King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Ben Jonson's First Edition

Cast list from Every man in his humour, with Shaksespeare listedCast list from Every man in his humour, with Shaksespeare listedBen Jonson (1572-1637) was perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary in the London theatre, and was in fact regarded as the greater dramatist throughout the 17th century. The Foyle Special Collections Library holds a copy of Jonson’s First Folio, printed and published by William Stansby in 1616, and considered a forerunner of Shakespeare’s First Folio in the collection and treatment of dramatic works as serious literature, rather than ephemeral entertainments.

The image shown here is of the page showing the cast list of one of Jonson’s first successes, Every man in his humour, first performed in the autumn of 1598 at the Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch.

Described by Shakespeare in the prologue to Henry V as ‘this wooden O’, the Curtain was the chief venue for the performances of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, for which Shakespeare wrote and in which he acted. His name is listed first on the list of the company’s ‘sharers’ – the core actors who also financially underpinned the company’s activities – although the principal actor was Richard Burbage. Shakespeare’s part in this play was probably that of Kno’well, the anxious father of a young ‘man-about-town’.

Along with Burbage, other notables amongst the ‘principall comoedians’ include John Heminges (1556-1630) and Henry Condell (1576-1627), at the time young actors in the company, but who later went on to compile and edit the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623).

Jonson himself could be hot-headed and impulsive. While Every man in his humour was still playing at the Curtain, its author killed actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was indicted for manslaughter, only escaping the gallows by pleading benefit of clergy and reading the ‘neck-verse’ of Psalms 51:1. His rambunctious city comedies, unlike Shakespeare’s works often set (unlike Shakespeare’s works) in a contemporary London, reflect the sometimes casual violence of the times. Although Jonson’s relationship with Shakespeare seems to have been tinged with envy and a sense of competitiveness, his famous eulogy which prefaces the First Folio is a warm and generous summation of their friendship. 

In this exhibition


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