The tale of censorship in the arts is one that is almost as old as humans’ attempts at self expression.
In 1559, the Roman Catholic Church formalized its history of prohibiting parishioners from reading certain books by creating the official Index Librorum Prohibitorum that was continually updated for the next 400 years with such scandalous tomes as Robinson Crusoe and Les Misérables. (They also chopped off or fig leafed-over more than a few private bits belonging to Roman and Greek stone fellas.)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian was too much for Ireland, Norway, and several British towns when it debuted in 1979 (some of the bans extended for decades). Conservative politicians and censors targeted the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which they deemed too sexually explicit.
But 16th-century poet and playwright Ben Jonson surely wins the award for the work that has provoked the most radical and overzealous reaction.
In 1597, Jonson and Thomas Nashe co-wrote a satirical play called The Isle of Dogs.
Not much is known about the plot or contents of the show; what is known is that almost immediately after it took the stage, the British authorities not only banned it from ever being performed again, but they also threw Jonson in jail and shut down the entire London theater scene. While the curtains eventually began to ascend again, the play at the center of the controversy lived on only in whispers.
Jonson was fairly new to the London theater world when he set his pen to paper in such dramatic fashion.
While he was well educated as a young lad, he didn’t have the funds to accept a spot at Cambridge, so he followed his stepfather into the bricklaying business instead. It was not a fit. While he lasted in the trade for several years, he was known to get through days on the job by reciting Homer.
In the early 1590s, he finally “betook himself to his wonted studies” and got a job in the theater. At first, he was mostly an actor, dabbling on the side in writing. His early work got mixed reviews. His 17th-century biographer John Aubrey reported that he “acted and wrote, but both ill,” though he was said to be a good acting teacher.
His breakthrough moment finally came in 1598 when he was in his mid-twenties with the wildly popular debut of his play Every Man in His Humour.
Jonson would go on to become one of the most well-regarded playwrights and poets of his era, going toe-to-toe with his friend and fierce rival, William Shakespeare. In the cruel twists of fate, Shakespeare would be immortalized in popular culture as one of the most famous English writers of all time, while Jonson has largely been confined to scholarly ivory towers.
“Yet Jonson was the great showstopper of the age, revolutionizing the theater every bit as much as the others, writing in every major genre from domestic and revenge tragedy to city comedy, and penning verse that despite its deceptive simplicity is among the most moving of that age,” Ed Simon wrote for The Millions.
Jonson was one of the most well-regarded literary figures of the period, and when he wasn’t enjoying being the toast of literary circles, he was often getting into trouble of one sort or another.
Jonson was thrown into jail a whopping three times over the course of his life, and on at least one occasion, he nearly lost his head. (He escaped his grim sentence by using the rather bizarre “get out of jail free” card of the early 17th century—a recitation of Psalm 51 known as the “neck verse.”)
But his recurring artistic residency at Newgate Prison all started one day in 1597 well before Jonson became a household name when The Isle of Dogs took the stage.
At the time, Jonson was working with the Pembroke theater company as both an actor and a writer. In February of 1597, the troupe had moved into the new Swan Theatre in the heart of the London theater district.
As Simon writes, “There was already a coterie of playwrights writing on secular themes in blank verse before Jonson and Shakespeare would become famous, but it was Jonson’s generation (and in large part Jonson himself) who would elevate the grungy, grubby, dirty medium to the realm of true art.”
In July of that year, Pembroke’s debuted a brand new play written by two writers of their own. It is an understatement to say that it was not well received. Within days of premiering, the authorities had violently shut it down.
What we know is this: The Isle of Dogs was a comedic satire and Ian Donaldson, author of Ben Jonson: A Life, wrote for Cambridge University Press that the play “may have glanced at members of the court circle and possibly at the Queen herself, whose palace at Greenwich lay opposite the Isle of Dogs, down river from the city.”
Authorities threw around accusations like “lewd,” “seditious,” and “sclanderous [sic]” to describe their outrage at its contents. But other than these bits and pieces of speculation, not much is known about the plot of the play, and every copy of the script was burned.
On July 28, the British Privy Council dropped the ax on the production on the grounds that it portrayed “lewd matters that are handled on the stages, and by resort and confluence of bad people.”
Three of the play’s actors including Jonson were arrested and the next month they were charged with “lewd and mutinous behaviour.” The authorities tried to nab Nashe, too, but he had the good sense to get out of Dodge, though his ransacked possessions were not quite so fortunate.
But cracking down on those involved with The Isle of Dogs wasn’t enough to satisfy the outsized outrage of the authorities-cum-moral police. After they closed the Swan Theatre and ensured that Isle of Dogs would never be seen again, they topped off their punishment by shutting down every other theater company in London and, according to Donaldson, they even destroyed the theaters.
Jonson, in the meantime, refused to be cowed by his stint behind bars.
The authorities went so far as to jail him with two “damned villains,” as Jonson later described them, whose purpose it was to spy on him and get information for the authorities. But he was warned by one of the guards about the intruders, and he avoided their trap.
He later bragged about his refusal to cooperate with investigators. According to contemporary accounts, “his judges could get nothing of him to all their demands but “ay” and “no.”
Finally, on October 2, Jonson was released without fanfare. While the ban against theater antics of any kind was still in place, several theater troupes began to quietly perform again and business as usually slowly resumed, though the scandal spelled the end of the Pembroke company.
It seems the great drama of 1597 did nothing to stymie Jonson’s prospects as the very next year he staged the play that would catapult him to literary fame; his time in prison also lacked a cautionary effect on his devilish behavior.
While he enjoyed the breakthrough triumph of Every Man In His Humour in 1598, in the same year Jonson would also find himself back in residence at Newgate. A quarrel with a fellow actor led to a duel and pesky charges of murder that ended in his incarceration. Jonson escaped the hangman’s noose, but it wouldn’t be the last time he found himself behind bars.
But perhaps the most farcical aspect of the whole Isle of Dogs affair is the turn Jonson’s career would take a few years later.
His offense against the queen in Isle of Dogs—and again against King James I in his play Eastward Ho! in 1605—seems to have been forgiven or at least overlooked. In the early 17th century, Jonson collaborated with the very same royals to write a series of masques for and starring Queen Anne of Denmark.