It was on this very day in theatre history–September 22, 1598– that the great Elizabethan/Jacobean poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s greatest rival and author of some of the best known works of English drama, including Every Man in His Humor, Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, killed a man. Admittedly, the man he killed was only an actor–but killed him he did, nonetheless. The two men met on a field in present-day Hoxton, just north of London, to fight a duel with swords. In the end, Jonson was left standing with a slight wound to his arm while Spenser (sometimes spelled “Spencer”) was left on the ground with a mortal six-inch gash in his right side. Jonson admitted to the killing and was prosecuted for manslaughter. But he managed to avoid a death sentence and was soon released from prison by claiming “benefit of clergy” after reciting a few lines from the Bible in court. His only punishment was forfeiture of property and a branded thumb.
Spenser was no fly-by-night amateur actor, by the way. He was a prominent performer who had been employed by the best companies in London, beginning his career with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men and eventually earning a place with Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men. But he was a man with a temper. And many of his contemporaries believed he deserved his unfortunate fate. Jonson, meanwhile, took the opportunity in prison to convert to Catholicism–a very dangerous position to maintain in late Elizabethan England and one that would influence and inhibit his work on and off for the next twelve years. Though he very publicly reverted to the Church of England in 1610 by downing a full chalice of communion wine one Sunday to show his rejection of Catholicism (in which only the priests were allowed to drink the wine), he maintained his interest in the Catholic faith throughout the rest of his life.
Years later, while reflecting on his duel with Spenser, Jonson admitted that his rival had the longer sword. But of course, as Jonson learned, it’s not so much the length of a man’s sword that matters as it is the skill with which he wields it. What Jonson may have lacked in length, he clearly made up for in finesse.