Paper Interruptions: False Starts in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus

from Georgina Wilson, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

When does a text begin and end? Ben Jonson was an early modern playwright and poet, best known for his rowdy city comedies. Sejanus His Fall is one of Jonson’s more serious plays, printed in 1605. The play draws heavily on many classical writers to describe the fall of the real Roman soldier, Lucius Aelius Sejanus (20BC–31AD).
It’s impossible to ignore Jonson’s extensive historical borrowing, because the margins of Sejanus are littered with citations of Latin and Greek texts. Sometimes these marginalia threaten to overwhelm the English play text entirely. They show Jonson as a learned playwright, well-versed in classical literature. The citations assert that the play’s characters and events are based on ‘true’ histories, rather than the product of Jonson’s imagination.
Sejanus’ typeface hammers home this authentic historical aesthetic. In the fifth act of the play, Sejanus is called to the Senate and condemned for treason. The summons is presented in upper case type which mimics carved Roman inscriptions (see Figure 1). Sejanus uses multiple techniques to assert its relationship to the past because Jonson needed to avoid claims that his play was a contemporary political critique. Those techniques rely on the play’s materiality as a printed text, over and above its role as a proxy of a theatrical performance.

Figure 1. Ben Jonson, Sejanus His Fall (1605). Image courtesy of St John’s College, Cambridge, Gg.6.42(5), sig. L4v–Mr.

But another aspect of Sejanus’ materiality – its paper – opens up a different chronological mode. Of the thirty-one locatable extant copies, at least twenty are printed on paper made, unusually for this period, in England. So unusual was English paper that we can pinpoint precisely where these sheets were made: a paper mill in Kent owned by John Spilman. This mill was honoured by a visit from James I in 1605, and the watermarks of Sejanus proudly bear the King’s initials. The paper of Sejanus does important political work by performing royal approval for Jonson and his play. The watermarks catapult this play back into its seventeenth-century present. Even as classical texts echo in the mise-en-page of the 1605 text, the paper of this quarto is a reminder of the urgency of writing into one’s own moment: of the messy beginnings of literary texts in paper mills, and the collision of timelines intermeshed in textual surfaces.

For more on the paper, including images of the Spilman watermarks, see Thomas Calhoun and Thomas L. Gravell, ‘Paper and Printing in Ben Jonson’s “Sejanus” (1605)’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 87:1 (1993) pp. 13-64.; and for a recent discussion of Spilman, Alexandra Halasz, ‘Strange food, paper’, Early Modern Literary Studies 20:1 (2018), pp. 1-21.