Jonson, Shakespeare, and Fathers

Walter Ralegh and his son, Wat

Ben Jonson was particularly interested in fatherhood, but most of his experiences were sad ones, not really appropriate for this day on which we celebrate our fathers. His most famous poem, surely, is his elegy for his eldest son, Benjamin, who died at the age of seven, while Ben was away visiting a wealthy patron on his country estate. Whether or not his illegitimate children were comforts to Ben in his later years is a matter for pure conjecture – what is known, is that Ben thought of his poems as his “children”:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson shared the tragic experience of losing a young son with his friend and colleague, William Shakespeare, who lost his 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596. Shakespeare, however, had two daughters that he saw reach adulthood and marry, and some of his most poignant scenes include the loving relationships between fathers and daughters in his later plays:

Miranda: Alack, what trouble
Was I then to you!
Prospero: O, a cherubim
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.                     (The Tempest, I.2.261-9)

Parenthood in the early modern world was a melancholy business – so many children did not survive to be adults, and the religious and moral teachings of the day warned parents not to be too fond of their offspring, that too much affection would make them immoral. That advice was rarely heeded, however – the literature of the time is filled with the joys and sorrows of parenthood. Here are some useful books on the subject:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tom Macfaul, Poetry and Paternity in Renaissance England: Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. 1979.

Bruce Wilson Young, Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare, Greenwood, 2009.

And the Newberry Library in Chicago has a great collection of primary documents related to the topic: Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England.

I’ve discussed Jonson’s interest in parenthood in my own scholarly research:

“’He may be our father, perhaps’: Paternity, Puppets, Boys and Bartholomew Fair,” in Critical Essays on Ben Jonson, ed. Robert N. Watson (New York: G.K. Hall): 60-81.


Jonson’s Gossips and the Stuart Family Drama,” Early Theatre 9.1 (Summer 2006): 61-83.

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