The Scene: Ben Jonson’s House,
November 23, 1623
seven years later
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he have but drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse
But since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.
– by Ben Jonson, from
“Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies,” First Folio, 1623
Jonson wanted to scream the way he had when his children died, but a strange agony silenced him. The unending string of irretrievable losses had grown much worse, now that everything he cherished lay in ashes at his feet.
Fire had ravaged his home, and he was lucky to have escaped with his life. His printed offspring had been less fortunate. Everything had gone up in flames: the decorative volume of his Complete Works, his entire library of classics, books his friends had graciously loaned to him, the versification of his journey to Scotland, all of his finished manuscripts and miscellaneous works-in-progress, the tender wards of his imagination that he’d hoped would one day graduate into books.
His earthly creations were gone. And to make matters worse, the entire compendium of Shake-speare plays that had been stored in the trunk smoldered like orange eyes in the corner of the lot where his library once stood. Only the brass nameplate with Lord Oxford’s initials survived, and it was so hot Jonson had to use a handkerchief to pick it up.
He didn’t know what to say to his patrons. He prayed that they might find a few kind words to say to him, and perhaps provide him with a modest roof over his head and a few meals, at least until he could rebuild. His heart ached and he could scarcely breathe as he surveyed the ruins. He had no possessions anymore, nothing except the clothes on his back and the thick wool cloak that protected him from the winter chill. He wandered through the debris like a pitiful creature, stooping down to sift through the remains with his fingers. Adding insult to injury, people started gathering in the street to gawk at his misfortune. He felt like a churl, an inglorious misanthrope, when he saw that the sky threatened to offer a mixed blessing: rain would disperse the crowd, but it would also blend the ashes of his world into a thick gray mud.
He heard his name as if in a dream.
“Ben? Ben Jonson! Thank God you’re still alive!”
“I’m alive, my lady, although from the looks of these ruins, it might have been best if I had perished with my books.”
“Don’t talk like that. You needn’t worry about a thing. Come and stay with us at Wilton. We’ll help you rebuild. We’ll see to it that you want for nothing.”
“That’s very kind, my lady, but you might change your mind when you hear what I have to say.”
“What is it?”
“Your father’s plays, the true original papers I brought here for safekeeping seven years ago, and all the others I’d gathered from the actors – they’re gone, all gone! Everything is in cinders. All that’s left is the nameplate from the trunk. Be careful, it’s still hot.” She stared at it, and for a moment seemed lost for words
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