From the First Folio of 1623 To the memory of my Beloved

The Author: Mr. William Shakespeare:

And what he hath left us

Ben Jonson

together with his introductory poem

to the Droeshout engraving

Edited and annotated by John Bremer

Jonson on Shakespeare in the First Folio 1623

This monograph has four parts. Part One is the Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare, printed in the First Folio of 1623. Part Two is devoted to the short ten-line poem of Ben Jonson, drawing attention to the engraving and its ‘Figure’, and briefly discussed. Part Three is the eighty-line poem of Jonson eulogizing and celebrating his ‘Beloved’, and Part Four is the same poem, slightly modernized and copiously annotated.

Part One: The Droeshout Engraving

Part Two: Brief Prelude

 

According to the register of the parish church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-on-Avon, William Shakespeare was baptized on Wednesday, April 26, 1564. Since children were baptized soon after birth it has been assumed that he was born on April 23, chosen, no doubt, because it was an auspicious day, the festival of St. George, the patron saint of England. A true countryman, he died, after several successful years in London, in Stratford on his assumed birthday in 1616 and was buried in Trinity Church. In 1662 a Vicar of Stratford, John Ward, told the following legend: ‘Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and itt seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a feavour there contracted.’

Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was born at Hartshill in Warwickshire, some 20 miles from Stratford, and wrote many plays for the London theaters. He often visited Clifford Chambers, less than a mile from Stratford, and was once cured of a fever by Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Dr John Hall. He was clearly a friend of Shakespeare’s and wrote of him in 1627:

And be it said of thee,

Shakespeare, thou hadst as smooth a Comicke vaine,

Fitting the socke, and in thy naturall braine,

As strong conception, and as Cleere a rage,

As any one that trafiqu’d with the stage.

That he drank with Jonson and Shakespeare is not surprising.

Ben Jonson was a town man, born in Westminster, in London, on June 11, 1572 and died there on August 6, 1637. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Shakespeare left Stratford, possibly in 1587, made his way to London, and by 1590 his first play, Comedy of Errors, was performed, followed the next year by Two Gentlemen of Verona. He continued to write plays until 1611 (The Tempest) and 1613 (Henry VIII), and then retired to Stratford. Initially, he was better known as a poet than as a dramatist, having made his name first with Venus and Adonis (1592-3), with 199 verses, followed by The Rape of Lucrece (1593-4), with 265 verses.

Slightly later but in the same period, Ben Jonson was writing plays and masques, from 1600 (Every Man Out of His Humour) to at least 1631 (The New Inn).

As may be surmised, Shakespeare and Jonson knew each other. They acted in each other’s plays, many of which were staged by Shakespeare’s own company, the King’s Men; they referred or alluded to each other in their plays, often teasingly, and they became close friends. They were different, but this seems not to have limited their friendship. Jonson was a very learned man (although he had not been to university) and was generally regarded as an excellent classical scholar; Shakespeare knew many of the classics but whether in the original or in Elizabethan translations is unclear. It seems certain, however, that he and Jonson could converse and argue in Latin.

Two stories are sufficient.

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) wrote the Worthies of England while some of the contemporaries of Shakespeare and Jonson were still alive and he recorded their sayings. There were, apparently, frequent meetings of a famous group—Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Donne, and others at the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street, just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—during which the intellectual sparks would fly. Fuller, in his Worthies, reports of Shakespeare:

 

Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Johnson, which

two I behold like a Spanish great Gallion, and an English man of

War; Master Johnson (like the former) was built far higher in

Learning; Solid, but Slow in his performances. Shake-spear, with

the English man of War, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could

turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds, by

the quickness of his Wit and Invention.

Although this was a century after the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, its tactics were well-remembered—or, at least, its legends were.

The other story is connected with the grant of a coat of arms (and the status of ‘gentleman’) to John Shakespeare (father of William) in 1596, probably at the urging of William who would inherit the social rank of gentleman. In spite of some opposition, the grant was made, the arms being a lance (i.e. spear) and a falcon shaking a spear (everyone recognizing the play on words) and the motto Non sanz droict—medieval French for ‘Not without right’. Heraldically, the description read ‘Gould on a Bend Sables, a Speare of the first, the point steeled proper . . .’ It appears that Jonson regarded this as social climbing and teased his friend in Every Man out of His Humour (1599) by having one Sogliardo (a buffoon) describe his newly acquired coat of arms as ‘On a chief argent, a boar’s head proper’, only to have a boastful knight suggest as a motto Not without mustard. Furthermore, in his 1601 play, Poetaster, Jonson sneers at common players who aspire to heraldic distinctions: ‘They forget they are i’ the statute, the Rascals, they are blazond there . . . they and their Pedigrees: they neede no other Heralds I wisse.’ Players—actors—were legally defined as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ by a famous statute of 1572, and, as ‘masterless men’, were imprisoned unless they had the protection of a noble or royal patron, that is, put themselves under a ‘master’.

The learned Jonson published his collected writings in 1616, the first dramatist to do so. It was derided as an act of vanity by many who believed, with John Marston, a contemporary playwright, that ‘Comedies are writ to be spoken, not read’. Prior to this, plays of Jonson, Shakespeare, or any other writer, were often published in cheap quarto editions but to be read not only by the public but also by competing theatres. There was no copyright as we know it, and whoever registered a publication at Stationer’s Hall—usually the printer—was the holder of the copyright. The author had no claim to ownership.

Jonson’s audacious act, however, had consequences, one of which was to begin the recognition of plays as a branch of literature. Another consequence was that, after Shakespeare’s death, a group of friends, headed by John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends of Shakespeare and fellow-actors and part-owners in the King’s Company, and no doubt urged by Jonson, published a collection of thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays ‘according to their True Originall Copies’.

Ben Jonson contributed two poems to this publication, now known as The First Folio, the collected works of Shakespeare. The first and shorter poem of only eight lines drew attention to the specially commissioned engraving on copper of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, a Flemish engraver who lived in London. Unfortunately, there are two Martin Droeshouts, one, known as the Younger, was born in 1601, and the other, his uncle, the Elder, born in the 1560s and dying around 1642.

The engraving is signed ‘Martin Droeshout’ and obviously must have been executed prior to 1623, but by which of the two cannot be determined. Shakespeare’s friends must surely have chosen the best engraver they could find which suggests the Elder Droeshout. But it is only a suggestion.

The other question—which is more important—is whether the engraving is, in fact, a likeness of the Bard. It must be so, simply because it was accepted by the editors, by Jonson, and by the two noblemen to whom the volume was dedicated, two brothers, William Earl of Pembroke and Philip Earl of Montgomery. How good a likeness we cannot say, but it must have been a passable likeness.

An engraving would not be made from life, but from a paining or, preferably, a line drawing, but what Droeshout actually copied from is unknown.

A cursory glance at the Folio reproduction suggest that the engraving of the face and head (and possibly the starched ruff) was done separately from the body which is out of both perspective and proportion. No matter; it is the face that is important. This is what Jonson wrote:

This Figure, that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;

Wherein the Graver had a strife

With Nature, to out-do the life:

O, could he but have drawn his wit

As well in brass, as he hath hit

His face; the Print would then surpass

All, that was ever writ in brass.

But, since he cannot, Reader, look

Not on his Picture, but his Book.

Jonson has no doubt about the likeness and thinks that the (en)Graver ‘hath hit His face’ well. The poem is a simple piece, with no bravura, showing the affection and respect that Jonson had for ‘gentle Shakespeare’. Jonson would surely have insisted on seeing the engraving before writing his poem and, careful scholar that he was, he only mentioned the likeness of ‘his face’, not the whole engraving. The poem begins with ‘This Figure’ but only identifies its origins, as it were, ‘for gentle Shakespeare cut’, and continues ‘Wherein . . .’ with no assertion of likeness. That is reserved for ‘His face’.

We, as readers, are invited to contemplate the following proportion:

the engraved picture is to the poet’s face as his ‘Book’ is to his ‘wit’

If the engraver could have depicted ‘his wit’—Shakespeare’s virtues related to playwriting—it would have surpassed all ‘that was ever writ in brass’. But since he could not do that, we must turn to the writings for the ‘picture’ or ‘engraving’ or ‘embodiment’ of his wit. We should ‘look on his Book’.

 

Part Three: Ben Jonson’s poem

To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author,

Mr. William Shakespeare:

And what he hath left us

To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name,

Am I thus ample to thy Booke, and Fame:

While I confesse thy writings to be such,

As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much.

‘Tis true, and all mens suffrage. But these wayes

Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise:

For seeliest Ignorance on these may light,

Which, when it sounds at best, but eccho’s right;

Or blinde Affection, which doth ne’re advance

The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance; 10

Or crafty Malice, might pretend this praise,

And thinke to ruine, where it seem’d to raise.

These are as some infamous Baud, or Whore,

Should praise a Matron. What could hurt her more?

But thou art proofe against them, and indeed

Above th’ill fortune of them, or the need.

I therefore will begin. Soule of the Age!

The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!

My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by

Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye 20

A little further, to make thee a roome:

Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,

And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

That I not mixe thee so, my braine excuses;

I meane with great, but disproportion’d Muses:

For, if I thought my judgement were of yeeres,

I should commit thee surely with thy peeres,

And tell, how farre thou didst our Lily out-shine,

Or sporting Kid, or Marlowes mighty line. 30

And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,

From thence to honour thee, I would not seeke

For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschilus,

Euripides, and Sophocles to us,

Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,

And shake a Stage: Or, when thy Sockes were on,

Leave thee alone, for the comparison

Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughtie Rome

Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. 40

 

Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,

To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.

He was not of an age, but for all time!

And all the Muses still were in their prime,

When like Apollo he came forth to warme

Our eares, or like a Mercury to charme!

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,

And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines!

Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,

As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit. 50

The merry Greeke, tart Aristophanes,

Neat Terrence, witty Plautus, now not please;

But antiquated, and deserted lye

As they were not of Natures family.

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,

My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part

For though the Poets matter, Nature be,

His Art doth give the fashion. And, that he,

Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat 60

Upon the Muses anvile: turne the same,

(And himselfe with it) that he thinkes to frame;

Or for the lawrell, he may gaine a scorne,

For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne.

And such wert thou. Looke how the fathers face

Lives in his issue, even so, the race

Of Shakespeares minde, and manners brightly shines

In his well torned, and true-filed lines:

In each of which, he seemes to shake a Lance,

As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance. 70

Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appeare,

And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James!

But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere

Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there!

Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets, and with rage,

Or influence, chide, or cheere the drooping Stage;

Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night,
And despaires day, but for thy Volumes light. 80

 

Part Four: A slightly modernized and annotated version

of the same Ben Jonson poem.

To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author,

Mr. William Shakespeare:

And what he hath left us

Written by Jonson for the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, 1623. Jonson was an outspoken and honest man and there is no reason to suppose that this dedication was not sincere. Although rivals as playwrights, they were friends and acted in each other’s plays. This dedication has two parts. One part is to the memory of Shakespeare the man, and the second is an appraisal of his writings, of “what he hath left us”.

To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name,

Am I thus ample to thy Book, and Fame:

Jonson, with perhaps unfamiliar humility, points out that his own abilities and reputation are sufficient (=ample) for him to praise Shakespeare, but are not so great that they will produce envy of Shakespeare in others for being praised by a great man—or a man greater than Jonson. ‘thy Book’ is the Folio volume itself. Jonson had published his own writings—plays, poems,—in 1616 which had never been done before by any poet or playwright; ‘collected works’ might have seemed presumptuous at that time but it established plays as a branch of literature. And here Jonson gives Shakespeare the honorific title of “Author”—and not “player”, or “playwright”, or “poet”.

While I confess thy writings to be such,

As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much.

That is, neither earthly nor heavenly critics can say enough in commendation.

‘Tis true, and all men’s suffrage. But these ways

It is not possible to over-praise Shakespeare ;‘suffrage’—opinion (expressed usually in a vote).

Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise:

But Jonson is not going to praise by means of public opinion, which, he goes on to point out, may be due to ignorance (producing words of praise, but which are empty of meaning, as echoes), or ‘blind affection’—enthusiastic but ungrounded support.

For seeliest Ignorance on these may light,

Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right;

Or blind Affection, which doth ne’er advance

The truth, but gropes, and urges all by chance; 10

Or crafty Malice, might pretend this praise,

And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.

These are as some infamous Bawd, or Whore,

Should praise a Matron. What could hurt her more?

Some who praised S. might deliberately do it in such a way that it would disparage S. And there are some, who, because of their abject inferiority, would discredit S. simply by praising him. Who would want to be praised by such? The word ‘seeliest’ is derived from ‘seal’ or ‘seel’, meaning ‘close’, especially the eyes; the suggestion is that the eyes are as tightly sealed as possible, and that Ignorance is totally blind. Since ‘blind’ is used two lines later in relation to Affection it would have been repetitious had it been used in relation to Ignorance. One of them would have to go. The verb ‘light’ is, of course, reminiscent of sight—so that even if Ignorance is ‘seeliest’ and cannot see, it may hit accidentally (‘by chance’) on the words which may sound right (as echoes), but are devoid of meaning.

But thou art proof against them, and indeed

Above th’ill fortune of them, or the need.

S. is stronger than such and cannot be harmed by them; he is superior to their abject state, and, in any case, has no need of their praise. The word ‘proof’ means immune—but it has two aspects; one, (in the past), is that the immunity has been proven by action, the other (in the future) is that, if tried again, its immunity will hold. To call something ‘waterproof’ does not say that it has been tested by water, but that, if it were tested, it would keep the water out. S. has both aspects. It would be ‘ill fortune’ to be praised by inferiors.

I therefore will begin. Soul of the Age!

Jonson, having dismissed what he is not going to use as a basis for praise, now declares (implicitly) that he will ground his praise properly. He transcends the previously mentioned origins and modes of praise, with their petty and mundane style, and appeals to the spiritual being (‘soul’) of his time—a universal expression of the meaning of human life, embodied in S.

The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!

My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by

Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie 20

A little further, to make thee a room:

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) and Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) were all buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey in the area which came to be known as Poets’ Corner. When Jonson wrote this eulogy, Shakespeare had already been buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon, but in any case Jonson was not going to give him a grave besides the mentioned poets because he was superior to them—he was not going to make them lie “a little further” so he could be beside them, as if they were his equal. A number of poets and other writers who have been interred elsewhere, nevertheless have monuments in Poets’ Corner; Shakespeare had to wait until 1740 for his.

Thou art a Monument, without a tomb,

And art alive still, while thy Book doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

Since Shakespeare is not really dead but still living, in his Book (i.e., the First Folio itself), which serves as his monument, he has no need for a tomb. But the Book itself is not enough; it needs readers—those having ‘wits’ and who are generous and discriminating enough to accord praise

That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses;

I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses:

I would not “mix thee so”, that is, I would not give you a grave with them, would not mix you up, my Shakespeare, with them because you are superior, even though they were great poets in themselves, but with “disproportion’d Muses”, that is, with Muses that do not compare with yours.

Jonson’s “brain excuses” that is, he has reasons for not mixing Shakespeare with the others.

For, if I thought my judgement were of years,

I should commit thee surely with thy peers,

“peers” has to be taken, not literally (where it would mean equals, the very thing that Jonson is denying) but as in the House of Peers (or Lords) where the only equality is that the members sit together in the House of Lords. ‘commit’means ‘place’ but more specifically ‘bury’.

And tell, how far thou didst our Lily out-shine,

Or sporting Kid, or Marlowe’s mighty line. 30

And though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,

There was a continuing animosity between the playwrights and poets who were university trained (the University Wits, as they were called) and those who were not. Neither Jonson nor Shakespeare were university educated, but Jonson studied the classical authors and was well- versed in the classical languages. His veneration for and dedication to the classics made him a formidable adversary but also a heavy-handed writer.

Shakespeare from the age of five, probably attended (?) the Grammar School in Stratford where he would have studied Latin and the Roman authors but at a schoolboy level. However, boys in country grammar schools were expected “to speak Latin purely and readily” and the first book they studied was Lily’s Latin Grammar, originally written in 1513, revised, authorized by Henry VIII about 1540, and was then used for more than two hundred year (not without complaints, even in the House of Lords). We do not know for certain which Latin texts Shakespeare studied, but typically Cato (Disticha moralia), Corderius (Dialogues), followed by Aesop’s Fables (in Greek and/or Latin), and the Bucolica of Mantuanus were used. There are evident references to or borrowings from these works in many of his plays.

At the age of eight or nine, boys would begin the classic authors proper: Tully (as Cicero was often called), Ovid, and Virgil or Cicero, Cato, Terence, and Ovid. These would be studied for three years, and then the boys would progress to Horace, Plautus. Seneca, Livy, Pliny, Lucan, and Juvenal. Again, Shakespeare’s plays quote or refer to passages from these authors, so it is clear he knew them, but how well is not so clear. Shakespeare’s ‘small Latin’ may have been small in relation to Jonson’s own vast learning, but it was not small in relation to our modern standards. Greek would have begun after the above had been studied for three or more years, and, at Harrow, for example in 1590, the fourth year studied Demosthenes, Isocrates, Homer, Hesiod, Heliodorus, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The school day was long (from 6 or 7 a.m. until 5.30 or 6 p.m.) and much was expected. Shakespeare seems to have benefited from his education. It may be surmised that his intelligence, obviously of the highest order, was coupled with a prodigious memory, and these together with his gentleness, receptivity and his delight in words all contributed to his exquisite humanity, and thence to the plays.

It must be acknowledged, however, that we have no certain evidence that Shakespeare attended the Stratford Grammar School or the extent to which he studied the classical authors. The two most influential classical authors for him were Ovid and Plutarch. At least parts of Ovid had been translated during the 16th century (some by Marlowe), but the whole of the Metamorphoses had been Englished by Golding in 1567 and was available to Shakespeare; similarly, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives had been translated by Sir William North in 1579.

Another writer who appears to have influenced Shakespeare was his contemporary Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) whose Essays (1580) were translated into English by John Florio and published in 1603. Montaigne’s gentle, moderate, and urbane attitude was certainly consonant with Shakespeare’s, but his Essays were full of citations of the classical authors which were undoubtedly noted.

In 1598 Francis Meres, a scholar-clergyman, published a review of English Literature from the time of Chaucer. It had the title of Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, and after, referring to Shakespeare as “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” he says the following:

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy

and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among the

English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage . . .

From thence to honour thee, I would not seek

Jonson denies that his ‘judgement is of yeers’ by which we are to understand that it is not in relation to contemporaries, or of age. If it were, he would call forth Lyly, Kid (or Kyd), and Marlowe. John Lyly (1554-1606), perhaps the most popular dramatist of his time, wrote a novel Euphues using a brilliant, witty, highly affected style of language which became fashionable at court. In the 1580’s he turned to the theatre and wrote a number of plays (such as Campaspe and Endimion) with classical themes, all comedies and dealing with love. Although ‘brilliant’, Shakespeare out-shone him. Thomas Kid (1558-1594), whose drama The Spanish Tragedy was the most popular tragedy before Shakespeare came to London, was widely acclaimed. He also is believed to have written a Hamlet on which Shakespeare’s play was founded. Why he was designated as ‘sporting’ is unclear—but it might mean ‘immature’ for he died young—and it might suggest the sport of hunting; it is also possible that the pun is on Kid as in ‘kidding’ and it was the sense in which the poet was ‘sporting’—he liked to kid. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) changed English drama with his Tamburlaine (1587) and its “passion, power, and poetry”, and other plays such as Dr. Faustus. He abandoned the old stiff monotonous blank verse and created a new dramatic poetry—his “mighty line”.

Both Lyly and Marlowe were University Wits, Oxford and Cambridge respectively.

For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschilus,

Euripides, and Sophocles to us,

Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,

If I wanted to honor you, Jonson says, in this way (that is, by comparison with others) I would not use their names, but “call forth” the three great tragedians of ancient Athens—Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Jonson adds Paccuvius and Accius who are dramatists mentioned by Horace (65-8 B.C.E.); Paccuvius (also known as Pacuvius, 220-130 B.C.E.) was the most fashionable writer of tragedies, and Accius (better known as Atticus, 170-86 B.C.E.) who also wrote tragedies, forty-five of which are known by title, mainly on Greek themes. Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) praised both of them, but thought Paccuvius the greatest of all tragedians. ‘him of Cordoba’ is Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher and writer of tragedies (4 B.C.E to 65 C.E.). Incidentally, Jonson took his own motto ‘tamquam exploratur’ from Seneca.

To life again, to hear thy Buskin tread,

And shake a Stage: Or, when thy Socks were on,

Buskins (kothornos- kovqorno~) were the high-heeled boots worn by tragic actors in the classical drama; Sockes (Latin socci) were the low-heeled shoes of comedy. ‘Shake a stage’ is a punning reference to Shakespeare’s name: see line 69 where ‘shake a lance’ is closer to ‘shake-speare’.

Leave thee alone, for the comparison

Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome

Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. 40

Even if all these (and their successors) were called back to life to witness Shakespeare in tragedy or comedy, he stands alone, incomparable.

Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show,

To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.

Britain can claim superiority over all countries of Europe, for they all ‘owe homage’ to Shakespeare, the offspring of Britain. Obviously an appeal to national sentiment. ‘Scenes’ means theaters.

He was not of an age, but for all time!

And all the Muses still were in their prime,

When like Apollo he came forth to warm

Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!

Shakespeare belongs, not to the period of his life, but “for all time”. He is universal, belonging to mankind. Apollo, master of the nine Muses, confronted Hermes (or Mercury, as the Romans called him) with the theft of his cattle, but Hermes charmed him by the gift of the lyre which he had invented and made. The passage of time has not dimmed the inspiration and skill of the Muses, and Shakespeare, like Apollo, employed them—apparently as music, in the largest sense, of that which is heard, encompassing both our music and our words or language.

Nature herself was proud of his designs,

And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines!

Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,

As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit. 50

This is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s remark that the function of poetry is “to hold a mirror up to Nature”. Jonson asserts that Shakespeare has presented or described Nature so well, so richly and so appropriately, that she will not condescend to approve any other writer. Translated, this means that no other writer can equal Shakespeare.

The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,

Neat Terrence, witty Plautus, now not please;

But antiquated, and deserted lie

As they were not of Nature’s family.

Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.E.) was the great Athenian comic writer—producing laughter, but also sharp in his portrayal of both men and women. Terence (195-159 B.C.E.) was the great Roman writer of comedies who was praised by Cicero and Horace. The other early writer of comedies was Plautus (254-184 B.C.E.) to whom one hundred and thirty plays were attributed, although only twenty survive. Shakespeare adapted him in the Comedy of Errors and Jonson used him in many of his plays. But now the antique comedians are set on one side (”deserted”) as if they did not portray Nature in a realistic or believable fashion.

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,

My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part

For though the Poet’s matter, Nature be,

His Art doth give the fashion. And, that he,

Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat 60

Upon the Muses anvil: turn the same,

(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;

Or for the laurel, he may gain a scorn,

For a good Poet’s made, as well as born.

Although Shakespeare was generously endowed by Nature, he must be credited with “thy Art”, that is, with the knowledge and skills that he acquired for himself. While Nature is the subject or matter of the poet, the way in which she is expressed or described or exhibited, “the fashion”, or in the most general sense the style, is due to the poet and is to his credit. Whoever attempts to “write a living line”—as Shakespeare’s lines are living—must work hard at it (“sweat”) and write and re-write, edit and re-edit, (“strike the second heat”); only in this way can the poet express (“frame”) what he has in mind, his conception, or ‘conceit’. Without doing this, he may be laughed at (“scorn”) rather than gain the cherished laurel wreath of Apollo.

The last line calls to mind, obviously, the old rule, Poeta non fit, sed nascitur, The poet is not made, but born, but in reminding us of this it denies it. The good poet is BOTH made and born, according to Jonson, and this is clearly true of Shakespeare (as Jonson has just asserted and is about to re-assert—“And such wert thou”).

And such wert thou. Look how the father’s face

Lives in his issue, even so, the race

Of Shakespeare’s mind, and manners brightly shines

In his well turned, and true-filed lines:

In each of which, he seems to shake a Lance,

As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance. 70

This is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnets—starting with the first one:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby Beauty’s rose might never die . . .

Children resemble their parents, and the offspring of Shakespeare, his plays and poems, show both his intellect (“mind”) and his character (“manners”). The epithet that is repeatedly attached to Shakespeare is “gentle” which contained not only our modern meaning but also a sense of refinement, courtesy, grace, and all that is best. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England society was made up of two kinds—gentles and simples. In the theater the simples were the groundlings, the ordinary folk, while the gentles sat on the stage. Shakespeare is not above flattering his audience and in the famous Prologue to Henry V, the Chorus says

…But pardon gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object.

The audience was not made up solely of gentles, but it did no harm to address them as “gentles all”.

Shakespeare, of course, successfully renewed the application begun by his father, John, for a patent of gentility. This gave him the right to call himself “gentleman” and to display a coat of arms and motto, Non sans droict—Not without right. He was publicly teased by Jonson who in one of his plays has a yokel apply for gentility and to take as his motto “Not without mustard.”

Another aspect of the gentleness of Shakespeare is his calm and dispassionate portrayal of all kinds of human being in his various characters; he depicts them, reveals them, but makes no judgment about them. That is our business, not his. Henry Chettle, a publisher who had printed a remark by another player insulting Shakespeare, later apologized after meeting him, writing:

I am as sorry as if the originall fault had been my fault, because my

selfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civil than he exelent in the

qualitie he professes [that is, acting] : Besides divers of worship

have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty,

and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his Art

All these qualities show in “his well-turned and true-filed lines”. Jonson sees Shakespeare as battling—(“shake a lance”, an obvious pun)—on Ignorance, by which, from the context, we must understand not lack of knowledge but rather lack of gentility, a lack of good manners and fitness of things, in short, of crudity and roughness.

Jonson was not uncritical of Shakespeare but generously recognized that his poem for the Folio was not the place to comment. In his Discoveries (1630) he wrote:

I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that

in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not

told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justify mine own candour, (for I lov’d

the man, and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any.) He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave

notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flow’d with that facility, that sometime it

was necessary he should be stopp’d . . . His wit was in his own power; would the rule

of it had been so too. . . But he redeemed his vices, with his virtues. There was ever

more in him to be praised, than to be pardoned.

The word “blot” means to obliterate. Jonson seems to be saying that Shakespeare was carried away with his own fluency and that, had he taken the time to re-consider and edit his work, it would have been better. Apart from his fluency, Shakespeare was usually writing under constraints of time—a royal performance had been commanded, for example—and, since the text of the plays was not always or usually published, sometimes only years later, there was little opportunity for revisions. One example of Jonson’s criticisms was that in Julius Caesar (1599), Shakespeare, responding to the accusation “Caesar thou dost me wrong”, has Caesar reply “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause.” This, according to Jonson, was “ridiculous” and “could not escape laughter”. Sense may be made out of these words, but, in any case, in the Folio they were amended to read “Know, Caesar doth not wrong; nor without cause/ Will he be satisfied.” Shakespeare could make corrections, apparently.

Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appear,

And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James!

There are a number of rivers in England called ‘Avon’, the reason being that it is the old Celtic word for ‘river’ which had persisted after the Celts had been driven out. “Sweet Swan” is bitter- sweet since although the swan’s song was beautiful, according to tradition it only sang at the point of death. Jonson longs for the impossible re-appearance of Shakespeare. “upon the banks of Thames” refers to the productions in the royal palace of Whitehall, to the west of the City of London and on the north shore of the river, but also to the performances at The Globe Theater which was on the south bank and across from the center of London. The “flights” seem more appropriate to Shakespeare’s acting, but must also include the plays themselves, and the performance of his plays whether he was in them or not.

“Eliza” is Queen Elizabeth, of course, and “our James” is King James I, both monarchs having approved heartily of Shakespeare’s plays and performances. It is known, for example, that Love’s Labour Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor and probably many others were performed before the Queen; King Lear, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale and also many others were played before King James.

Shakespeare and his company of actors were known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men from 1594, under the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, but within two months of the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the new king, James, made them the King’s Servants, thus giving them royal patronage and the right to play not only at The Globe but anywhere else in his “realms and dominions”.

But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere

Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there!

In the fashion of the Greeks, Shakespeare (like his favorite Hercules) is elevated and made a star, indeed, a constellation there in the heavens. The constellation is that of Cygnus (Latin for swan).

Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage,

Or influence, chide, or cheer the drooping Stage;

Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night, 
And despairs day, but for thy Volume’s light. 80

Jonson implores Shakespeare to shine, true to his nature as a star, but connects the request with the condition of the current theatre—whether because of its actual languid and debilitated state (in which case Jonson is using the opportunity to criticize the contemporary theatre) or simply because the loss of Shakespeare has diminished its brilliance. Shakespeare is invited to chide (with rage) or cheer (with influence) the stage which has been darkened (‘like night’) and can only find hope in new productions of Shakespeare’s plays, all of which are contained in the First Folio!

So we start with “thy Booke” and end with “thy Volume”. A not inelegant reminder! But it also indicates the quantity of light, the amount of light that Shakespeare and his works shed.