What’s with Shakespeare’s ‘Poet’ in Julius Caesar?


Because I was having trouble focusing on my own poetry, I flipped open my complete Norton Shakespeare, to a page at random, and started reading. I had stumbled into Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2 — the argument between Brutus and Cassius — one of my favorite dramatic scenes. The swift give and take between the two characters is beautifully imagined (naturally enough, this is Shakespeare). At the very end of their argument, do you remember this part?

Cassius Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus: What’s the matter?
Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
[Enter Lucillius]
Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight.  etc.

Some readers might have a vague memory of this. Others, much more familiar with the play, may notice something or someone missing — the Poet. The Poet is a character who only appears once in the entire play, without any warning, without any preamble, and only between the lines shakespeareabove (which I removed).

Now, if you’re anything like me, the first thought that occurs to you is: Huh? Where did this utterly superfluous and arbitrary character come from? And why? What purpose does he serve? And where did he go? The scene works just fine without him. So I got to thinking about it and came up with an almost completely baseless theory proceeding from the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. But hear me out. The first thing to notice is that I could excise the passage without messing up the lines (meter). This may be complete coincidence, but it may also hint that the passage is an interpolation added later.

However, knowing that Shakespeare based Julius Ceasar on Plutarch,  I first wanted to see if “the Poet ” is in Plutarch. In fact, he is… sort of.  Here’s the relevant passage from here:

Brutus now summoned Cassius to Sardis, and as he drew near, went to meet him with his friends; and the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators. 2 But, as is wont to be the case in great undertakings where there are many friends and commanders, mutual charges and accusations had passed between them, and therefore, immediately after their march and before they did anything else, they met in a room by themselves. The doors were locked, and, with no one by, they indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations. 3 After this, they were swept along into passionate speeches and tears, and their friends, amazed at the harshness and intensity of their anger, feared so untoward a result; they were, however, forbidden to approach. 4 But Marcus Favonius, who had become a devotee of Cato, and was more impetuous and frenzied than reasonable in his pursuit of philosophy, tried to go in to them, and was prevented by their servants. 5 It was no easy matter, however, to stop Favonius when he sprang to do anything, for he was always vehement and rash. The fact that he was a Roman senator was of no importance in his eyes, and by the “cynical” boldness of his speech he often took away its offensiveness, and therefore men put up with his impertinence as a joke. 6 And so at this time he forced his way through the bystanders and entered the room, reciting in an affected voice the verses wherein Homer represents Nestor as saying:—

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am,”

and so forth. 7 At this Cassius burst out laughing; but Brutus drove Favonius out of the room, calling him a mere dog, and a counterfeit Cynic. However, at the time, this incident put an end to their quarrel, and they separated at once. 8 Furthermore, Cassius gave a supper, to which Brutus invited his friends. And as the guests were already taking their places at the feast, Favonius came, fresh from his bath. Brutus protested that he had come without an invitation, and ordered the servants to conduct him to the uppermost couch; but Favonius forced his way past them and reclined upon the central one.b And over the wine mirth and jest abounded, seasoned with wit and philosophy.

So, a mystery is afoot. If Shakespeare was solely being faithful to Plutarch, why introduce Favonius as a “Poet”? And if faithfulness was at issue, why exclude Favonius from Brutus and Cassius’ drinking bout? And if faithfulness was not at issue, why introduce Favonius at all? How does he advance the play? In Plutarch’s original, it was Favonius’ interruption (and Brutus and Cassius’ mutual contempt for him) that united them and ended their quarrel. In Shakespeare’s version of events, Brutus and Cassius had already embraced prior to the “Poet’s” appearance, so there’s no reason for Favonius, or the Poet, to enter the scene (let alone the play). None.

So, what’s going on? Well. I have a theory.

My theory, which I’ve already alluded to, is that the Poet’s appearance wasn’t in the original play, but was an interpolation added by Shakespeare (most likely) at some point after the play was originally written. Why? I think the clue is that Favonius was changed to a poet. ben-jonsonRight about this time, the famous (or infamous) “Poet’s War” was getting started (Ben Jonson being in the middle of it). I think the “Poet” was Shakespeare’s jab at Jonson. There’s reason to think that Shakespeare made other jabs at Jonson, and Jonson appears to have lampooned Shakespeare in his plays (setting aside his satirical characterizations of Webster and Dekker). The Poet’s War was no secret and the Elizabethan audience was in on it. They were well aware of who was being satirized and lampooned — and they loved it.

But, you may object, the character of Favonius was never referred to as “a poet”. How would the audience have been in on the joke? My answer? Probably because he was dressed like a poet, or dramatist, and possibly was even made to look like Ben Jonson. And furthermore, going completely out on a limb, my bet is that Shakespeare (to really capitalize on the joke) played the part of the Poet. But before we go any further, let’s take a step back. Would Shakespeare really “mar” one of his masterpieces for the sake of a joke?

We know that Shakespeare was involved in the poet’s war because of a reference to Shakespeare and Jonson made by an anonymous author at St. John’s College in 1601-2, in his A Return from Parnassus. My source for this (and all that follows) is Shakespeare & The Poet’s War by James P. Bednarz. Bednarz writes:

 …the anonymous author has the students impersonating Richard Burbage and William Kemp not only reveal that Shakespeare participated in the struggle but also affirm that by the strength of his wit he managed to overcome all other combatants in the process. “Kemp” especially exults in Shakespeare’s victory over Jonson:

Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay and Ben Jonson too. O 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. [p. 21]

The rest of Berdnarz’s book is dedicated to teasing out exactly what this “purge” might have been. All critics agree on the “pill” — Jonson’s denunciation of Marston and Dekker in Act 5, Scene 3 of Poetaster, but there’s no real agreement on the “purge”. First to the pill. Jonson was in a snit. Marston had gotten things going by, among other things, stating that Jonson was little more than a translator who stole the works of others. Jonson’s riposte was to satirize Marston’s turgid style and mannered vocabulary in the character of Crispinus. The specific passage is about half way down, but I’ve copied this much because it begins with the “pill”. As Bednarz points out, “Crisponus disgorges fourteen words and phrases that can still be located in Marston’s prior work: ‘barmy froth,’ ‘chilblained,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘clutched,’ [etc…]” p. 215]

Hor. Please it, great Caesar, I have pills about me,
Mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore,
Would give him a light vomit, that should purge
His brain and stomach of those tumorous heats:
Might I have leave to minister unto him.
O, be his AEsculapius, gentle Horace!
You shall have leave, and he shall be your patient. Virgil,
Use your authority, command him forth.
Caesar is careful of your health, Crispinus;
And hath himself chose a physician
To minister unto you: take his pills.
They are somewhat bitter, sir, but very wholesome.
Take yet another; so: stand by, they’ll work anon.
Tib. Romans, return to your several seats: lictors, bring forward
the urn; and set the accused to the bar.
Tuc. Quickly, you whoreson egregious varlets; come forward. What!
shall we sit all day upon you? You make no more haste now, than a
beggar upon pattens; or a physician to a patient that has no money,
you pilchers.
Tib. Rufus Laberius Crispinus, and Demetrius Fannius, hold up your
hands. You have, according to the Roman custom, put yourselves upon
trial to the urn, for divers and sundry calumnies, whereof you
have, before this time, been indicted, and are now presently
arraigned: prepare yourselves to hearken to the verdict of your
tryers. Caius Cilnius Mecaenas pronounceth you, by this
hand-writing, guilty. Cornelius Gallus, guilty. Pantilius Tucca–
Tuc. Parcel-guilty, I.
He means himself; for it was he indeed
Suborn’d us to the calumny.
Tuc. I, you whoreson cantharides! was it I?
Dem. I appeal to your conscience, captain.
Tib. Then you confess it now?
Dem. I do, and crave the mercy of the court.
Tib. What saith Crispinus?
Cris. O, the captain, the captain—
Bor. My physic begins to work with my patient, I see.
Virg. Captain, stand forth and answer.
Tuc. Hold thy peace, poet praetor: I appeal from thee to Caesar, I.
Do me right, royal Caesar.
Marry, and I will, sir.—Lictors, gag him; do.
And put a case of vizards o’er his head,
That he may look bifronted, as he speaks.
Tuc. Gods and fiends! Caesar! thou wilt not, Caesar, wilt thou?
Away, you whoreson vultures; away. You think I am a dead corps now,
because Caesar is disposed to jest with a man of mark, or so. Hold
your hook’d talons out of my flesh, you inhuman harpies. Go to,
do’t. What! will the royal Augustus cast away a gentleman of
worship, a captain and a commander, for a couple of condemn’d
caitiff calumnious cargos?
Caes. Dispatch, lictors.
Tuc. Caesar!                   [The vizards are put upon him.
Caes. Forward, Tibullus.
Virg. Demand what cause they had to malign Horace.
Dem. In troth, no great cause, not I, I must confess; but that he
kept better company, for the most part, than I; and that better men
loved him than loved me; and that his writings thrived better than
mine, and were better liked and graced: nothing else.
Thus envious souls repine at others’ good.
If this be all, faith, I forgive thee freely.
Envy me still, so long as Virgil loves me,
Gallus, Tibullus, and the best-best Caesar,
My dear Mecaenas; while these, with many more,
Whose names I wisely slip, shall think me worthy
Their honour’d and adored society,
And read and love, prove and applaud my poems;
I would not wish but such as you should spite them.
Cris. O–!
Tib. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O, I am sick–!
Hor. A bason, a bason, quickly; our physic works. Faint not, man.
Cris. O——retrograde——reciprocal——incubus.
Caes. What’s that, Horace?
Hor. Retrograde, reciprocal, and incubus, are come up.
Gal. Thanks be to Jupiter!
Cris. O——glibbery——lubrical——defunct——O——!
Hor. Well said; here’s some store.
Virg. What are they?
Hor. Glibbery, lubrical, and defunct.
Gal. O, they came up easy.
Cris. O——O——!
Tib. What’s that?
Hor. Nothing yet.
Cris. Magnificate——
Mec. Magnificate!  That came up somewhat hard.
Hor. Ay. What cheer, Crispinus?
Cris. O! I shall cast up my——spurious——snotteries——
Hor. Good. Again.
Oris. Chilblain’d——O——O——clumsie——
Hor. That clumsie stuck terribly.
Mec. What’s all that, Horace?
Hor. Spurious, snotteries, chilblain’d, clumsie.
Tib. O Jupiter!
Gal. Who would have thought there should have been such a deal of
filth in a poet?
Cris. O——balmy froth——
Caes. What’s that?
Hor. Balmy, froth, puffie, inflate, turgidous, and ventosity are
come up.
Tib. O terrible windy words.
Gal. A sign of a windy brain.
Cris. O——oblatrant——furibund——fatuate——strenuous—
Hor. Here’s a deal; oblatrant, furibund, fatuate, strenuous.
Caes. Now all’s come up, I trow. What a tumult he had in his belly?
Hor. No, there’s the often conscious damp behind still.
Cris. O——conscious——damp.
Hor. It is come up, thanks to Apollo and AEsculapius: another; you
were best take a pill more.
Cris. O, no; O——O——O——O——O!
Hor. Force yourself then a little with your finger.
Cris. O——O——prorumped.
Tib. Prorumped I What a noise it made! as if his spirit would have
prorumpt with it.
Cris. O——O——O!
Virg. Help him, it sticks strangely, whatever it is.
Cris. O——clutcht
Hor. Now it is come; clutcht.
Caes. Clutcht!  it is well that’s come up; it had but a narrow
Cris. O——!
Virg. Again! hold him, hold his head there.
Cris. Snarling gusts——quaking custard.
Hor. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O——obstupefact.
Tib. Nay, that are all we, I assure you.
Hor. How do you feel yourself?
Cris. Pretty and well, I thank you.
These pills can but restore him for a time,
Not cure him quite of such a malady,
Caught by so many surfeits, which have fill’d
His blood and brain thus full of crudities:
‘Tis necessary therefore he observe
A strict and wholesome diet. Look you take
Each morning of old Cato’s principles
A good draught next your heart; that walk upon,
Till it be well digested: then come home,
And taste a piece of Terence, suck his phrase
Instead of liquorice; and, at any hand,
Shun Plautus and old Ennius: they are meats
Too harsh for a weak stomach.
Use to read (But not without a tutor) the best Greeks,
As Orpheus, Musaeus, Pindarus,
Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theocrite,
High Homer; but beware of Lycophron,
He is too dark and dangerous a dish.
You must not hunt for wild outlandish terms,
To stuff out a peculiar dialect;
But let your matter run before your words.
And if at any time you chance to meet
Some Gallo-Belgic phrase; you shall not straight.
Rack your poor verse to give it entertainment,
But let it pass; and do not think yourself
Much damnified, if you do leave it out,
When nor your understanding, nor the sense
Could well receive it. This fair abstinence,
In time, will render you more sound and clear:
And this have I prescribed to you, in place
Of a strict sentence; which till he perform,
Attire him in that robe. And henceforth learn
To bear yourself more humbly; not to swell,
Or breathe your insolent and idle spite
On him whose laughter can your worst affright.
Tib. Take him away.

Note the monologue at the end, where Ben Jonson, in the guise of Virgil, gets to pompously lecture Marston and Dekker. My point in copying it here is, first, because it’s actually hilarious if you can imagine it onstage and, two, to show how Jonson, Dekker, Marston, and eventually Poets' WarShakespeare, after his own fashion, were playing out their argument before all of London. Not only were they making their case before the Elizabethan public, but it’s also liekly that their on-stage dispute was raking in the money; and they weren’t fools (Marston, Dekker, and Jonson would all happily work together again.) It’s not unreasonable to suspect that they kissed and made up well before they ended the feud. But getting back to Shakespeare, what was his fashion? Berdnarz argues that Shakespeare satirized Jonson in the character of Ajax from his play Troilus and Cressida:.

“As Elton observes, the language of A Return from Parnassus is more prcise in its connotations than readers had heretofore recognized. Kemp’s line, “our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit,” uses the word “beray” as a synonym in Elizabethan parlance for “befoul” or “beshit.” Elron concludes that Shakespeare ‘purged’ Jonson by satirizing him as a witless braggart soldier compounded of humours, and berayed his credit — befouled his reputation — by naming him Ajax, signifying a privy’ Shakespeare needed Ajaz for the depiction of Trojan history, but he built into the role a reference to Jonson in order to expose him by proxy to his own comic plotting. Ever since John Harington in The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) encouraged his readers to pronounce the hero’s name with a stress on the second syllable (“a jakes”), it had had a latent comic association. Harington incited a reply from an anonymous rival who took him to task in Ulysses Upon Ajax, or in other words, “Ulyssess on the privy.” [p. 32-33]

Shakespeare’s satire of Jonson is gist for the entire book, but this at least gives an introduction. What did Jonson say that irked Shakespeare? As it turns out, one of Jonson’s surviving criticisms of Shakespeare pertains to his play Julius Caesar:

“Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”

Now, strangely enough, this line can’t be found in the play as it as come down to us. Instead, we find the following:

“Know Caesar doth no wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.”

Somebody changed the line. Not only that, when but when they changed it they left a half-line, as if, in Berdnarz’s words, they indicated a revision. What this tells us is that the play was altered subsequent to Jonson’s barb; and this is important because it adds just a little plausibility to my own contention that the “Poet” was also, possibly, a subsequent revision. In other words, Shakespeare may have corrected the much maligned line, but also added a little barb in the guise of the “poet”.

But before I copy out the lines with Shakespeare’s “Poet” included, a couple more observations. There was another criticism that Jonson made of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and that was lambasting Shakespeare for ignoring the classical unities. Jonson especially singled out the Shakespeare’s Henry V, contemptuous of the play’s personified “Prologue” who wafted the audience hither and anon in complete disregard of the “classical unities“. In the 1616 Folio Edition of Jonson’s plays, the following prologue appeared in Every Man In His Humour.


Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not better’d much;
Yet ours for want hath not so loved the stage,
As he dare serve the ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate:
To make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
Except we make them such, by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they’re ill.
I mean such errors as you’ll all confess,
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which when you heartily do, there’s hope left then,
You, that have so grac’d monsters, may like men.

The whole of it is a scathing criticism from beginning to end. From what I can gather, the assumption seems to be that because the prologue first appeared in print in the 1616 Folio Edition, it must have been written then. I don’t see a compelling reason to make that assumption. Why would Jonson write such a scathing prologue almost 20 years after Henry V’s first appearance (1599)? My own supposition, and based on Shakespeare’s “Poet”, is that it appeared much earlier, and was probably appended to the play during the Poetomachia. Every Man In His Humour was first staged in 1598, before Henry V, but continued to be staged, and probably contemporaneously with Henry V. In fact, Jonson’s play was entered into the Register of the Stationers’ Company on 4 August 1600, along with Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V. It’s much more likely, in my opinion, that the prologue, or an early form of it, appeared shortly after Henry V as the Poetomachia heated up. If I’m right, then Jonson only formally added it to the play, for the sake of the folio, in 1616.

And one last bit of information before we read the passage with the poet. Here’s a brief explanation of Jonson’s Humours from here:

As Jonson has been much misrepresented in this matter, let us quote his
own words as to “humour.” A humour, according to Jonson, was a bias of
disposition, a warp, so to speak, in character by which

“Some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way.”

But continuing, Jonson is careful to add:

“But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,
The cable hat-band, or the three-piled ruff,
A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot
On his French garters, should affect a humour!
O, it is more than most ridiculous.”

Jonson’s comedy of humours, in a word, conceived of stage personages
on the basis of a ruling trait or passion (a notable simplification
of actual life be it observed in passing); and, placing these typified
traits in juxtaposition in their conflict and contrast, struck the
spark of comedy.

Now, what would you do if you were Shakespeare? Not only does Jonson lay into your play Julius Caesar, shooting off his mouth about a phrase that he finds utterly nonsensical,

“I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. . .” ~ Ben Jonson

But he’s he added a rhyming Prologue to his play Every Man in his Humour, accusing you of provincial incompetence, of ignoring the classical unities (messing with the normal progress of time and place), and does it all while lording his own classical education over you. Why, if you were Shakespeare, you might go back and insert a few lines, changing Plutarch’s Favonius into a character who looked and acted suspiciously like Ben Jonson, and probably much to the uproarious delight of the playgoers.

Cassius: Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
What’s the matter?

Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
Enter [Lucillius and] a POET
POET: Let me go in to see the generals.
There is some grudge between ‘em; ’tis not meet
They be alone.
Lucillius: You shall not come to them.
POET: Nothing but death shall stay me.
Cassius: How now! What’s the matter?
POET: For shame, you generals, what do you mean?
Love and be friends, as two such men should be.
For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye.
Cassius: Ha, ha! How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!
Brutus [to the Poet] Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!
Cassius: Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.
Brutus: I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
[To the Poet] Companion, hence!
Cassius: Away, away, be gone!
Brutus: Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight. etc.

That Poet, I propose, is Ben Jonson. He can’t keep from barging in and giving his pompous, bloated opinion in the midst of the play. I suspect the audience immediately recognized him. In he goes! Nothing but death shall stay him! (And that might be a barbed reference to Jonson’s boasting that he had taken Marston’s pistol from him. ) What does Jonson do? He claims legitimacy “for I have seen more years” in a way that echoes his claim to a superior knowledge of classical literature — (400px-Lucius_Junius_Brutus_MAN_Napoli_Inv6178the classical unities & dramaturgy). “How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!” cries Brutus. Favonius was a cynic, a “member of a philosophical school that refused to respect differences in social class.” [The Norton Shakespeare p. 1575] Jonson, among other jests, ceaselessly made fun of Shakespeare’s desire to be a gentleman and obtain a coat of arms. Consider this from Wikipedia:

Every Man Out of His Humour includes several references to Shakespeare and his contemporaneous works: a mention of Justice Silence from Henry IV, Part 2—”this is a kinsman to Justice Silence” (V,ii) and two allusions to Julius Casear, which help to date that play to 1599. “Et tu, Brute” occurs in V,iv of Every Man Out; in III,i appears “reason long since is fled to animals,” a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s line “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts” in Julius Caesar, III,ii,104. Some critics have seen a dig at Shakespeare in the coat of arms that Jonson gives his character Sogliardo in III,1, whose crest features a ” boar without a head, rampant – A boar without a head, that’s very rare!” and the motto “Not without mustard.” The motto of Shakespeare’s family coat of arms granted three years earlier was Non Sans Droit, “not without right.”

Shakespeare’s humorous jab is both true to Plutarch (Favonius was a cynic) and also true of Jonson (who disrespects Shakespeare’s social climbing). The “rhyme”, in my opinion, refers to the rhyming of the prologue to Every Man In His Humour. Shakespeare, in the character of Brutus, then brusquely dismisses Jonson:  “Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!”

Cassius, perhaps representing the common opinion on Jonson, says: “Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.”

This is the praise that damns. Jonson’s posturing is merely fashion, rather than anything principled. And then Brutus executes the coup de grâce:

I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?

In my view, Shakespeare all but spells it out. “I’ll know his humour” — a sly reference to Jonson’s plays Every Man In and Every Man Out of His Humour, if not his philosophical dramaturgy in generalwhen he knows his time.” I suspect time is a coy jab at Jonson’s harping on the classical unities. In other words, Shakespeare will give a damn what Jonson thinks when Jonson knows his time — that he’s a playwright in Elizabethan England and not ancient Rome. Basta. And then he adds (with possibly a reference to Henry V) — “What should the wars (Henry V) do with these jigging (rhyming) fools (Ben Jonson).”

“Away, away, be gone!” says Cassius, as though speaking the general censure.

All the while, Brutus and Cassius are laughing; and this too is true to Plutarch, who wrote that Favonius’s foolery disarmed both Brutus’s and Cassius’s anger. Shakespeare substitutes the so-called “Poet”, Ben Jonson, for the fool, Favonius; and probably to the delight of the Elizabethan audience, who laughed along with Brutus and Cassius.

A stroke of genius, if you ask me (and if I’m right). Let me know what you think.

Ben Jonson ❧ Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

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Jonson’s Ambition

No other Elizabethan poet was more cognizant of his legacy than Ben Jonson. Jonson’s rivals were not just his peers – Shakespeare, John Marston, Tho. Dekker, or Tho. Middleton –  but the great poets of ancient Rome – Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) and Martial (AD 40–103). In writing poetry and drama, Jonson adopted many of the tenets and poetic forms of these great classical poets.

After all, the English language of Jonson & Shakespeare had no literary past. With the exception of Chaucer and Gower (who few poets emulated), the great literature of the past was the great literature of the Romans and the Greeks. So it was that when other Elizabethan poets were enthusiastically adopting the new-fangled sonnet form – Spencer, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Daniel – Jonson adopted the epigram (the form that Catallus and Martial had developed and established over a thousand years before). What better way to establish yourself as the inheritor of a great tradition than to write within that tradition?

Jonson was the scholar among Elizabethan playwrights.

He was also a bricklayer’s son and because of it he was more sensitive to questions of class and status. In 1598, Jonson killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, who (according to Jonson) had insulted both him and his dramaturgy. Jonson only saved his neck by pleading Benefit of Clergy (meaning he could read). Shakespeare's ShieldThe episode was a sign of things to come.

His rivalries, both literal and personal, became the stuff of legend. To my knowledge, The Poet’s War refers to only one thing: The rivalry between Jonson, on the one side, Marston, Dekker and eventually Shakespeare on the other. In fact, in one form or another, the rivalry eventually netted just about every poet and dramatist writing during the day. The rivalry appears to have been mostly good natured but, as with all such rivalries, there must have been some bloody noses too.

The theatergoers took tremendous pleasure in the jibes and taunts, and the plays of the time are full of references to the rivalry. Whole books have been devoted to it and it makes for very entertaining reading. No surprise, for instance, that Jonson endlessly ribbed Shakespeare for the latter’s gentlemanly pretensions. When Shakespeare finally obtained a coat of arms(the only extent sketch being above right 1), Jonson was quick to pull the rug out from under his rival – satirizing Shakespeare’s motto.

Here is how Katherine Duncan-Jones sums it up in her book Ungentle Shakespeare [p. 96]:

Ungentle Shakespeare

Duncan-Jones explanation of Jonson’s jibe, the joke behind mustard, is as convincing as any I’ve read. (No one really knows and there are different explanations). James Bednarz, in his book Shakespeare & The Poet’s War, (which I’m just reading) explains Shakespeare’s response in the following paragraph.

Shakespeare & The Poet's WarIndeed, this quip might have sparked Touchstone’s jest about a knight who did not lie when he swore that “pancakes” were “good” and “the mustard was naught,” although the pancakes were bad and the mustard good, because he swore “by his honor,” and “if you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn” (1.2.63-77). Shakespeare’s joke about honor and mustard turns Jonson’s critique on its head and mocks the social pretension Shakespeare had been accused of exhibiting. [p. 113 ]

Not only that, but Bednarz goes on to detail his case for just how and when Shakespeare “purged” Jonson (which was apparently the beginning of the end of  the whole imbroglio). Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jonson as the slow-witted  Ajax in his play Troilus and Cressida (the name Ajax in Elizabethan times was a pun on latrine) must have brought the house down.  Many scholars consider Troilus and Cressida to be a “problem play”, but if it is read and understood as, perhaps, the final salvo in the poet’s war, the play makes a good deal more sense.

Anyway, this is going far afield.

There’s lots to say about Jonson. He was one of the most irascible, ambitious and colorful personalities in Elizabethan drama. And possibly because of his literary ambitions, Jonson’s love poems are few and far between. It’s likely that he didn’t consider them to be worthy of great poetry. So, instead of writing sonnets to real or imagined lovers, he resurrected the epigram. Encyclopedia Britannica writes that the epigram was…

…originally an inscription suitable for carving on a monument, but since the time of the Greek Anthology (q.v.) applied to any brief and pithy verse, particularly if astringent and purporting to point a moral. By extension the term is also applied to any striking sentence in a novel, play, poem, or conversation that appears to express a succinct truth, usually in the form of a generalization. Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) originated the Latin epigram…

Jonson’s epigrams are full of pithy one liners, wicked satire, scathing quips and  pointed praise. The enjoyment of them  takes a certain kind of reader – one who enjoys the finely chiseled line for the sake of it and someone who has some knowledge of the Elizabethan period. Jonson is rarely rapturous or “romantic”. He’s Elizabethan through and through: intellectual, ambitious, and always ready to deploy reason, rhetoric and a stinging jest.

But when he lets his guard down, one senses tremendous tenderness and vulnerability. It’s in this light that I like to read his most famous poem – Drink to me, onely, with thine eyes… The poem has the feeling of a genuineness and immediacy that characterizes Elizabethan poetry at its very best. (To me, the later Romantic poets frequently fall short of the honesty and directness of which Elizabethans were capable.)

Of Fonts, Handwriting & Secretary Hand

The lines are simple and straightforward. For the fun of it (and since I’ve already gone so far afield) I’ve printed the poem using a brand new font – P22 Elizabethan. The font was created for a historical novel and reproduces a kind of script that was called Secretary Hand. All Elizabethans who could write, could write Secretary Hand. It was the formal hand of record keeping, the scribal book and court documents. Jonson would have been capable of Secretary Hand but, like most other Elizabethans, wrote a more italic style when writing informally. If this poem had appeared in a scribally published book, however, this is how it might have looked.

  • And what follows below is another poem by Ben Jonson as it appeared in a scribally published book, in actual Secretary Hand (but not Jonson’s handwriting). The image comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Collection [MS V.b.43] and the entire page can be viewed in Christopher Ivic’s Essay: Ben Jonson & Manuscript Culture.

If it looks like I’m having fun with fonts, it’s because I am. The Folio Font can be found for free and is intended to mimic the typeset used in Shakespeare’s Folio, which was probably the same as that used in Jonson’s. Before I move on to Jonson’s Drinke to me, I want to have just a little more fun. Below is the handwriting of Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

  • The first image is of Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, or rather, his contribution to the play. The writing is believed to be the only extent sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting. His handwriting is considered to be old-fashioned (Tudor) and idiosyncratic – like his spelling. This undoubtedly reflects his schooling which, for one reason or another, was conservative and somewhat behind the times. It may also reflect the possibility that he  was privately tutored  or self-taught, but that is sheer speculation. If you want a closer look, you will have to do two things: First, click on the image, then enlarge it using the zoom feature in your browser (Firefox is CTRL + to enlarge CTRL- to diminish). Clicking on the image may also suffice.

  • Next is an example of Ben Jonson’s handwriting. Compared to Shakespeare’s, it’s almost legible. Notice also the italic style – which gradually all but replaced Secretary Hand.  The sample comes from an Epistle to his Masque of Queens. The image is one that I found on-line and mildy colorized. Here is what he wrote:

By the most true Admirer of your Highness’s virtues
And most hearty celebrator of them.   Ben Jonson

And if you want to see more from Jonson’s Epistle, click on the image and enlarge.

  • The next example is from Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. It looks as though the foul paper (Marlowe’s handwritten text) doesn’t match the printed example I found on-line. It’s possible that the final version of the play is different – or I simply can’t read Marlowe’s handwriting. The sample comes by way of Wikimedia Commons – which itself comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library [MS. J.b.8].

  • The final sample is of John Donne. Donne’s handwriting is legible enough to not need a parallel text. Donne’s handwriting is thoroughly modern as compared to Shakespeare’s, reflecting a very different education. Not only did spelling vary from writer to writer, but handwriting as well. The English Lanaguage, in every conceivable way, was in flux.

This image also comes form the Folger Shakespeare Library [MSS L b 1712].

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

As I wrote earlier, Ben Jonson’s poem is a study in simplicity. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s best poems – simple and yet profoundly effective and affective. The poem is split into two octaves (eight lines each), and the octave are themselves, divided into two quatrains.

The lines alternate between Iambic Tetramater and Iambic Trimeter – a ballad meter known as Common Meter Double – though I’m not sure the form would have been known as such in Jonson’s day. (Jonson’s poem To Celiasee below – was made into a song by Alfonso Ferrabosco.) There are three trochaic feet and none of them are wasted. They nicely and appropriately stress words in a way that adds to the meaning of the poem – the mark of an experienced  and skilled poet.

Where the dilettante might let a variant metrical foot slip by without regard to its context, the great poets seem more concerned that the disruption of the meter coincide with the emotional and intellectual content of the poem – not always, but more so.

Why is this poem so famous? It appeals to our sensibility both by its simplicity and through the subliminal pattern of its rhyme and meter. The poem appeals to us for the same reason nursery rhymes appeal to children. But more so, consider the straightforwardness of the imagery – how original and evocative it is:

“leave a kiss in the cup”
“the soul doth rise, /Doth aske a drinke divine “
“I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath… But thou thereon did’st onely breath”

More so, consider that this little poem is really a narrative poem. It tells a story in a few quick, simple lines – and tells us all we need to know. (The poem, incidentally, exemplifies what Jonson prized in classical poetry – balance and unity of thought.)

There’s a lesson in this poem for the modern poet. A great poem can be the simplest poem, like Jonson’s Drinke to me or Robert Frost’s The Pasture. There’s a place and readership for the modern poem, but the supremely simple and masterfully written short poem of traditional poetry has been all but forgotten.

  • In the scansion below, all unmarked feet are Iambic.

Wines in Elizabethan England

The Elizabethans didn’t drink water the way we do. It was poison, in large part, unless you lived far from an urban center. The sewage system was above ground and every last drop of it flowed into the sludge of the Thames. A useful website containing, among other things, Elizabethan recipes (when British food could still be called food) had this to say about the wine Jonson might have been drinking:

Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead which was drunk by all classes. Wine was generally imported although some fruit wines were produced in England. A form of cider referred to as ‘Apple-wine’ was also produced. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that held a bitter flavor.

Another site called simply, Elizabethan Recipes, offers among things: Fartes of Portingale – Spicy Muttonball Soup. (I wonder if they meant Tartes?)

And here’s a modern brew that claims to be as stout as the original Elizabethan ales. (If the link doesn’t work, let me know. They’ve been changing it around.) They write:

It is comparable in strength to the beer produced by Tudor brewers during the reign of Elizabeth I. It has won many prizes and, at the International Brewers’ Exhibition 1968, was awarded the Championship Gold Medal. Regular drinkers simply asked for a ‘Lizzie’.

The website Life in Elizabethan England, offers a description of the bread that might have accompanied Jonson’s wine. Of the wines, they write:

Most wines are sweet and rather heavy. They probably have to be strained before you want to drink them, and may still have solid matter floating in them.

What was Jove’s Nectar? The drink of the gods, by implication, unmatched by anything produced or consumed by mortals and yet, says Jonson, her prefers Celia’s mortal kiss to an immortal drink of Jove’s nectar. There may also be the hint of Ichor of which,  Wikipedia writes:

In Greek mythology, ichor (pronounced /ˈaɪkər/ or /ˈɪkər/; Greek ἰχώρ) is the ethereal fluid that is the Greek gods’ blood, sometimes said to have been present in ambrosia or nectar.

It’s worth mentioning that ichor was considered poisonous to mortals.

Jonson seems to say:

The soul thirsts for immortality, but I would change that immortality for a different kind of eternal joy – a kiss from Celia.

Roses were a symbol of love and Jonson sent not just a rose, but a wreath. Roses were also a symbol of a woman’s virginity (or maidenhead). I think it might be reading too much to read ribald connotations and double-entendres into the latter octave of the  poem (though one could easily do so). That said, Jonson’s intentions (in sending the wreath) involved far more than innocent love.

The poem strikes a nice balance between the romance of love and the desires of the lover.

It’s a small masterpiece.

Useful Links

More Poems by Rare Ben Jonson

  • To Celia

Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours, for ever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his guifts in vaine.
Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
‘Tis, with us, perpetuall night.
Why should we deferre our joyes?
Fame, and rumor are but toyes.
Cannot we delude our eyes
Of a few poore household spyes?
Or his easier eares beguile,
So removed by our wile?
‘TIs no sinne, loves fruit to steale,
But the sweet theft to reveale:
To be taken, to be seene,
These have crimes accounted beene.

  • And lastly, Jonson’s translation of the Roman Poet Gaius Petronius. (The Elizabethans. Always delighting in both sides of the coin.)

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short”

by Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

1 Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. Visited November 15 2009. (The image of Shakespeare’s Shield came with instructions on how to cite the page, so I couldn’t resist doing so officially.)

If you have enjoyed this post, be sure and let me know. :-)

❧ up in Vermont, November 17 2009

Doe but consider this small dust
that runneth in the glasse
by Autumnes mov’d
would you beleeve that it the body ere was
of one that lov’d
who in his M[ist]r[i]s flame playing like a Fly
burnt to Cinders by her eye,
Yes and in death as life vnblest
to have it exprest
Even ashes of lovers finde no rest.

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