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Welcome to Episode #72 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When William Shakespeare was writing plays like Richard II in London, including the abdication scene we know it for today would have, and often did, get playwrights arrested for their challenge to the authority of the monarch. That’s one reason Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, was traditionally performed without the abdication scene except for the one fateful day it was staged intentionally including that as part of what would ultimately become a failed rebellion against Elizabeth I. Though Shakespaere escaped prison for that performance, his friends Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and George Wilkins were not so fortunate. In the case of Ben Jonson, it seems he wanted to be sent to prison, claiming at least once to have gone voluntarily. Here this week to help us explore the subversive nature of theater and playwriting specifically in England as a propaganda machine is our guest Dr. Ian De Jong.

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Dr. Ian De Jong is an award-winning scholar, writer, editor, and teacher at the University of Nevada, Reno. His recent research focuses on Shakespearean intersections of historical performance and text; his current book project provides the first-ever history of the folio as an informational technology. He is an associate editor of the second edition of the Royal Shakespeare Company's William Shakespeare: Complete Works. His scholarly work has been published in American Notes & Queries, Shakespeare Quarterly, and the British Library's Discovering Literature: Shakespeare portal.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Ian about :

  • What acts of subversion were Jonson, Marlowe, and Wilkins guilty of which made them such suspicious characters? 

  • With the obvious risk of being jailed for anything which resemble treason or derision, why was it equally a staple of performance pieces from not just Shakespeare, but Marlowe, Wilkins, and others as well. Why would they want to make bold statements about politics and religion instead of pandering to the powers which controlled the theater being open in the first place?
  • One of the most famous examples of the government reacting to a play in Shakespeare’s lifetime is that of Ben Jonson’s Isle of Dogs. With no surviving copies of the play in existence (and I start to suspect Jonson himself may have had a hand in making sure there weren’t any), do we know what content was in the play that caused such offense? 

  • … and more!

Never did faithful subject more rejoice 
At the discovery of most dangerous treason 
Than I do at this hour joy o'er myself. 

Sir Thomas Grey

Henry V II.2

Ben Jonson (c. 1617), by Abraham Blyenberch; oil on canvas painting at the National Portrait Gallery, London Source


Ben Jonson and Isle of Dogs

In 1597, Ben Jonson (with help from Thomas Nashe) wrote a play titled Isle of Dogs which was so horrendously damaging to his own reputation that not only was he personally imprisoned and threatened with torture, but he omitted the play from his folio which he would compile later in life. 

There is no surviving record of the play itself, a fact I personally believe Ben Jonson would be motivated to have had a hand in, but because there's no copy, we don't know for certain what was in it which caused such an outrage. 

Historical records indicate it was probably performed the summer of 1597 at the Swan Theater by Pembroke's Men. Local authorities reported the play's content as ““lewd plaie” full of seditious and “slanderous matter”, and consequently, Ben Jonson as the writer, was sent to jail. Along with Jonson, three of the players who acted in the performance were also imprisoned and Thomas Nashe, whose home was raided as a result, likened the experience of this ordeal to having unleashed a monster “it was no sooner borne but I was glad to runne from it.” (source)

The Privy Council would release Jonson and the others a few months later, and all but one were performing again by the end of the year (and the one who was not so fortunate was in trouble for something unrelated). It remains unclear why the Privy Council reacted so strongly, as well as why they seemed to let the entire matter drop, just as suddenly, only a few months later. 


Helen Ostovich, professor emerita if McMasters University and author of several publications that focus on the life of work of Ben Jonson, takes us inside the 16th century to meet Shakespeare's most famous (and often riotous) friend and colleague.

We doubt not of a fair and lucky war, 
Since God so graciously hath brought to light 
This dangerous treason lurking in our way 
To hinder our beginnings. 

Henry V

Henry V II.2

Title page of first edition of Wilkins and Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609). Source

George Wilkins the Thug

George Wilkins is a contemporary playwright with William Shakespeare who is thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare on the play, Pericles. That conclusion is highly supportable and the reigning opinion among Shakespeare scholars today, with the thinking being that George Wilkins wrote the first two acts, and Shakespeare wrote the last three.

Some historians do not hold this opinion and instead suggest that Wilkins' work, The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prynce of Tyre published in 1608, was an inspiration for Shakespeare's play.

However you slice it, Wilkins is an example of the kind of playwrights working with and around William Shakespeare, and is considered one of the chief dramatists for The King's Men (adding fuel to the fire of collaboration on Pericles, certainly).

George Wilkins owned a local inn in an area known as Cow Cross, which had the reputation of being a “notorious as a haunt of whores and thieves”.  (According to Roger Warren, Gary Taylor, MacDonald Pairman Jackson, A reconstructed text of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp.6-7.)

What little we know about him comes from the court records concerning his crimes of theft and violence. Deemed a “thug” by Ian de Jong, and rightly so, for his attack against a pregnant woman, having kicked her in the stomach, he was also known to trample women underfoot. He is described by at least one historical record as a “keeper of prostitute,” leading many to assume his inn in London was actually a brothel and that Wilkins himself, was a pimp.

Shakespeare and Wilkins were both called upon as witnesses in the Bellot v Mountjoy case of 1612, in which Wilkins gives his own personal description as being a “victualler.” Source

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


I beseech your grace, let this letter be read: 
Our parson misdoubts it; 'twas treason, he said.


Love's Labour's Lost, IV.3

Anonymous portrait, believed to show Marlowe, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Source

Christopher Marlowe was Murdered

Christopher Marlowe enjoys a playwright reputation second only to Shakespeare himself, and was quite a colorful character that rivaled anything he placed on stage.

Perhaps the most outragous moment of his life was actually Marlowe's death. In 1593, the Privy Council was angered over some papers which threatened Protestant refugess which settled in the city. Thomas Kyd, also a playwright, was arrested as a suspect in the case and he effectively turned against Christopher Marlowe, accusing him of having written the slanderous words, and even calling him “blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and “intemperate & of a cruel hart”.” (SourceMulryne, J. R. “Thomas Kyd.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.)

The Privy Council called for Marlowe to defend these accusations made against him, and found he was staying with Thomas Walsingham, a cousin to Elizabeth I's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Marlowe presented himself as instructed on May 20, only to be told no such meeting was being held. Ten days later, on May 30, Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer, a man who was employed by Francis Walsingham. 

The details of the case are hard to sort out, and his death has for centuries spawned numerous murder theories as to who killed Marlowe, and why. Read more of this tale here.

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Know my name is lost; 
By treason's tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit. 
Yet am I noble as the adversary 
I come to cope.


King Lear, V.3

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. National Portrait Gallery, London. Source

Essex and Shakespeare's Richard II

The Earl of Essex ran afoul of Elizabeth I and decided to overthrow the government. Using theater as his chosen propaganda piece, Essex hoped to use Shakespeare's reptuation and the performance of his popular, Richard II, to encite a following of rebels as he marched into London to overthrow the queen. Shakespeare's Richard II, was indeed performed in 1601 with the famous adbidcation scene included (previously this scene was omitted to try and avoid inciting Privy Council reactions similar to what Jonson experienced with Isle of Dogs). Instead of inciting rebellion, however, the play's performance did nothing and there was no turn out of rebels to support Essex when he arrived in London. He was promptly arrested, imprisoned, and executed with Elizabeth I performing Richard II by Shakespeare's men on the day before Essex's execution.


Clare Asquith, author of Shakespeare and the Resistance joins us inside Ep 22 of That Shakespeare Life to explore the involvement of William Shakespeare and his theater performances in the Essex Rebellion. 

Books and Resources Ian Recommends:

Ian de Jong contributes regularly to The British Library, whose Shakespeare Portal you can view here, along with the piece co-written by Ian on The Subversive Nature of Theater. Click the book image above to be directed there.


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