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Harington, Sir John (1560–1612) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Deserved or not, John Harington has always had the reputation of Elizabethan bad boy, as John Skelton* was known in the early Tudor era. Certainly, some of his behavior was refreshingly adolescent. Fortunately for Harington, his father was always in Princess and Queen Elizabeth’s* good favor. The elder John Harington was imprisoned in the Tower in 1554, reportedly for nothing more than showing kindness to Elizabeth. The connection to Elizabeth was strengthened by Harington’s marriage to her maid Isabelle Markham. Their son John was born in the summer of 1560, and Queen Elizabeth became his godmother. Though she did not give him steady employment at court, Elizabeth always forgave her godson for his quirky antics, one of which led to his famous translation of Ariosto’s* Orlando Furioso .

Harington was educated at Eton and Cambridge. He enrolled in the law course at Lincoln’s Inn after receiving his master’s degree in 1581 but left the inn when he came into his inheritance upon his father’s death in July 1582. Harington began by “Englishing” the twenty-eighth canto of Ariosto’s masterpiece, which tells the story of a cuckolded knight named Jocundo, who concludes after his wanderings that women are by nature lascivious and unfaithful. This translation circulated at court. When the verses came to the notice of Elizabeth, she reprimanded him for rendering such an immoral portion of the work and apparently ordered him to translate the rest. Harington published the complete English Orlando Furioso in 1591.

Harington added to his reputation as a rebellious prankster when he wrote his treatise on a revolutionary new privy design entitled, A New Discourse on a Stale subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax , published in 1596. The Eras-mian* spirit is also present in Harington’s many epigrams, which were collected and published after his death. In addition to writing satire, Harington recorded his observations at historically interesting moments. For instance, he was with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, during his infamous expedition in Ireland and was among those Essex inadvisedly knighted at Dublin in July 1599. Harington pleased Elizabeth by giving her the journal he had kept of Essex’s Irish escapade.

Other of Harington’s astute historical observations include remarks on the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s life written at court in 1602; his “Tract on the Succession to the Crown,” written in 1602 in support of James’* claim to the throne; his letter of application for the post of chancellor of Ireland written in 1605; and his notes appendixed to his copy of Bishop Godwin’s De Praesulibus Angliae , given to Prince Henry. Between 1605 and his death in 1612, Harington set himself the task of instructing Prince Henry, James’ heir, although he had no official charge. Note that over 100 years before, Skelton was tutor to the previous royal Henry. His association with the crown prince apparently gave Harington the impetus to translate the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid , containing the trip to Hades and the prophecy with commentary for Henry’s edification. Harington grew ill in May 1612 and died in November of the same year, only weeks before Prince Henry’s own untimely death.


Harington’s “Englished” Orlando Furioso enjoyed wide popularity. There are many exerpts from it in Robert Allot’s England’s Parnassus , and Beaumont* complimented the work. A second edition was published in 1607, and Harington’s remained the only complete English translation of Orlando until 1755. Of his Metamorphosis of Ajax , Thomas Nashe* wrote that he couldn’t understand “what should move him to” write it “except he [m]eant to bid a turd in all gentle readers’ teeth” (Craig, 71). Apparently, Nashe later came to appreciate the Metamorphosis , complimenting Harington as one who “disportes himself very schollarly and wittilie” (Craig, 81). Although a pun on “a jakes” and “Ajax” appears in Shakespeare’s* Love’s Labour’s Lost before Metamorphosis was published, Harington’s work likely contributed to the popularity of the epithet. Shakespeare then took up the pun extensively in Troilus and Cressida . Perhaps The Metaphorphosis , as D. H. Craig writes, put the “taint of the privy” on Harington’s own literary career (82). Several modern scholars, however, including T.G.A. Nelsen and John Leland, assert that the work has allegorical import. They argue that it contains a mystic current of religious commentary. Indeed, if it is true that the praise of the privy stuck with Harington more than his translation of Ariosto’s masterpiece, we need only recall the wit with which Harington implies gravity and jest to esteem him highly.


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