Famously, many of Shakespeare’s plays were produced during the Twelfth night festivities.  Jonson’s were no exception.  Plays by Shakespeare or Jonson would entertain the court but masques allowed the courtiers, or even members of the Royal Family, to take part.  James’ Queen, Anne of Denmark, famously enjoyed taking on roles in these often-elaborate spectacles.  They would involve costly costumes, dancing, detailed sets, occasionally designed by Inigo Jones, and sound effects of various sorts.

The initial letter 'W' beginning Why forms part of a rather gruesome woodcut!

Ben Johnson A Christmas Masque Woodcut of Initial W

The masque begins with the character of Christmas himself entering with two or three of the Guard.  His costume is described thus:

He is attired in a round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high, crowned hat with a broach, a long, thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffes, white shoes, …his garters tyed cross-bind, his drum beaten before him…

He salutes the audience with: Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe?  Ha!  Would you ha’ kept me out.  Christmas, Old Christmas; Christmas of London and Captain Christmas.

His sonnes and daughters being ten in number then join him.  They have names appropriate to the season such as Mis-Rule, Caroll, Mince-Pie or New Yeares-gift.  They are all costumed differently and enter singing.  Mince-Pie is dressed like a fine cooke’s wife drest neat, her man carrying a pie, dish and spoons.

New Yeare’s gift wears  …a blew coat, serving-man like, with an orange and a sprig of Rosemarie on his head, his hat full of broaches, with a collar of gingerbread, his torch-bearer carrying a march-paine (i.e. marzipan), with a bottle of wine on each arm…

A little later Venus (a deaf, working woman) enters and declares:  A place, forsooth, I do want a place to see my childe act in before the King’s and Queene’s majesties (God bless ‘em) tonight…

After all the players have marched with fife and drum, sung and said their pieces, Christmas ends with an epilogue:

I am come to the court for to make you some sport at the least once every year.  As Christmas hath done with his seven or eight sonnes and his couple of daughters deare….

When this masque was produced in 1616, Jonson was at the peak of his fame.  All of his most famous plays had been produced by then including “The Alchemist”, “Bartholemew Fair” and “Volpone”.  Jonson’s comedies differ from the traditional Elizabethan models as they are in contemporary settings.  He peoples them with recognizable London types, and sets his characters to deal with everyday motives such as greed or jealousy.

There are many legends of Jonson’s rivalry with Shakespeare, fueled by comments reputedly made by Jonson.  Upon hearing that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e. crossed out) a line when he wrote, Jonson was said to have proclaimed: I wish he had blotted out a thousand.

Perhaps a more truthful response was that which Jonson gave in his prefatory verse in the first Shakespeare folio: Yet I must not give Nature all: Thy Art, My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.