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This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

Pictures from a Library (24)

24: Ben Jonson’s Emphatic Thumb
Stella Halkyard
Portrait of Ben Jonson

Portrait of Ben Jonson from Jonson’s Workes (1616) © the University of Manchester.

On the eve of the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, let us give a thought to Ben Jonson who was, at this time, preparing his ‘workes’ for publication, with his eye keenly focused on immortality.

The production of a deluxe edition with its profligate use of paper, ostentatious layout and elaborate frontispiece represents a landmark moment in English literary history when, for the first time, a writer chose to exert authority over his own work as the ‘child of his right hand’.

Likewise, the portrait, shown here, which graces the title page of the Rylands’s copy of Jonson’s folio, presents him, the ‘most learned of the English poets’, as a model of decorum. His ‘mountain belly’ is buttoned down and trussed up with a sash; his ‘rocky face’ wreathed in the laurels that proclaim his status as the first, in all but name, of the English poet laureates.

Yet all is perhaps not as it seems, as accessories in portraits are ‘generative of ideas and meanings’ in their own right (Marcia Pointon). An accessory can carry a history as complex as the etymology of a word. If brought to bear on a carefully constructed image, like the one Jonson offers us here, an accessory can give the viewer insights into things authors may prefer to leave unseen and unsaid. Take, for example, Jonson’s gloves. In the early modern period it was customary for distinguished persons to carry or wear gloves as a mark of status and learning. However, gloves have other meanings and can function to protect or conceal a hand as well as to display it. A secret lurks within Jonson’s clenched fist, which he is loath to show.

In 1597 Jonson penned a play in collaboration with Thomas Nashe called The Isle of Dogs that caused offence at court and resulted in the imprisonment of Jonson, Robert Shaa and Gabriel Spencer. Though released later that year, Jonson was soon back in trouble having killed Spencer in a duel. Escaping hanging by claiming ‘benefit of clergy’ – a quirk of the law that commuted sentences for the literate who passed a reading test in court – Jonson had the letter ‘t’ branded onto this thumb as a mark of a felon and a constant reminder of his crime. Yet neither hapless play nor tattooed thumb appear in Jonson’s ‘workes’, where reminders of wild youth are not permitted to ruffle the elegance of its folio pages. Exerting authority over one’s texts and portraits of oneself pays off well when self-fashioning is in fashion. 

This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

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