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How Ben Jonson Berayed His Credit

Parnassus, Shakespeare’s “Purge,” and The War of the Theatres

Preprint. Published in the Ben Jonson Journal, Volume 9/2002, pp. 249-255.

Scholars have long worried at the well-known passage in The Return to Parnassus, Part II, which suggests that Shakespeare took an active role in the war of the theatres. In that passage the characters Burbage and Kempe are getting ready to audition the itinerant and indigent university graduates, Philomusus and Studioso (who are reduced to such, before their ensuing decline into wandering fiddlers, then shepherds), and Kempe comments on university playwrights:

Few of the university men pen plaies well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphoses, and talk too much of Proserpina & Juppiter. Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, I and Ben Jonson too. And that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit.[1]

The “pill” refers to a scene in Jonson’s Poetaster, the penultimate play in the poetomachia, in which Horace (Jonson) gives Crispinus (Marston) a pill that causes him to vomit up a whole lexicon of affected verbiage.[2] There has been much discussion of the purge that Shakespeare administered in reply. The two main theories are these:

•  Fleay, Small, Elton, and most recently Bednarz have argued that the purge was administered in Troilus and Cressida—that Ajax (“a jakes”) is at least in part a sendup of Jonson.[3] Bednarz also finds parodies of Jonson—or at least his ideas—in As You Like It and Twelfth Night.

•  Various have averred that that the purge was actually in Dekker’s Satiro-mastix, which was played by the Chamberlain’s Men, and that the Parnassus author simply confuted Shakespeare with his company.[4]

Wherever the purge was administered, nobody, I believe, has explained how that purge made Jonson “beray his credit” (foul his own reputation). Even Bednarz, whose analysis is so often so cogent, shies away from this question with an odd miswording of the situation. He speaks of “Shakespeare, who berayed his [Jonson’s] ‘credit’ in Troilus and Cressida.[5] But the point is that Jonson berayed his own credit. How did he do that?

That answer is perhaps fairly simple, and most easily explained using a condensed late-poetomachian chronology.[6]


Spring. Dekker “hired” to write Satiro-mastix.

Spring. Jonson hears of it and writes Poetaster.

Spring/Summer. Poetaster played by Children of the Chapel at Blackfriars.

Late Spring/Early Fall. Satiro-mastix played by Paul’s Boys at whatever location they performed.[7]

Early Fall. Satiro-mastix played by the Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe, with additional epilogue.[8] If the Parnassus author was in London for one of these Globe performances, it was probably before the beginning of Michaelmas term on October 9/10.

Nov. 11. Satiro-mastix entered in Stationers Register, “Uppon condicion that yt be lycensed to be printed.”

Nov./Dec. Poetaster played with the “Apologetical Dialogue” (once only, then suppressed).[9] If the Parnassus author saw this, it was presumably after the end of Michaelmas term on Nov. 28/29. Or he might have just heard report of it, given the ruckus it caused (discussed below).

Dec. 21. Poetaster entered in Stationers Register. (In reply to the imminent publication of Satiro-mastix?)

Dec. II Return completed for presentation at New Year’s.[10]


Poetaster published in quarto, without the Apologetical Dialogue, but with “To the Reader” appended explaining the absence of that dialogue (not to be confused with “To the Reader” that prefaces the Apologetical Dialogue in the 1616 folio).[11]

Satiro-mastix published in quarto (the only edition) with “To the World” and “Ad Lectorum” prepended.[12]


Poetaster published in Jonson’s folio of his works. Prefaced by a dedication to Richard Martin, and with the Apologetical Dialogue, which is itself prefaced by a new “To the Reader” from which our name for the dialogue arises.

Given this chronology, it seems likely that it was Jonson’s Apologetical Dialogue that berayed his credit. The dialogue is an extended exercise in sour grapes, flat denial of responsibility, misrepresentation, and further raillery. And it was not well received—certainly by the Dekker/Marston/Chamberlain’s camp (as evidenced by Dekker’s response in “To the World”), and neither by the authorities. It was supressed after its first playing, and Jonson was brought to the law, presumably by the kind of official action that was so often taken in response to scurrilous speech on stage. (An obvious example is Jonson’s imprisonment and Nashe’s flight as a result of their involvement in Isle of Dogs in 1597.)

Jonson’s “To the Reader” in the 1616 folio states that the Apologetical Dialogue “was only once spoken upon the stage.”[13] In the 1602 quarto, “To the Reader” says, “Here...was meant to thee an Apology from the Author, with his reasons for the publishing of this booke: but (since he is no lesse restrain’d, then thou depriv’d of it, by Authoritie)...”[14] The dedication to Richard Martin in the 1616 Folio suggests that Martin helped Jonson out of legal difficulties that resulted from the Dialogue: “...this peece...for whose innocence, as for the Authors, you were once a noble and timely undertaker, to the greatest Justice of this kindome.... posteritie to owe the reading of that...to your name; which so much ignorance, and malice of the times, then conspir’d to have supprest.”[15] Poetaster wasn’t supressed—it was published almost immediately—so he must be referring to the Apologetical Dialogue.

“To the World,” prefacing Satiro-mastix, also comments on these legal difficulties: “Horace hal’d his Poetasters to the barre [referring to a scene in Poetaster], the Poetasters untruss’d Horace [in Satiro-mastix]: how worthily eyther, or how wrongfully, (World) leave it to the jurie.... if before Apollo himselfe...an inquisition should be taken touching this..., it would be found on the Poetasters [Dekker and Marston’s] side se defendendo [by self defense]. Notwithstanding, the Doctors thinke otherwise.”[16] “Doctors” apparently refers to learned types (technically it would denote advanced degree holders)—university wits who would tend to take Jonson’s part in the fray against common players. Dekker describes how two of these fellows took him to task.

The dialogue might not have been suppressed just because of its combative tone; it doesn’t name names (the cardinal sin), and it’s no more bitter than the poetomachia that it comments upon. It’s possible that the suppression came because Jonson took the role of “Author” in presenting that dialogue.

In the 1602 quarto’s “To the Reader,” explaining the absence of the Apologetical Dialogue, Jonson says, “thinke charitably of what thou has read, till thou maist heare him speake what hee hath written.” Jonson represented himself in his own works multiple times—as Asper in Every Man Out, Criticus/Crites (Q/F) in Cynthia’s Revels, and Horace in Poetaster. This is the only instance in which the character is “Author.” And that character appears in a dialogue-cum-epilogue which sits outside the main dramatic “frame” (both in terms of dramatic space and—given its later composition and presentation—chronological space). Jonson’s explicit personation on stage, even though he was impersonating himself, was perhaps the spur for legal action.

The “Epilogus” to Satiro-mastix, presented at the Globe, is also revealing (and amusing) in this context. It incites the audience to applaud rather than hiss the play, further encouraging the War. Tucca says: “Are you adviz’d what you doe when you hisse? you blowe away Horaces revenge, but if you set your hands and seales to this, Horace will write against it, and you may have more sport. He shall not loose his labour, he shall not turne his blanke verses into wast paper. No, my poetasters will not laugh at him, but will untrusse him agen, and agen, and agen.”[17] It seems to have worked; Jonson provided more sport in his Apologetical Dialogue, and in the legal difficulties that ensued. It’s those difficulties that the Parnassus author made sport of.

So, putting aside the earlier skirmishes in the War, we can say that: 1. Jonson attacked the Chamberlains’ Men in Poetaster (Jonson acknowledges nearly as much in the Apologetical Dialogue: “Now for the Players, it is true, I tax’d ’hem,”)[18] 2. They purged him in reply with Satiro-mastix (and perhaps in one or more of Shakespeare’s plays), and goaded him in the epilogue. 3. Jonson shot back with with his Apologetical Dialogue. That dialogue, which got him in trouble with the law, is how he “berayed his credit.”


[1].    Anonymous. Return from Parnassus, Part II, ll. 1767–1773. From The Three Parnassus Plays (1598–1601), ed. Leishman, J. B. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1949.

[2].    Jonson, Ben. Poëtaster Or His Arraignement, v.iii.498–564. In Poetaster By Ben Jonson and Satiromastix By Thomas Dekker, ed. Penniman, Josiah H., Boston: D. C. Heath, 1913.

[3].    Fleay, F. G. A Chronicle History of the Life and Work of William Shakespeare. London: 1886, p. 45-46, and A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642. 2 vols. London: 1891, 1:356-38 and 2:188-190; Small, R. A. The Stage-Quarrel Between Ben Jonson and the So-Called Poetasters. Breslau: 1899; Elton, William, “Shakespeare’s Portrait of Ajax in Troilus and Cressida,PMLA 62:2 part 1 (June, 1948), 744–48; Bednarz, James P., Shakespeare and the poets’ war, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001, 45–52, 257–264.

[4].    Examples include: Chambers, E.S. 4:40; Honan, P. Shakespeare: A Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 278; Shelling, F. E. The complete plays of Ben Jonson, London: J.M. Dent and New York: E.P. Dutton, 1910, p. 6 (available online at bibliomania.com/0/6/238/1090/13807/6/frameset.html).

[5].    Bednarz, Poets’ War, p. 224.

[6].    The bulk of this chronology is based on Chambers (primarily E.S. 3:366). It is supported in all respects by Bednarz’s graphical timeline and “Chronological Appendix” (Poets’ War, 9, 265–276).

[7].    Chambers, E.S., 2:9–23.

[8].    Dekker, Thomas. Satiro-mastix. or The untrussing of the Humorous Poet. In Poetaster By Ben Jonson and Satiromastix By Thomas Dekker, ed. Penniman, Josiah H., Boston: D. C. Heath, 1913, pp. 394–95. This epilogue’s references to groundlings in the pit, to gentle-folkes in the galleries, and to “two pence a peice” and “two penny tenants” all tell us that we’re hearing an epilogue presented at the Globe. This in turn tells us that the published text came from that source, and that it was revised—at least by adding this epilogue—after it was played by the boys.

[9].    Chambers (E.S. iii 366) on the Apologetical Dialogue: “Probably it was spoken in December between the two S. R. entries.”

[10].  For the dating of II Return, see Chambers, E. K. Elizabethan Stage iv 38; Leishman, 24-26; and Arber, ed. Return from Parnassus, Westminster: Constable, 1895, p. x. (Arber’s key reasoning is given in Leishman, p. 291, note to lines 1065-72.)

[11]Poetaster was apparently published before Satiro-mastix, as Satiro-mastix’s prefatory “To the World” says “neyther should this ghost of Tucca have walkt up and down Poules Church-yard [i.e., been published], but that hee was raize’d up (in print) by new exorcismes.” He was presumably raised up in print in Poetaster. As with the performance, Jonson preempted his rivals, who had registered their work before him, and answered them proleptically in print, as he had on stage.

[12].  Both Poetaster and Satiro-mastix were published with their authors’ consent and involvement. This is evidenced in the 1602 quarto of Poetaster by Jonson’s concluding “To the Reader.” The single 1602 edition of Satiro-mastix opens with two items written for publication: the prefatory “To the World, and “Ad Lectorum,” a list of author’s corrections or errata, which says that “In steed of the trumpets sounding thrice,” it is “for him that will read.” (Penniman, p. 270.)