How Ben Jonson Berayed His Credit
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:
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
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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.
Dekker “hired” to write Satiro-mastix.
Jonson hears of it and writes Poetaster.
Poetaster played by Children of the
Chapel at Blackfriars.
Spring/Early Fall. Satiro-mastix played
by Paul’s Boys at whatever location they performed.
Fall. Satiro-mastix played by the
Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe, with additional epilogue. If the Parnassus
author was in London for one of these Globe
performances, it was probably before the beginning of Michaelmas term on
11. Satiro-mastix entered in Stationers
Register, “Uppon condicion that yt be lycensed to be printed.”
Poetaster played with the “Apologetical Dialogue” (once only, then suppressed).
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).
21. Poetaster entered in Stationers
Register. (In reply to the imminent publication of Satiro-mastix?)
II Return completed for presentation at
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).
published in quarto (the only edition) with
“To the World” and “Ad Lectorum” prepended.
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
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
Jonson’s “To the Reader” in the 1616 folio states that the
Apologetical Dialogue “was only once spoken upon the stage.” 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)...”
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.” 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.”
“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
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.
“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.”
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
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,”) 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.”
Return from Parnassus, Part II, ll.
1767–1773. From The Three Parnassus Plays (1598–1601), ed. Leishman, J. B. London: Nicholson & Watson,
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.
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.
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).
Poets’ War, p. 224.
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).
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.
(E.S. iii 366) on the Apologetical
Dialogue: “Probably it was spoken in December between the two S. R. entries.”
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.)
. 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.
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.)