The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse by Ben Jonson and ‘Stoneware dish, Longquan kilns’ by Sarah Howe
Prickly and sharp-tongued, Ben Jonson is remembered for his city comedies about London, his observations on art and the value of poetry, his influence on a wide range of contemporary writers and poets, and the striking dramatic entertainments or ‘masques’ that he devised for the court of James I. This extract is from such an entertainment, but one which is particularly interesting not only because of its unusual theme, but also because it was rediscovered only relatively recently, in 1997.
In April 1609, Robert Cecil, Lord Treasurer for James I, commissioned Jonson to write the entertainment now known as The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse. The occasion was the opening of his New Exchange, essentially a high-end shopping centre, which was meant to rival and outdo London’s first great shopping arcade, the Royal Exchange, built in 1568 by the phenomenally wealthy Elizabethan merchant, Sir Thomas Gresham. A galleried, elegantly colonnaded, two-storied space, the New Exchange was deliberately situated outside the walls of the City of London, on the Strand. At its heyday, prosperous Londoners could browse through the stock of over a hundred shops on its premises, and buy everything from North American beaver hats, to Chinese porcelain. Cecil had invited the king and the queen, James I and his wife Anna of Denmark, to open the Exchange, and he wanted to make a suitably grand impression. Enter Jonson.
Jonson’s dramatic entertainment invites its spectators to enter what seems like a newly discovered land, but one that is usefully on their doorstep. The shop-boy’s speech has a familiar patter – the rhythm of which we can still hear in the borough markets of London – but both his list and the shopkeeper’s more genteel but no-less-extensive version, give us a sense of how global trade, into which England was belatedly entering, was already transforming life at home. China and Chinese porcelainware is at once exotic and familiar. The shopkeeper warns about counterfeit products that are flooding the market, and throws in all kinds of other objects, from perspective glasses and spectacles, to carpets and reusable notepaper. These are aspirational objects for a nation wishing to take its place on the global stage (the global British Empire would not become a reality for many years to come). Yet Jonson’s language is also a mad rush of acquisition that always threatens to dissolve into sheer noise and nonsense. What are we to make of that?
Writing over 400 years after Jonson, Sarah Howe finds inspiration in some of the pieces of Chinese porcelain from that period, along with research into English trade and cross-cultural encounters, to give those material objects a voice. Her stoneware dish is a witness to those global encounters, bearing the traces of French romance, Ottoman sultans, Chinese artisans, and the ‘deeper west’ of European trade. The bleeding of the ‘ruby drops’ of pomegranate juice across its surface is an echo of both the beauty and the implicit violence of that history. Her poem asks the question: if the ‘fine China stuffs’ on the shelves of the New Exchange could speak, what would they say? What memories would they carry about their creation and their fate, so enmeshed in the entangled world of global geopolitics and trade? Like her stoneware dish, what else around us survives of such encounters?
The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse
[The shop opens. Enter the SHOP BOY.]
What do you lack? What is’t you buy? Very fine China stuffs of all kinds and qualities? China chains, China bracelets, China scarves, China fans, China girdles, China knives, China boxes, China cabinets, caskets, umbrellas, sundials, hourglasses, looking-glasses, burning-glasses, concave glasses, triangular glasses, convex glasses, crystal globes, waxen pictures, ostrich eggs, birds of paradise, musk-cats, Indian mice, Indian rats, China dogs, and China cats? Flowers of silk, mosaic fishes? Waxen fruit and porcelain dishes? Very fine cages for birds, billiard balls, purses, pipes, rattles, basins, ewers, cups, cans, voiders, toothpicks, targets, falchions, beards of all ages, vizards, spectacles? Sir, what you lack?
[Enter the MASTER.]
Peace, sirrah! Do it more gently.
[To the audience] What lack you, nobilities? Please you to take a nearer view of these excellencies, examine but some parcel of the particulars, and run over the rest upon the full speed of your eye. A few shelves, somewhat thin, and rarely furnished, I confess! But if all the magazines of Europe afford the like, I will shrink this poor head into my shop and never more be seen above board. You have divers other China houses about the town, I know, and that have been honoured with the visitation of great persons no less than this but, alas, what ha’ they, what rarity can they produce? Feathers? Cockleshells? Wooden daggers? Trash? Dutch trenchers? A few of these dishes counterfeit? You’ll fairly give me credit now – not a piece of porcelain about this town but is most false and adulterate, except what you see on this shelf. These are right such as the Grand Signor eats in, I assure you; on my sincerity, you can put no poison in these, but they presently break or discolour, out of a natural disloyalty to man. These are made of the true earth, first contused in a mortar and then ground in a mill, after put into your lake or cistern, and then macerated till the hardness be conquered. Then take they the cream o’the top (as your housewife makes butter) and form it into what fashion they list and, while it is melling in the furnace, paint it with those figures and give it perpetuity of what colour they please. Some hold the matter is working fourscore or a hundred years ere it come to maturity in a confused mass, and is left by the grandsire or the great grandsire to the nephews at three descents as an immediate portion to make ’em rich. Here is a piece of it now, tralucent as amber and subtler than crystal. He had need ha’ no gout chilblains in his fingers that drinks out of this; ’tis for the hand of a king’s daughter or a queen of Egypt. Your great-fisted groom should sup out of a pipkin! Here’s a second rarity, a conceited saltcellar, an elephant with a castle on his back, where beside the art of the artificer in the whole dimensions, the spreading of the ear, winding the proboscis, mounting of the tusks, and architecture of the castle, do but observe his engine! Why an elephant more than any other creature? He might have made it a mule, a camel, or a dromedary, but the elephant, being the wisest beast, it was fit he should carry the salt from ’em all, for by salt is understood wisdom: sal sapit omnia. Then here’s a dog, a fine gentle delicate thing for the chamber, and no less close than cleanly. He will neither bark at you, bite you, nor bewray you, but with silence defend you and is an excellent emblem of friendship, according to the poet, ‘As faithful, wise, and valiant as a dog.’ Nor have you a less elegant moral in this cat. For, Look as your cat playeth with the mouse, The play of your cat is the death of your mouse. Oh, your Chinese! The only wise nation under the sun! They had the knowledge of all manner of arts and letters many thousand years before any of these parts could speak. Sir John Mandeville was the first that brought science from thence into our climate, and so dispensed it into Europe and in such hieroglyphics as these. Here be other mysteries, too. The statue of the Spring, as she was in paradise, innocent and lovely; a fan of the feathers of Juno’s bird, that were once the eyes of jealousy and now the servants and safeguards of beauty. I assure you, he that would study but the allegory of a China shop might stand worthily to be the rector of an academy. Old Bartholomew of the Propriety of Things and Pliny in English are nothing to it, nor the story of birds and beasts with the wooden pictures, nor the Peg, Meg, or Margaret of the philosophers. Here is a book now – it is but a little one you see, but there is in this book to tickle the best head of England and yet to keep his hair from turning grey, by a certain virtue in the scolopendra’s bone to expel sadness whereof this comb is made! I have other delicacies too, as cabinets that you can scarcely fathom yet weigh but eighteen ounces avoirdupois; voiders for your table that have the true recipe of the Turkey varnish; carpets wrought of paraquitos’ feathers; umbrellas made of the wing of the Indian butterfly; ventolas of flying fishes’ fins; hangings of the island of Cochin, which, being but a natural cobweb of that country, last longer than your gilded leather; paper made of the barks of trees and ink to carry dry in your pocket; and thousand such subtleties which you will think to have cheap now at the next return of the Hollanders’ fleet from the Indies. But, I assure you, my factors from Leghorn have advertised that Ward, the man of war (for that is now the honourable name for a pirate) hath taken their greatest hulk, and in their second, with a cross-bar shot, hath made such a spoil in the porcelain as it is thought they will come home very much dissolved. Therefore, as ye please, my commodities shall not beg to be sold. Higher be glasses too, that I had almost forgot but that my boy suppeditate. First, a triangular, which, laid thus, shows ye all manner of colours by refraction and instructs ye in the true natural cause of your rainbow. A convex that diminisheth forms and makes your lady look like the queen of fairies and your knight like your grand duke of pygmies. A concave that augments them. This glass would have made the great Dutchman look more like a Saracen than he did and was invented to help a lean face cut out of a cherrystone, or the despair of a beard on a barren chin. Then here’s a spectacle, an excellent pair of multiplying eyes, and were made at request of an old patriarch of usurers in town here, to see his money come home in and sit brooding over the heap. Your epicure buys yonder, too! But here’s my jewel: my perspective. I will read you with this glass the distinction of any man’s clothes ten, nay twenty mile off, the colour of his horse, cut or long tail, the form of his beard, the lines of his face.
This poem is one within a series written by Howe as Visiting Writer for the Travel, Transculturality and Identity in England (TIDE) project. Howe’s poems respond to objects held in the Chinese ceramics collection at the Liverpool World Museum, and form part of a new multimedia installation on permanent display in their World Galleries. It gives those Chinese objects of desire a memory and a voice, recording their journeys across the global trade-routes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and into our present-day collections.
Stoneware dish, Longquan kilns
Admiring this fine green glaze
might bring to mind
mountain pine, undertones
of grey and jade
ringed like tiny moons
along its darker side.
Or the travellers among you
of the desert aloe –
its pale spines
picked out by starlight
and by camels
in caravans, scenting hidden
veins of green
across the empty sand.
Once upon a time
dishes of my shade
were known as celadon –
a shepherd in a French romance
sporting grey-green ribbons.
Others say it’s a garbled echo
of Saladin, who
a thousand years ago dispatched
forty greenware pieces
fired in far China
as a gift for the Sultan of Syria.
Later the Ottomans
prized us at imperial banquets
since in the presence
of poison’s slightest
– it was said –
such vessels would begin to
or split apart with a terrible crack.
the pomegranates that bled
their ruby drops
across my face
the heads that rolled.
Thanks to my vigilance
outlived every single meal –
until the Silk Road’s
led me deeper west.
I, too, am a survivor.
Some themes and questions to consider
What do you think the function and effect is of listing as a device in each text?
Each of these texts uses narrative voice (e.g., point of view, tone, diction) in particular ways. How does the narrative voice in each piece affect the reader’s (or audience’s) experience of it? How do they compare?
Read the full text of The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online.
Read and listen to the whole ‘In the Chinese Ceramics Gallery’ series of poems in The White Review.
Find out more about Ben Jonson
Great Writers Inspire
A set of multimedia resources on Jonson at Oxford’s Great Writers Inspire.
Map of Early Modern London: The New Exchange
Explore the history of the New Exchange, which occasioned Jonson’s dramatic entertainment and locate it on early maps of London.
‘Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England’
Learn what terms like ‘stranger’, ‘merchant’, ‘native’ meant in Jonson’s England in this open-access article by Nandini Das, João Vicente Melo, Haig Z. Smith and Lauren Working.
Find out more about Sarah Howe
Writers Make Worlds profile
Find out more about Sarah Howe and her work in this Writers Make Worlds profile.
The TIDE Project
Read about the research that inspired the ‘In the Chinese Ceramics Gallery’ poems.
Watch an animated film-poem by Aindri C based on the poem ‘Stoneware dish, Longquan kilns’.
About the Contributor
Nandini Das is Professor of Early Modern English Literature and Culture at Oxford University and Fellow of Exeter College. She works on Renaissance literature and cultural history, with special emphasis on travel and cross-cultural encounters. She has written Robert Greene’s Planetomachia (2007), Renaissance Romance: The Transformation of English Prose Fiction, 1570-1620 (2011), and published widely on Renaissance literature. With Tim Youngs, she has co-edited The Cambridge History of Travel Writing (2019), and is editing the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Travel, Race and Identity in Early Modern England. She is volume editor of Elizabethan Levant Trade and South Asia in the Oxford edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, and as project director for the ‘Travel, Transculturality and Identity in Early Modern England’ (ERC-TIDE) project, she has co-written and edited Keywords of Identity and Lives in Transit, about early modern English concepts around identity and race and the lives they touched. Her next book on the first English embassy to India, Courting India, in which Jonson plays a bit-part, will be out with Bloomsbury in March 2023. Following her stint as a BBC New Generation Thinker, she regularly presents television and radio programmes.
You can watch her documentary about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travel accounts here or hear her talk about trade and the craze for collecting curiosities here, based on another BBC documentary, Wondrous Obsessions.