ve been teaching Volpone by Ben Jonson today, and, in my preparation for the seminar, discovered the wonderful British Library pages on early modern drama and dramatists. They also showed an autograph letter of Jonson to Robert Cecil, James’ secretary of state, and secret service guy, written just days after the revelation of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On 5 November 414 years ago, that is.
In the letter, Jonson, vehemently expresses his loyalty to his country (implying the king), and informs Cecil that he was unable to find the person the latter asked him to look for, namely a certain priest who, it was hoped, would be able to question the imprisoned Guy Fawkes, silent about his accomplices until then. Pre-torture, one assumes.
Jonson, being Catholic at the time, was naturally under suspicion of complicity, and it certainly didn’t help that he frequented pubs and places accompanied by one of the masterminds behind the plot, Robert Catesby. It’s not sure whether Jonson truly was involved, or whether his connection was a mere circumstance of the relatively overseeable community of Catholics at the time, or, indeed, whether he was a spy for the other, the official, side. In any case, there’s a letter, and it’s in his handwriting, and I feel touched to see it.
As I was reading it, I realized my eyes naturally looked for punctuation marks, particularly parentheses, of course. And I found five which may tell us some interesting things about their early modern use. What a perfect way of linking all those concerns of the day together, brackets, bombs, and Ben.
My most honorable Lord. /
May it please yo[u]r Lo[rdship] to understand, there hath bene no want
in mee, eyther of labor or sincerity in the discharge of this busines,
to the satisfaction of yo[u]r Lo[rdship] and the state. And wheras, yesterday,
upon the first Mention of it, I tooke the most ready Course (to my
present thought) by the Venetian Ambassadors Chaplin, who not
only apprehended it well, but was of mind w[i]th mee, that no Man of
Conscience, or any indifferent Love to his Countrey would deny to
doe it; and w[i]thall engaged himselfe to find out one, absolute in all
Numbers, for the purpose; w[hi]ch he will’d me (before a Gent[leman] of
good Credit, who is my Testemony) to signifie to yo[u]r Lo[rdship] in his
Name: It falls out since, that that Party will not be found,
(for soe he returnes answere.) upon w[hi]ch I have made attempt
in other Places, but can speake w[i]th no one in Person (all being
eyther remov’d or so conceal’d; upon this present Mischeife) but
by second Meanes, I have receav’d answere of doubts, and
difficulties, that they ^ will make it a Question to the Archpriest, w[i]th
other such like suspensions: So that to tell yo[u]r Lo[rdship] playnly
my heart, I thinke they are All so enwean’d in it, as it will
make 500 Gent[lemen] less of the Religion w[i]thin this weeke, if
they carry theyr understanding about them. For my selfe,
if I had bene a Preist, I would have put on wings to such
an Occasion, and have thought it no adventure, where I
might have done (besides his Maiesty, and my Countrey) all
Christianity so good service. And so much I have sent to
some of them./
If it shall please yo[u]r Lordsh[ip] I shall yet make
farder triall, and that you cannot in the meane time be pro=
vided: I do not only w[i]th all readynesse offer my service, but will
p[er]forme it w[i]th as much integrity, as yo[u]r particular Favor,
or his Maiesties Right in any subiect he hath, can exalt.
Yo[u]r Ho[nour] most perfect
servant and Lover
8 November 1605
This is a letter for presentation. The hand is regular and elegant, except for the little insertion, there are no after-thoughts, no mistakes. The brackets, too, must be on purpose.
Jonson carefully structures his letter, moving from an introductory assurance of having done all he could to fulfil Cecil’s request to an explanation of his steps of action, that is, seeing the Venician ambassador to ask advice on which priest to approach, the ambassador being unable to find anyone suitable, Jonson asking around other places, again to no avail, a suggestion he did receive certain answers but not conclusive ones, an impassioned plea of his loyalty to crown and country, and a promise to try again.
The good news we learn from this letter: Jonson is really supportive of the powers that be. The bad news: he didn’t manage to do what those powers had asked him to do, that is, find a guy to cross-examine Fawkes. Jonson couches his admission to this failure in three relatively substantial parantheses, crowding together within the space of 60 odd words.
The parentheses bear adjustments, qualifications, and clarifications to what he’s saying in the “official” lines; they help carry the bad news, but are supposed to help protect the messenger. You can’t be straightforward when talking to the secretary of state! So, it makes sense Jonson is hedging information on his failure between all those visual walls, making the sentence flow stop and start. Every clause expressing a new piece of information is clearly delineated through the brackets, segregating them into discrete chunks which the eye reads one by one. It slows the whole process down, and (I believe) makes the reader linger on, and process through, all the steps that Jonson went through to fulfil his duty, albeit without success.
I’ve got more to say yet about the difference in pace of the passages with and without brackets, but I want to delve in a bit more, and consider their local effect one by one.
Number 1: ‘And wheras, yesterday, upon the first Mention of it, I tooke the most ready Course (to mypresent thought) by the Venetian Ambassadors Chaplin, who not only apprehended it well, but was of mind w[i]th mee’
Jonson tells us, carefully, anxiously, that to him it seemed best to address himself to the ambassador as first port of call. Jonson must have been familiar enough with the ambassador to seek his help, that is, the help of his Chaplin (thanks for this hint to James Loxley!)
In any case, Jonson wants to make clear that he did what seemed most appropriate to him without arrogating to himself the right to decide, and take action – that’s Cecil’s. The bracket makes clear, though, that Jonson does take responsibility. It’s his thought. His action. Then, after having talked to the ambassador, Jonson’s thought becomes official line, and doesn’t require a carefully qualifying bracket anymore. They were ‘of mind’. They think the same. The bracket, in this instance, signals pre-emption of criticism, and possession, his ‘present thought’. It also signals time. Going to the ambassador was a thought from then. Now, Jonson might think differently. But there you go: in the present, then, it seemed to make sense.
Brackets 2, 3, and 4 come as a triplet:
‘and w[i]thall engaged himselfe to find out one, absolute in all Numbers, for the purpose; w[hi]ch he will’d me (before a Gent[leman] of good Credit, who is my Testemony) to signifie to yo[u]r Lo[rdship] in his Name: It falls out since, that that Party will not be found, (for soe he returnes answere.) upon w[hi]ch I have made attempt in other Places, but can speake w[i]th no one in Person (all being eyther remov’d or so conceal’d; upon this present Mischeife) but by second Meanes, I have receav’d answere of doubts, and difficulties, that they ^ will make it a Question to the Archpriest, w[i]th other such like suspensions’
The brackets thick and fast manage the reading flow, and alleviate the gravity of the news, that Jonson was unable to fulfil the thing he was asked to fulfil.
Bracket 2 cuts the sentence into two sub-clauses, introducing an actual break, a physical distance between Jonson (‘me’), and Cecil (‘yo[u]r Lo[rdship]’). It’s clear who is the person in power here. Also, the unnamed person testifying for Jonson is mentioned in passing, in a parenthesis, because he’s exactly that, unnamed, and slightly adjunct to the whole story as it is, but yet important enough to be mentioned, to add to the jigsaw of careful rendition of Jonson’s careful attempt to provide.
The third bracket tries to re-inforce the impression that Jonson did make an attempt to find a priest, but that that attempt has failed partly because of someone else: ‘he returnes answer’. He, not Jonson. He returns, Jonson merely receives.
The fourth bracket explains, yet again, why Jonson’s mission was fruitless (Catholics lie low at the moment). Time again enters the parenthesis, insisting that the ‘Mischief’ is now, these days, these confusing dangerous days.
Then, an impassioned plea: ‘So that to tell yo[u]r Lo[rdship] plainly my heart’ – and here follows tens and tens of words on Jonson’s loyalty, an honest outpouring of truth that needs no interrupting, hedging brackets. It’s Jonson, the lack of brackets suggests, earnest, naked, promising to keep doing his best. It’s the future, not the now. The future is clear and simple.
I’m not yet sure what to make of all this, but it was fun and illuminating to explore. I’m reading lots about punctuation at the moment, so it’s a relief to look at it in action, too. And such exciting action at that, words and history and all.
[last updated 31 August 2022]