Title: BEN JONSON'S HEAD ,  By: Masten, Jeffrey, Shakespeare Studies, 05829399, 2000, Vol. 28
Database: MAS Online Plus
Section: I Material Texts

I'M TRYING TO IMAGINE what it might mean to buy a book "at the Ben Johnson's Head in Thredneedle-street" in 1656. I stumble upon this shop sign in reading a list of plays available in print--a list published at the end of The Old Law, a play attributed on its title page to Middleton, Rowley, and Massinger. Advertised as "An Exact and perfect CATALOGUE of all the PLAIES that were ever printed; together, with all the Authors names; and what are Comedies, Histories, and Interludes, Masks, Pastorels, Tragedies,"(n1) and running to sixteen pages and 622 titles, this list groups plays alphabetically by title and includes a column noting the genre of each play--comedy, tragedy, interlude, masque--by abbreviation (C, T, I, M), and a column that sometimes attributes authorship. "All these Plaies," the catalogue promises, "you may either have at the Signe of the Adam and Eve, in Little Britain; or, at the Ben Johnson's Head in Thredneedle-street, over against the Exchange."(n2) The Jonson's Head was the sign for Robert Pollard's shop from 1655 until at least 1658;(n3) a later list, published in 1661 by Francis Kirkman, advertises as one of its locations for the buying and selling of plays "the John Fletchers Head."(n4) I want to ask what it means to place a playwright's head on a shop sign--to sell under its sign, or to read it, in an advertisement or in the street. What kind of sign do these head signs represent?

Part of an answer lies in the formatting of the play catalogues themselves. As they emerge in the 1650s, '60s, and '70s, the catalogues seem to me to trace the rising (though still tentative) importance of authorship as a visible category for organizing printed drama. To the extent that they engage authorship (and they do so to different degrees), the catalogues seem not as interested in consistency with even the other available printed attributions as they are in promoting a growing interest in plays associated with recognizable names.(n5)

The first extant list, published with The Careless Sheperdes in 1656, is organized to facilitate locating plays alphabetically by title, with occasional authorial identifications following in italics. There is no separate column for authors.(n6) The Old Law catalogue likewise lists plays alphabetically by title, with a column for genre, and then a column with more frequent notation of authorship in italics.(n7) A 1661 list--Francis Kirkman's initial effort, published in an old interlude--places an author column first ("Names of the Authors"), but continues to arrange/group the plays alphabetically by title ("Names of the Playes").(n8) In the layout of Kirkman's page, authorship is thus marked more prominently than in the earlier catalogues, but title remains the organizing principle. Kirkman's second list, published with a translation of Corneille's Nicomede in 1671, uses the same column arrangement, but in its "Advertisement to the Reader," the publisher bestows great attention on what he calls "the placing of names," which system he presents as an innovation.(n9) Kirkman explains that in the 1671 catalogue he has grouped the plays of the most prolific playwrights together at the beginning of each letter in the alphabetical list of titles:

Although I took care and pains in my last Catalogue to place the Names in some methodical manner, yet I have now proceeded further in a better method, having thus placed them. First, I begin with Shakespear, who hath in all written forty eight. Then Beaumont and Fletcher fifty two, Johnson fifty, Shirley thirty eight, Heywood twenty five, Middleton and Rowley twenty seven, Massenger sixteen, Chapman seventeen, Brome seventeen, and D'Avenant fourteen; so that these ten have written in all, 304. The rest have every one written under ten in number, and therefore I pass them as they were in the old Catalogue.(n10)

Kirkman's system is a significant innovation in the emergence of the dramatic author as a category: at the moment of an emergent bibliophilic culture interested in the collection of printed drama,(n11) he becomes absorbed in discovering/producing authors who have a discernible, definable corpus--writers whose plays can be grouped. Like the innovation of printing collections of drama in the Jonson, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and (by 1671) Margaret Cavendish folios,(n12) this is a new way to imagine, indeed, to materialize, the complete corpus of printed drama that Kirkman, as his advertisement notes, aspires to catalogue: a corpus that is now beginning to be imagined not as a mass of plays with titles one can arrange alphabetically, but rather as a corpus divisible into ten major authors and then all the rest. It's noteworthy both that the collaborative pair begins here to function, in effect, as a single unit and that, simultaneously, the pair seems devalued, displaced, from its apparently rightful place in a numerical order within Kirkman's "better method." (Shakespeare's forty-eight plays precede Beaumont and Fletcher's fifty-two; Heywood's twenty-five precede Middleton and Rowley's twenty-seven, etc.) It is also not insignificant, in this context, that women writing plays begin to signify prominently, something Kirkman again highlights, noticing "not only Male, but Female Writers; there being seven of them in all, four whereof in these last hundred printed."(n13) With the emergence of authorship--that is, of the linkage of these texts to persons, rather than to acting companies or particular performance locations, as earlier quarto title pages emphasize--comes the identification of singular authorial traits, authorial difference.

In this context, the Jonson's Head, like the Fletcher's Head, may be a particularly interesting piece of material evidence for rethinking authorship and collaboration culturally (that is, as a sign, rather than as a fact). To be sure, like so many of the booksellers' signs indicated on title pages of early modern plays and other books--like the playwrights' names that also appear there--the Jonson's Head looks like it could hardly be more factual, more solid as a material artifact: it is an address, a definitive, mapable place, a denotation of location in a culture that had not yet invented street numbers or postal codes.(n14) But, as I have been suggesting, I think that it is culturally significant that plays should, in 1656, be sold at the sign of a playwright's head. As far as I have been able to learn (and I am grateful to Peter Blayney for his assistance with this), it seems that the idea of a playwright's head as a sign arrives on the scene only after the closing of the theaters. There are King's Head signs earlier (for example, 1566, 1606, 1617-40 and thereafter), even a Pope's Head (1584-90, 1598, 1633), a Saracen's Head (1577?, 1615-40), and a Turk's Head (1602-3, 1626-71),(n15) as well as various animal heads (Bull, Boar, Tiger), but there is no trace of the Ben Jonson's Head prior to 1655.(n16) Fletcher's Head is even more belated; Kirkman sells at this sign from 1661-62.(n17) This may mean simply that no one had yet thought to post Jonson or Fletcher; if, as several critics have argued, the relation of the playwright to the theater is not the same as that of author to printed text,(n18) it may also raise the possibility that a playwright's head is not thinkable under the sign of the working theater.

More broadly, Jonson's head may indicate that we can usefully begin reading inscriptions on title pages--including bookselling locations--not as (or only as) publication facts, but as information located more thickly within the cultural codes that, first, connect them to other rhetorics, social structures, and practices in the culture that produced them, and, second, make them important as information, bring them into legibility in the first place.(n19) The sign of a King's Head might have read somewhat differently in 1606, just a few years after James succeeded Elizabeth, or in 1649, after the decapitation of Charles--especially since, as Nigel Smith has pointed out, "bookshops became important meeting places for those attached to religious or political causes" during the English civil wars.(n20)

What would it mean to read Jonson's or Fletcher's Head within such rhetorics, conventions, and structures? Why post, for example, a playwright's head rather than his hand? "His mind and hand went together," says the actors' preface to the Shakespeare folio,(n21) but this is not the case here in these signs: though the material signs, to my knowledge, don't survive, Jonson and Fletcher are apparently just handless, disembodied heads. The meaning of the King's Head is perhaps obvious but no less culturally implicated in bodily rhetorics we are used to attending to in other contexts: "The King towardes his people is rightly compared . . . to a head of a bodie composed of diuers members,"(n22) James I was fond of saying. But what is Ben Jonson imagined to be at the head of--the corpus of drama?(n23) Of Fletcher's Head, we could ask these and other questions: Where hangs the head of the inseparable Beaumont? Lies the Phillip Massinger's Head nearby?(n24) Is the two-headed sign unpostable (or counterproductive)?

Let me give a final example that takes us in a somewhat different direction. The bookseller Walkley's sign of "the Eagle and Child" might seem unremarkable, until one translates its allusion to the Ganymede myth.(n25) At this sign was sold (among other books) Philaster,(n26) a play that dwells at length upon a master's erotic relation with his boy-servant. The play seems both presided over by the Ganymede myth (returning repeatedly to accounts of Philaster's ganymedic "taking up" of the page Bellario(n27)) and a significant reversal (or mutualization) of the trajectory of desire in the classical tale; Philaster remarks that "the love of boys unto their lords is strange."(n28) Maybe it is just happy coincidence that this homoerotic myth, widely viewed as such in early modern England,(n29) should appear both within this play and on its title page as a bookseller's address. But even if this connection was not deliberate, following the printing of Philaster it has the potential to be read as a resonance by the browser in Walkley's shop or the reader of this text. If Ganymede was also taken to "represent intelligence, or rational thought" and "lead people to love of divine truth,"(n30) that only makes the resonances of Walkley's Eagle and Child more complex, potentially figuring an intersection, present elsewhere in this culture, of homoeroticism, learning, and books.(n31) These signs, I am suggesting, do not escape the possibility of a reading within the extended social texture of their culture, a texture woven in part in and by the play-texts themselves. While we might tend to see the "internal" Ganymede references as deriving from Beaumont and Fletcher and Walkley's sign ("external" to the play) as Walkley's choice, all of this evidence seems to me to be potentially inside-out or outside-in; none of the signs I've discussed seem evidence that is merely evident--simply to be "seen out," in the etymological sense of that word.

There are thus other questions to be asked of these signs: at the sign of the Adam and Eve, or the Eagle and Child, what kinds of readers, readings, and reading practices were reflected, or produced? Who is addressed by these address signs? What kinds of texts and readerships and eventually authorships may have gathered at them?(n32) What other kinds of practices and/or identifications are mobilized by Adam and Eve, or Jupiter and Ganymede, and to what extent do books as material objects serve as mediations or conduits in that process? What makes a sign lucrative as a notation of location in this culture?(n33) When and how is it possible to sell at the sign of an authorial head, recognizable as such? With an engraved Shakespeare likeness so prominently available in the folio collections of 1623, 1632, 1663-64, 1685, why is there no sign of Shakespeare's Head? To steal a sign from the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio, why is there no sign, on the streets of seventeenth-century London, of a "Parnassus biceps"--a two-headed Mt. Parnassus?(n34) Finding an author's head--much less his hand--may raise as many questions as it answers.


(n1.) The Excellent Comedy, called The Old Law: Or A New way to please you, By Phil. Mainger. Tho. Middleton. William Rowley (London: for Edward Archer, 1656), sig. A1; Wing STC M1048; Greg 766. Within the catalogue itself (present in only some of the play's surviving copies), the play is attributed to Massinger. Catalogue reprinted in W. W. Greg, A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration, 4 vols. (London: for the Bibliographical Society, by Oxford University Press, 1939-59), vol. 3: 1,328-38.

(n2.) "An Exact and perfect Catalogue," Old Law, sig. A1.

(n3.) See Henry Plomer, A Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers Who Were at Work in England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1641 to 1667 (Oxford: The Bibliographic Society, 1907, rpt. 1968), 148.

(n4.) "A true, perfect, and exact Catalogue of all the Comedies, Tragedies, Tragicomedies, Pastorals, Masques and Interludes, that were ever printed and published, till this present year 1661," in Tom Tyler and His Wife. An Excellent Old Play (London: 1661), sig. A1. Greg 820.

(n5.) I've briefly discussed elsewhere the problems of evidence these lists represent, see "Playwrighting: Authorship and Collaboration," A New History of Early English Drama, ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 357-82. For a reading of the list that emphasizes the veracity of attributional information over the cultural reading I'll advance here, see W. W. Greg, "Authorship Attributions in the Early Play-Lists, 1656-1671," Transactions of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, ii (1946) 305-29, also Greg, Bibliography 3: 1,319-20.

(n6.) The Careless Shepherdes. A Tragi-Comedy . . . Written by T. G. Mr. Of Arts (London: for Richard Rogers and William Ley, 1656). Wing STC G1005; Greg 761. Catalogue reprinted in Greg, Bibliography 3: 1,320-27. This catalogue is thought to be slightly earlier than the Old Law catalogue; see Greg, Bibliography 3: 1,319, 3: 1,328n.

(n7.) Compare this format with that of the lists' distant descendant, the modern, author-organized Short Title Catalogue.

(n8.) "A true, perfect, and exact Catalogue," in Tom Tyler.

(n9.) "A True, perfect, and exact Catalogue of all the Comedies, Tragedies, Tragi-Comedies, Pastorals, Masques and Interludes, that were ever yet Printed and Pubished, till this present year 1671," in Nicomede. A Tragi-Comedy, Translated out of the French of Monsieur Corneille, By John Dancer (London: for Francis Kirkman, 1671). Greg prints one version of Kirkman's list, "basically that of the 1661 edition" (3: 1319), to which he appends the advertisement from the 1671.

(n10.) "An Advertisement to the Reader," in Nicomede, 16 of the catalogue.

(n11.) The existence and reproduction of the lists themselves speaks to this, and Kirkman also writes, "I have been these twenty years a Collector of plays, and have conversed with, and enquired of those that have been Collecting these fifty years" ("An Advertisement to the Reader," in Nicomede, 16 of the catalogue). More evidence for what I am calling this "bibliophilic culture" is the series of apparent collector's marks in one of the Folger Library copies of the Careless Shepherdes catalogue (G1005, copy 2); a seventeenth-century reader has marked many of the titles with a horizontal dash, and at the end of the catalogue there appears a series of numbers in the margin: "505 2[au0,-3]6030": "505" corresponds to the number of title entries in the list; "230" may represent the number of titles owned or read, though the number of entries (eventually) marked is closer to 380. Similarly, in the Houghton Library copy of this catalogue, an early reader has written consecutive numbers after the titles of selected plays in the list, perhaps indicating those he/she owned.

(n12.) It is significant that the three major folio collections of drama by men come first in Kirkman's discussion--either because those collections may have produced the popularity that the list records, or because they make accessible a certain kind of evidence of authorial productivity that Kirkman is interested in recording and using to organize.

(n13.) Nicomede, 16 of the catalogue.

(n14.) For some general comments on the use, duplicate use, and circulation of shop signs, see Peter W. M. Blayney's impressive and deeply informative study The Bookshops in Paul's Cross Churchyard, Occasional Papers of the Bibliographic Society, no. 5 (London: The Bibliographic Society, 1990), 10. I am deeply indebted to the research in Blayney's book, which also discusses the location and circulation of a number of particular signs in detail.

(n15.) A search of the online English Short Title Catalogue indicates that many of these signs continue on imprints intermittently through the end of the seventeenth century; the dates in the text above (which should be understood as approximate) emphasize the earlier period because they are drawn from "Index 3D: Signs," in A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, ed. Katharine F. Pantzer, (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1991), 3:232-40. See also Blayney, Bookshops. Thus far I have been able to locate no sign prior to the Jonson's Head that indicates a personal name; the exceptions are some signs associated with saints and saints' heads--the George, St. Michael, St. Paul's Head and St. John's Head (see Blayney, Bookshops, 97-103, and ESTC), and one historical/classical figure (the Lucrece Blayney 82, 87-88); it is not clear that all of these are "head" signs. Interestingly, there is a Seneca's Head sign in the late seventeenth century (in signage, if not in folio, does classical authorship postdate English authorship?), recorded in John Bullord's Bibliopolii Littleburiani pars prima: "At Mr. Varennes, at Seneca's Head near Exeter-Change in the Strand" (1696, ESTC).

(n16.) Plomer records Robert Pollard selling at the sign of the Jonson's Head from 1655-58 (Dictionary, 148). Blayney notes that the Plomer, ed., Dictionaires contain sometimes inaccurate and incomplete dates (Bookshops, 11-12), and a search of the online ESTC yields one additional 1659 imprint for Pollard (Wing D464); all other Pollard imprints at the Jonson's Head are 1655-58.

(n17.) Kirkman is remarkably mobile; Plomer lists six locations at which he sold books, and the narrative of his bookselling and collecting life is of great interest to the history I am here sketching. See Plomer, Dictionary, 110-11. There is some evidence that Kirkman and Pollard worked in conjunction with each other, at least on one imprint, according to the ESTC, which records the following: Lusts dominion, or, the lascivious queen. A tragedie. Written by Christofer Marloe, Gent. London: printed by Jane Bell for F. Kirkman and are to be sold by Robert Pollard, at the sign of Ben Johnsons head, on the back-side of the Old-Exchange, 1657. Jane Bell was also apparently the printer for The Old Law edition in which the catalogue sold by Archer and Pollard appeared; see Jeffrey Masten, "Textual Introduction," The Old Law, in The Complete Works of Thomas Middleton, general ed. Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

(n18.) On this, see Margreta de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), chapter 1; Joseph Loewenstein, "The Script in the Marketplace," Representations 12 (1985), 101-14; Jeffrey Masten, Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chapters 3-4; Stephen Orgel, "What is a Text?" in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, eds. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (New York: Routledge, 1991), 83-87; Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, "The Fair, the Pig, Authorship," The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 27-79.

(n19.) De Grazia makes an analogous point about reading authorship in the preliminaries of the 1623 Shakespeare folio; see Shakespeare Verbatim, 11.

(n20.) Nigel Smith, Literature and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 24.

(n21.) John Heminge and Henrie Condell, "To the Great Variety of Readers," in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623), sig. A3.

(n22.) Minor Prose Works of King James VI and I, eds. James Craigie and Alexander Law (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1982), 74.

(n23.) In the context of bodily rhetorics, it is interesting to contemplate the meaning of the sign of the "Maiden head," at which books were sold at least in 1668 and 1600 (ESTC). Other maiden('s) head signs are discussed by Blayney, Bookshops, 50, 65-66.

(n24.) Massinger was buried in Fletcher's grave; see Masten, Textual Intercourse, 1-2.

(n25.) See Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.155ff.

(n26.) Walkley published the first and the second editions of the play, see: Philaster. Or, Loue lies a Bleeding. Written by Francis Beaumont and Iohn Fletcher Gent. The second Impression, corrected, and amended (London: for Thomas Walkeley, and are to be solde at his shoppe, at the signe of the Eagle and Childe, in Brittaines Bursse, 1622), (Q2).

(n27.) In Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Philaster, ed. Dora Jean Ashe, Regents Renaissance Drama series (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), see 2.1.5-7, and Bellario's speech to Philaster (after s/he is discovered to be Euphrasia):

I saw a god,
I thought, but it was you, enter our gates.
My blood flew out and back again, . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then was I call'd away in haste
To entertain you. Never was a man
Heav'd from sheepcote to scepter, rais'd
So high in thoughts as I.


(n28.) Philaster, 2.2.57.

(n29.) The work of Leonard Barkan, Transuming Passion: Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991) and James Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) on visual art strongly suggests that the Eagle and Child sign would have been legibly homoerotic; see also the commentary on the homoeroticism of the myth in Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: a Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Gregory W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

(n30.) Richard Knowles, ed., As You Like It, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (New York: MLA, 1977), 64.

(n31.) Aspects of this intersection have been addressed by Elizabeth Pittenger, "Dispatch Quickly: The Mechanical Reproduction of Pages," Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 389-408; Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: a Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Alan Stewart, Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). See also Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992); Richard Rambuss, Spenser's Secret Career (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

(n32.) An answer to these questions would depend at least preliminarily on a search of all the books sold at/bearing these signs. I choose these examples because they can stress an opposition between same-sex and cross-sex signs, but we could also attend to the resonances of biblical vs. mythological, the reproductive family vs. a notion of the family that includes servants, etc. For the early modern Ganymede myth as rearticulating concerns of apprentice-family relations that might well have been relevant to book- and print-shops, see Di Gangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama, chapter 2.

(n33.) Eric Wilson brilliantly probes the implications of the shop sign in the context of an emergent capitalist economy; see "Abel Drugger's Sign," in Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture, ed. Carla Mazzio and Doug Trevor (New York: Routledge, forthcoming, 2000).

(n34.) Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beavmont and Iohn Fletcher Gentlemen, (London: for Humphrey Robinson and Humphrey Moseley, 1647) frontispiece. The quoted phrase appears in the Latin poem below the frontispiece portrait; the poem is translated in an appendix to Lois Potter's recent Arden edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Despite the book's title and general rhetoric, the frontispiece depicts Fletcher alone, a configuration that may well have influenced Kirkman's choice of sign; on the folio portrait, see Masten, Textual Intercourse, 121-25.


By Jeffrey Masten n