Getting the 'H' out of Jo(h)nson

By Donoghue, William | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting the 'H' out of Jo(h)nson


Donoghue, William, PSYART


The essay looks at characterization in the plays of Ben Jonson as phobic projective behaviors that can best be understood using theories of narcissism and Kleinian object-relations theory. Jonson exhibited what are today clear symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The essay argues that Klein's ideas on projective behavior in which the subject attempts to cast out bad partial objects (selfobjects) is more helpful in explaining self-fashioning in Jonson than Greenblatt's theory. Object-relations theory makes sense of the action and characters in several of the plays, explains Jonson's attitude to his son (another Ben), and even tells us something about his need to drop letters from his name (Johnstone).

keywords: Klein, Freud, self-fashioning, object-relations, narcissism, DSM IV, depressive, paranoid-schizoid, introjective, projective selfobject, partial objects, Heidegger, Derrida, exomologesis, publicatio sui, Every Man out of His Humour, Volpone, Bartholmew Fair, Sejanus

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_donoghue01.shtml

Sinne of selfe love posesseth al mine eye

And all my soule and al my every part

And for this sinne there is no remedie,

It is so grounded inward in my heart.

Shakespeare (Sonnet 62)

A graphic instance of Renaissance self-fashioning occurred in 1604 when Benjamin Johnson, stepson of a Westminster bricklayer, dropped the 'h' in his name to become Ben Jonson, son of no John. The author later told Drummond that he was related to the Johnstones of Dumfries, just across the Scottish border, and that his grandfather was a gentlemen who had served Henry VIII. The Johnstones were a rocky quarry of lowland Scots ("a band of butchers and cut-throats" as Rosalind Miles puts it) who would have made colorful ancestors for Jonson, and maybe did.1

The 't' had been dropped long before, thus eliminating the masonry, and dropping the 'h' eliminated the filial note, allowing the author to spring forth parthogenetically, like Athena, from his own mind, into the footlights.2

Unfortunately the repressed masonry had already returned some time before when Johnson's mother took the bricklayer, Robert Brett, for her second husband. And one might argue that the loss of the aspirated 'h' makes no material difference. Indeed, by the time he dropped it, Jo(h)nson was already well-known, if not quite yet the poet and gentleman he envisioned. It was also about this time that he followed the fashion in Renaissance self-fashioning and purchased a coat of arms.

Jonson does not make it onto the list of the fashionable in Stephen Greenblatt's "historical drama" on the topic As Greenblatt says, his is only one "narrative selection" among many that would be possible. But an equally good reason might be that while Jonson was a determined self-fashioner, and meets Greenblatt's requirement of demonstrating "profound mobility," the mobility is not upward. The figures Greenblatt focuses on were self-made men who rose in class from humble beginnings. Spenser was the son of a tailor; Marlowe the son of a shoemaker; Shakespeare the son of a glover. Spenser became a large landowner; Marlowe went to Cambridge; Shakespeare owned a large house in Stratford. Another Greenblatt choice, Sir Thomas More, was the son of a lawyer and rose to the heights of power before achieving the ultimate in upward mobility by losing his head.3 Jonson by comparison could only relieve others of theirs, of their mobility at least, which he did twice, and convert to Catholicism, which he did once. That at least got him moving, since it (probably) saved his life in prison. But it was a lateral mobility at best.

So Jonson seems to require something different by way of a self-fashioning program from what Greenblatt offers-something that can describe and account for his own special kind of mobility, not to mention the mobility of those two letters. What does it mean to drop letters from one's name? …

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