Category Archives: Playwrights

Ben Jonson Playwrights Poetry Shakespeare Stage

That Shakespeare wanted Arte, and sometimes Sense

In 1618 the playwright Ben Jonson undertook to make an exhausting journey from London to Edinburgh on foot. While in Scotland he spent some time at the home of the poet William Drummond, who made notes of his conversations with Jonson which were eventually published in 1711. Drummond’s notes serve as a most revealing source for Jonson’s own life, however the following fragments are some of the more gossipy
information Jonson shared with Drummond. They make for compelling reading, shedding light on Jonson’s personal opinion of his fellow poets and playwrights.

Spencer’s stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter, the meaning of which Allegorie he had delivered in papers to Sir Walter Raughlie.

Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging. But he esteemeth John Donne the first poet in the World, in some things: his verses of the Lost Chaine he hath by heart; and that passage of the Calme, That dust and feathers doe not stirr, all was so quiet. [He] affirmeth Donne to have written all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.

That next to himself only Fletcher and Chapman could make a Masque.

That Shakespeare wanted Arte, and sometimes Sense.

His acquaintance and behaviour with poets living with him: Daniel was at jealousies with him. Drayton feared him, and he esteemed not of him. That Francis Beaumont loved too much himself and his own verses. He beat Marston, and took his pistoll from him.  That Markham was not of the number of the Faithfull Poets, and but a base fellow.  That such were Day and Middleton. That Chapman and Fletcher were loved of him.  Overbury was his first friend, then turn’d his mortall enemie.  That the Irish having robd Spenser’s goods, and burnt his house and a little child new born, he and his wyfe escaped, and after, he died for lack of bread in King Street, and refused 20 pieces sent to him by my Lord of Essex, and said, ‘He was sorrie he had no time to spend them.’

Sharpham, Day, Dekker, were all rogues.

Francis Beaumoment died ere he was 30 years of age.

Donne’s grandfather, on the mother side, was Heywood the Epigrammatist.

Walter Raughlye esteemed more of fame than conscience

Marston wrote his Father-in-laws preachings, and his Father-in-law his comedies

Sir Philip Sydney was no pleasant man in countenance, his face being spoiled with pimples.

He said to Prince Charles of Inigo Jones, that when he wanted words to express the greatest villaine in the world, he would call him an Inigo.

His Epitaph, by a companion written, is

Here lyes Benjamin Johnson dead,
And hath no more wit than goose in his head,
That as he was wont, so doth he still
Live by his wit, and evermore will.

An other:

Here lyes honest Ben
That had not a beard on his chen.

And this which is (as he said) a picture of him-selfe.

I doubt that love is rather deafe than blinde,
For else it could not bee,
That shee,
Whom I adore so much should so slight mee,
And cast my sute behinde.

I am sure my language to her is as sweet,
And all my closes meet
In numbers of as subtile feete
As makes the youngest hee
That sits in shadow of Apollos tree.
O! but my conscious feares,

That flye my thoughts betweene,
Prompt mee, that shee hath seene
My hundred of gray haires,
Told six and forty yeares,
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountaine belly, and my rockye face,
And all these, through her eies, have stopd her eares.

January 19, 1619

Ruddiman, Thomas, Ed., The Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden, Consisting of Those which were formerly Printed and Those which were design’d for the Press. Now published from the Author’s Original Copies, Printed by James Watson, Edinburgh (1711)
Patterson, R.H.F., Ben Jonsons’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, Blackie & Sons, London, Glasgow, Bombay (1923)

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Playwrights Poetry

The filthyest wench in town

These snippets come from an anonymously published collection of Epigrams and Elegies printed c.1595. Now known to have been the work of Christopher Marlowe and John Davies, the book caused such a scandal that in 1599 Archbishop Whitgift ordered all copies to be publicly burned.

In Leucam 14

Leuca in presence once a fart did let,
Some laught a little, she forsooke the place:
and madde with shame, did eke her glove forget,
which she returnde to fetch with bashfull grace:
And when she would have said, my glove,
My fart (qd she) which did more laughter move.

In Cineam 19

Thou dogged Cineas hated like a dogge,
For still thou grumblest like a Mastie dogger
comparst thy selfe to nothing but a dogge,
Thou saist thou art as weary as a dogge.
As angry, sick, & hungry as a dogge,
As dull and melancholy as a dogge:
As lazie, sleepie, & as idle as a dogge.
But why dost thou compare thee to a dogge?
In that, for which all men despise a dogge,
I will compare thee better to a dogge.

Thou art as faire and comely as a dogge,
Thou art as true and honest as a dogge,
Thou art as kinde and liberall as a dogge,
Thou art as wise and valiant as a dogge.
But Cineas, I have oft heard thee tell,
Thou art as like thy father as may be,
Tis like inough, and faith I like it well,
But I am glad thou art not like to me.

In Gellam 26

If gellas beautie be examined
she hath a dull dead eye, a saddle nose,
An ill shapte face, with morpheus overspread,
and rotten Teeth which she in laughing showes.
Brieflie she is the filthyest wench in Towne,
of all that do the art of whooring use:
But when she hath put on her sattin gowne,
Her out lawne apron, & her velvet shooes.

Her greene silk stockings, and her peticoate,
Of Taffata, with golden frindge a-rounde:
And is withall perfumed with civet hot,
which doth her valiant stinking breath confounde
Yet she with these addicions is no more,
Then a sweete, filthie, fine ill favored whoore.

In Francum 33

When Francus comes to sollace with his whoore
He sends for rods and strips himselfe stark naked:
For his lust sleepes, and will not rise before,
by whipping of the wench it be awaked.
I envie him not, but wish he had the powre,
To make my selfe his wench but one halfe houre

Ad amicam.

I aske but right let her that cought me late,
Eyther love, or cause that I may hate.
I crave too much, would she but let me love her
love knows with such like praise I dailie move her
Accept him that will serve thee all his youth,
Accept him that will love thee with spotless truth.
If loftie titles cannot cause me to be thine
that am descended but of Knightlie line.
Soone may you plow the little landes I have,
I gladlie graunt my parents given, to save
Appollo, Bacchus, and the Muses may,
and Cupid who hath markt me for thy pray,
My spotlesse life, which but to gods give place,
Naked simplicitie, & modest grace.
I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, ile live with thee for ever.
The yeeres that fatal destenie shall give,
ile live with thee, and die, or thou shalt grieve.
Be thou the happie subject of my bookes
That I may write thinges worthy thy faire lookes.
By verses horned I got her name,
and she whom in shape of Bull love came.
And she that on a fainde Bull swam to land,
griping his false hornes with her virgin hand.
So likewise we will through the worlde be rung,
And with my name shall thine be alwaies sung.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Actor Biography London Playwrights Poetry Shakespeare

The life of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was baptised in Holy Trinity, parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26th April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but rumour developed in the 18th century that he was born on 23rd April, St George’s Day.  There is no evidence to support this, but given his baptism date, it is likely he was born between 21st and 23rd April, in Henley St, Stratford upon Avon, in part of a building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

By the time Shakespeare’s father married Mary Arden, some time between 1556-8, he had established himself as a successful glover and whittawer (a dresser of light-coloured leather).  He bought a house and garden in Henley Street in 1556, and continued to buy property in the town.  The couple’s first child, Joan, was born in September 1558 and probably died in infancy.  A second child, Margaret, baptised in December 1562, was buried the following April.  A year later Mary gave birth to William.  At the time of his birth Stratford was in the grip of a devastating plague outbreak which killed one in eight of the town’s population.  Mary and John would go on to have five more children: Gilbert (1566-1612), another Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571- 1579), Richard (1574-1613) and Edmund (1580-1607).


John Shakespeare had risen through the ranks to become one of fourteen burgesses of Stratford.  In 1565 he became an alderman and in 1568 he was elected bailiff for the year, one of the highest offices in the town. In spite of this rapid professional expansion and success, by the end of the 1570s John Shakespeare was in financial difficulties.  In 1578 he mortgaged some of his wife’s inheritance, which he lost in 1580.  He stopped attending council meetings after 1576, and was replaced as alderman in 1586.  In 1592 his name appeared on a list of nine people wanted by the authorities for recusancy, that is, refusing to attend church.  His excuse was listed as ‘for feare of processe for Debtte’.  Some scholars have concluded from this that John was attempting to conceal his secret Catholicism, and in 1790 a bricklayer claimed to have found a manuscript in the roof of Henley St detailing John Shakespeare’s commitment to Catholicism.  However doubts remain about its authenticity, and even if it were genuine, there is no reason to assume William shared his father’s Catholic convictions.

During John Shakespeare’s tenure as bailiff, two theatre companies visited Stratford, and there is every reason to suppose that William would have attended these performances as other children did.  During the period that William was in continuous residency in Stratford, at least thirteen different visits by companies of players provided him with the opportunity to experience live dramatic theatrical performances in the town.

 King’s New School

No records survive of Shakespeare’s education, but it is widely assumed he attended King’s New School, Stratford; a successful grammar school.  During his schooling he would have learned a huge amount of Latin literature and history; he would have read Cicero, and Seneca, Virgil and Ovid, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence.  The teaching methods of the time would have ensured he was trained in the arts of composition, rhetoric, and memory.

Shakespeare probably left school at around the age of 15, and several options would have been open to him, including becoming an apprentice in his father’s glove trade.  Many rumours place Shakespeare in Lancashire after leaving school, either as a school teacher or as a servant and player in a wealthy household.  However if we rely on the evidence, all we know for certain was by 1582 Shakespeare was in Stratford, marrying Anne Hathaway at the age of 18.  Anne was nine years older than William, and pregnant by the end of the summer 1582; the marriage was performed after only one reading of the banns, rather than the usual three, a sure sign that it was rushed in order to conceal a pregnancy.  Six months after the marriage, on 26th May 1583, Susanna Shakespeare was baptised, followed on 2nd February 1585 by twins Hamnet and Judith.  After the birth of the twins, up until 1592, details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy.  One rumour which has passed down through the centuries is that he was caught poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate at Charlecote, and was forced to escape to London to avoid prosecution.

The next documented evidence we have about his life is from a pamphlet printed in London in 1592 by Robert Greene, or possible Henry Chettle, who attacks Shakespeare as an ‘upstart Crow’ and a ‘player’.  Whatever Shakespeare had been involved with between 1585 and 1592, it is clear that by 1592 he was known as an actor, and in addition, according to the pamphlet, a playwright.  No evidence remains of how skilled Shakespeare was as an actor. He is named as first in a list of Principle Actors in the first folio of 1623, and also appears in the lists of actors in Ben Jonson’s Workes in 1616.

It is possible Shakespeare had joined the Queen’s Men.  They performed in Stratford in 1587 and their repertory included plays which would later serve as sources for Shakespeare’s own plays, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III and Henry V.  By 1592 Shakespeare had almost certainly completed his Henry VI cycle, and The Taming of The Shrew also dates to this time. Between 1592 and 1594 the theatres were closed due to the plague.  While they were closed it was tradition for the theatre companies to tour the provinces. However the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593, dedicated to the earl of Southampton, suggests Shakespeare was continuing to write.  By 1594, with the reopening of the playhouses, Shakespeare was writing all his plays for the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Payments to the company for their court performances over Christmas 1594 name Shakespeare, Will Kemp, and Richard Burbage as the leading actors; highlighting their pre-eminence among the company’s players.  From 1594-5 the Chamberlain’s Men performed The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s plays were now also starting to appear in print.  Over the next two years he wrote The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, but in 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, and many scholars see his subsequent outpouring of grief in plays like Twelfth Night and Hamlet.


Shakespeare’s continued success as a playwright enabled him to purchase New Place in Stratford in May 1597.  It was reputed to be the second biggest house in the town, with five gables, ten fireplaces, two barns, two gardens and two orchards.  The prices was in excess of £120.  He made many of his investments in Stratford rather than London. In May 1602 he paid the hefty sum of £320 for 107 acres of land in Old Town, Stratford; and the year before he had acquired a cottage in Chapel Lane in order to extend New Place. By 1605 he was able to pay £440 for a share in the tithes of Stratford, bringing in £60 a year. So in less than ten years Shakespeare had made enough money from the playhouses to invest almost £900 in his home town, over £90,000 in today’s terms.

Shakespeare continued to live in London during this period.  In 1596 he was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and by 1599 he had moved to the parish of the Clink, close to the site of the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside.  The Globe had been constructed and built by the Chamberlain’s Men, and the first play performed there, soon after its opening in 1599, was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With the accession of James I in 1603 the Chamberlain’s Men were elevated to new heights when the king became their patron. For the king’s entry into London in 1604 Shakespeare and other players were each given four and a half yards of red cloth, possibly so they could march in the royal procession.  The newly-formed King’s Men performed regularly at court; between 1604 and 1605 they had played over eleven different plays for the king, including Measure for Measure, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Globe

From 1605-6m Shakespeare produced some of his greatest tragedies; King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra.  Records of Shakespeare’s friends and family provide other suggestions about his life at this time.  Augustine Phillips, a fellow sharer in the King’s Men, died in 1604, leaving‘my ffellowe william Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould’  It is reasonable to assume that his fellows in the theatre company were among his closest friends. William Barksted, a minor playwright, wrote warmly of Shakespeare as ‘so deere lov’d a neighbor’

During this time his daughter Susanna married the doctor John Hall.  Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund came to London to become a player, but only a year later both he and his infant son were dead. In 1608 Shakespeare became a grandfather when Susanna gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  By 1609 almost half of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in print, and the King’s Men had acquired the lease to the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor playhouse which was far smaller than the Globe, but offered a much greater scope for stage devices and machinery, as well as music.  It also charged much higher admission prices than the Globe. This new playhouse presented some technical challenges for Shakespeare, which he responded to in The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest between 1609-11.

By 1613 Shakespeare had invested in London property, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, close to the new theatre. It was large enough for him to let part of it out, and it was probably here that he now resided whenever he was in London.  In June of the same year the Globe theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII.  The shareholders decided to rebuild it, with each sharer contributing between £50 and £100.  However by the time Shakespeare made his will in 1616 he was no longer a shareholder in the Globe, and it is likely he decided to end his involvement in the playhouse at the time it burned down.

Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon

Where Shakespeare spent the final years of his life is uncertain.  There is no evidence he retired to Stratford.  In November 1614 Thomas Greene, Stratford’s town clerk from 1603 to 1617, who repeatedly refers to Shakespeare as his cousin, was in London and noted that, Shakespeare ‘commyng yesterday to towne I went to see him howe he did.’  In January 1616 Shakespeare drafted his will, and in April of the same year he died.  What Shakespeare died from is unclear.  John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s recorded that ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted’  He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity; inside rather than outside, since his ownership of Stratford tithes made him a lay rector.  The epitaph, possibly written by him, and warning future generations to leave his bones where they lie, was inscribed on the grave, though the grave may not originally have been where the stone is now placed.  Anne lived until 1623 (she was buried on 8th August) but her tombstone makes no mention of her husband.

 Shakespeare memorial, Westminster Abbey


Sources: Multiple, including Park Honan; Peter Holland.  See Useful Reading. For more on Shakespeare and the Globe see some earlier posts.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Playwrights Shakespeare Theatre

They lived together on the Banke side


These fragments form a brief overview of the life of the playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625). Widely overlooked, and often cast into the shadows by the subsequent fame of Shakespeare and Jonson, Fletcher has become an unpopular and under-appreciated early modern dramatist. However, despite lacking the poetic genius of Shakespeare, Fletcher was nevertheless a major contributer to the Jacobean stage, and his plays remained in repertory well into the Restoration.


Fletcher was born in Rye, Sussex, in 1579, into a staunchly Protestant family. His grandfather had been a friend to John Foxe, the widely-admired martyrologist, and his father had attended the beheading of Mary, queen of Scots, and later became bishop of London.

Fletcher attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and received an MA in 1598.  Little is known of his life between leaving university and 1606, when he created The Woman Hater, his first play. No evidence exists that Fletcher, like Shakespeare and Jonson, acted on the stage before he began his writing career. His first plays were written for the Children of the Queens revels, but in 1608, when Shakespeare’s players, the King’s Company, acquired their second theatre at Blackfriars, both Fletcher, and his long-standing colleague Francis Beaumont, appear to have entered their service. After 1614 almost all Fletcher’s plays were written for Shakespeare’s company.

Fletcher and Beaumont collaborated throughout their lifetimes. Their first success was in Philaster, or Love Lies-a-bleeding, the title of which references their protagonist’s penchant for stabbing his lovers to death at critical moments.  This play, along with The Maid’s Tragedy (1609-10) and A King and No King (1611), was in regular performance right up to the closing of the theatres.

Fletcher’s first solo play, The Faithful Shepherdess, was a failure when it was first performed around 1608, and was in print soon afterwards, with a commendatory verse by Jonson which bemoans:

The wise, and many-headed Bench, that sits

Upon the Life, and Death of Playes …
… had, before
They saw it halfe, damnd thy whole play

However, the printed play was more successful, and served as a source for both Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and for Milton’s Comus.

No evidence has yet been uncovered to suggest Fletcher ever married. Indeed his close relationship with Beaumont may perhaps have been personal as well as professional.  Aubrey notes in his Brief Lives that ‘[t]here is a wonderfull consimility of phansey’ between the two playwrights, ‘which caused that dearnesse of friendship between them’, and adds that ‘[t]hey lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Playhouse, both batchelors; lay together … had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire; the same cloathes and cloake, &c., betweene them’. The preface to the 1647 folio, written decades after the deaths of both playwrights, echoes this, emphasizing their interdependence and describing their collaboration in almost marital terms.

Francis Beaumont


Fletcher continued to write solo plays in addition to his collaborations, and in 1612-3 he collaborated on three plays for the King’s Company with Shakespeare—Cardenio, Henry VIII (All is True), and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Henry VIII appeared last in the ‘Histories’ section in the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 without acknowledging Fletcher, however according to his biographer, ‘authorship analysis suggests that he wrote approximately half [the play].’ It is easier to date Henry VIII because it was during a performance of this play in June 1613 when, after the misfiring of a cannon, the thatched roof of the first Globe caught fire and the theatre burnt down.  According to accounts of the fire, the play seems to have been known by a different title when first performed – All is TrueThe Two Noble Kinsmen was first published in quarto form in 1634 as ‘Written by … Mr John Fletcher, and Mr William Shakespeare’.

After 1613, Fletcher seems to have adopted Shakespeare’s role as chief playwright for the King’s Company and he continued to work as a successful playwright up until his death in 1625. According to Aubrey, ‘a knight of Norfolk (or Suffolke) invited him into the countrey. He stayed but to make himself a suite of cloathes, and while it was makeing, fell sick of the plague and dyed. This I had (1668) from his tayler, who is now a very old man, and clarke of St. Mary Overy’s’.

Fletcher’s biographer notes that, alongside ‘the Shakespeare and Jonson canons, the works of ‘Beaumont and Fletcher’ make up, at least as far as the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage was concerned, the great triumvirate of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Yet the Fletcher canon remains, in Philip Finkelpearl’s words, “the vast unexplored Amazonian jungle of Jacobean drama”, still awaiting even a small percentage of the attention that has been devoted to the other two component canons of the triumvirate.’ He concludes, the ‘Beaumont and Fletcher canon offers the most substantial early modern challenge to Romantic assumptions about the centrality of individual creativity to the production of art’.
Source: Gordon McMullan, DNB

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