Ben Jonson is in the news today! On this day, 22nd September, in 1598, the English playwright Ben Jonson was charged with the killing of an actor in a duel. He was acquitted after reciting a Bible verse. He shot a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer at Hogsden (Hoxton) Fields in Shoreditch, London. He was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for murder. He pleaded guilty and was due to be executed but he claimed the right of clergy. This allowed him to be tried by an ecclesiastical court where he recited a Bible verse and was spared execution. His left thumb was branded and he had to forfeit all his possessions. He converted to Catholicism while in jail.
The reason for this short post is that Ben Jonson is attributed with the earliest printed reference of the proverb “Curiosity Killed the Cat”. Although the words he used were, “care will kill a cat” in his 1598 play, Every Man in His Humour, which was performed first by William Shakespeare:
Helter-skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.
Shakespeare himself used a similar quote in his 1599 play, Much Ado about Nothing.
What, courage man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
“Curiosity killed the cat” refers to the dangers of unnecessary investigation as a result of an overly curious nature. However, the original meaning is quite different. “Care killed the cat” means that worrying too much about something can damage your health.
It’s not clear when the saying evolved into the current version. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, it was first found in an Irish newspaper in 1868, “They say curiosity killed a cat once”.
P.S. Ben Jonson is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I – Encyclopædia Britannica.