Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Have you noticed the lessons Ben Jonson has to teach us about our (mis)leaders?

If you, like me, have been glued to the media comedy and tragedy unfolding before our eyes – in the fulsome sense of the dramatic genre and its conventions – then you may have come across the wise words on the live blog at

which was fascinating for many reasons. Firstly, it rather wittily implies that if Murdoch had read a bit of Shakespeare then it would have been to everyone’s benefit. Secondly, the wag points out that Shakespeare plays (comedies and tragedies) are full of intercepted letters, and the trouble that (a) letters cause, (b) intercepting letters causes, (c) misreading letters causes, (d) spying on (‘noting’) people causes. This is a valuable thing to think about. Do you think for a second that Rebekah Brooks reads Shakespeare? Even worse is the realisation that she probably did, but she was too busy counting her thuggery profits at the back of the class when the tired teacher swept their hand over their eyes, looked to heaven and asked the silent, passive class: ‘Can you see what the writer is trying to say here?’ It made me think of something wider – something bigger.

A key convention of tragedy is that at the close of the play we get what amounts to a ‘papering over the cracks’. In fact, a tragedy does not resolve; all the characters left alive stand (literally) around the bodies, they swear that ‘this will never happen again’ – and yet the audience realise that it has to: nobody does anything to address the underlining issues that have been brought to a head in the death(s) on stage of the character(s) we most sympathise with. So, we understand that the cycle will repeat, with a new metaphorical ‘cast’.

A tragedy whose spine I haven’t touched since my degree is Sejanus, by Ben Jonson. Those under 25 will know Jonson as the man who wrote the poem ‘On My First Sonne’ – it’s part of GCSE education. Sejanus plays out for us the fail of a cruel, corrupt leader who controls by fear. He is patronised (in the Roman sense of the word) by sycophants and schemers. He is hated, but followed because he has all the power. In the play there is a dramatic shifting on stage: Sejanus goes from dictator to exposed, fallen idol in a flash.

It stayed with me all of yesterday. I picked it out and began to read it again. The parallels are striking between this play and what is playing out in the media court currently. You could take any excerpt from the play, tweak it slightly and use it as a current commentary on the disgusting antics of the media and our political misleaders.

Here a bitter character at the start articulates the difference between those that succeed in Sejanus’ court (read: Murdoch/Cameron’s court) and those that don’t – like the speaker:

We want their fine arts, and their thriving use
Should make us graced, or favour'd of the times:
We have no shift of faces, no cleft tongues,
No soft and glutinous bodies, that can stick,
Like snails on painted walls; or, on our breasts,
Creep up, to fall from that proud height, to which
We did by slavery, not by service climb.
We are no guilty men, and then no great;
We have no place in court, office In state,
That we can say, we owe unto our crimes:
We burn with no black secrets

There is more, and I will indeed post more – I think that it’s a vital comment on our days. Those that climb a hill of creativity, desperately trying for the ‘new’ often scrabble up the scree and lever ourselves to safety: sweatily smug that we have thought, or written, or done something new - only to then notice the bootprints of some previous climber on the ledge. These are tracks of writers who have been this way, and may have been this way better.

This circus without clowns goes on, and on, and on. This is a rich seam. We will come this way again.
Frank has done a superb job of bringing some great (and genuinely interesting, if not ‘great’) free ebooks, downloads and sites to our attention. Sejanus, too, is worthy of a look. Don’t be afraid of iambic pentameter; it does not bite. Go to: We will come this way again.
Andy Hopkins


  1. Nice one.

    Let's hope the whole News International thing results in the tragic fall from grace of several high profile figures.

  2. Read this mornign in Paradise Lost: 'Left him at large to his own dark designs,/ That with reiterated crimes he might/ Heap on himself damnation'.

    I'm just saying...