Thomas Dekker & The Witch of Edmonton

A while back I collected a complete set of Thomas Dekker’s plays published by Cambridge Press. I bought the books individually for maybe $25 to $30 dollars each. The complete set of four books is worth around $250. In the meantime, it’s possible to buy a complete edition of Dekker’s plays for your Kindle for all of $3.36. That’s a great deal. I’ve been buying all of Delphi’s editions—Webster, Beaumont & Fletcher, Marlowe, and Jonson. That said, all of these editions come without annotation (including my Cambridge set), but for just over 3 dollars, so be it.

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I’ve always been partial to Dekker and since I have the books, I’ve finally started to read and reread his plays. He was a congenial spirit with a true gift for poetry. Just about everybody, probably without knowing it, has heard Dekker’s poetry in the Beatle’s song “Golden Slumbers”, for which Dekker was never credited. Tragically, Dekker spent most of his life in debt and even spent seven years in debtor’s prison—a painfully long time given the short life spans of Elizabethans. He wrote no plays during this time and though he didn’t possess the genius of a Shakespeare or Marlowe, his imprisonment was nonetheless a literary loss. Dekker was among the most gifted of Elizabethan playwrights in terms of his poetic gifts, the “sweetness” of his verse (both of which naturally appeal to me), and his congenial and boisterous portrayals of London life. His faults are those of poor craftsmanship in terms of plot and plot devices. The one play, entirely his own, in which he beautifully ties together plot and subplot into a satisfying whole is the Shoemaker’s Holiday—a well-loved play even in its own time. Dekker had a love for the common man and a sharp eye for the hypocrisies of wealth and power, only further whittled to a razor’s edge by his imprisonment and concomitant suffering—from which he never seems to have fully recovered.

But on to The Witch of Edmonton. This was a later play that was a collaboration with Ford and Rowley. The play is generally considered among the finest of the era. I didn’t pick it for that reason, but simply because I’ve heard the play mentioned so many times. The play was based on real events—the institutionally sanctioned murder of a woman accused of being a witch. Of course, Elizabethan Jurisprudence didn’t see it that way. They saw the protagonist, Mother Sawyer, as a real witch in league with the real devil, who had somehow been the cause of a woman’s suicide. I expected to read a play celebrating the law’s triumph over the evils of a witch in league with the devil. Instead, I was surprised to read something very different. All things considered, she couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic portrayal; a portrayal generally credited to Thomas Dekker. I say all things considered because Dekker, Ford an Rowley weren’t about to question or challenge the authorities or her execution (all plays were censored and pre-approved by the Master of the Revels). Dekker dutifully portrays her as being in league with the devil (in the shape of a dog) but having made that concession he otherwise makes very clear where his sympathies lie.

Mother Sawyer’s first appearance is in Act II Scene i:

And why on me? why should the envious world
Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?
'Cause I am poor, deform'd and ignorant,
And like a Bow buckl'd and bent together,
By some more strong in mischiefs than my self?
Must I for that be made a common sink,
For all the filth and rubbish of Men's tongues
To fall and run into? Some call me Witch;
And being ignorant of my self, they go
About to teach me how to be one: urging,
That my bad tongue (by their bad usage made so)
Forespeaks their Cattle, doth bewitch their Corn,
Themselves, their Servants, and their Babes at nurse.
This they enforce upon me: and in part
Make me to credit it.

Dekker didn’t have to begin Sawyer’s introduction like this. He could have begun far less sympathetically, with a women driven by malice. Instead, we see that she’s been abused and accused of crimes she hasn’t committed. Immediately following this speech, the character of Old Banks enters. While she collects sticks with which to warm herself, Old Banks, the landowner, unleashes a tirade of abuse.

O Bank. Out, out upon thee, Witch.
Sawy. Dost call me Witch?
O Bank. I do, Witch, I do: and worse I would knew
I a name more hateful. What makest thou upon my ground?
Sawy. Gather a few rotten sticks to warm me.
O. Bank. Down with them when I bid thee, quickly;
I'll make thy bones rattle in thy skin else.
Sawy. You won't, Churl, Cut-throat, Miser: there they
be. Would they stuck cross thy throat, thy bowels, thy
maw, thy midriff.
O. Bank. Sayst thou me so? Hag, out of my ground.
Sawy. Dost strike me, slave? curmudgeon, now thy
bones aches, thy joynts cramps, and convulsions stretch
and crack thy sinews.
O. Bank. Cursing, thou Hag! take that, and that.

So, what we have is a crippled old woman trying to keep herself warm and a landowner berating her, then beating her for it. Curiously, when Mother Sawyer later asks the devil to kill Banks, the devil answers that he can’t because Banks “is loving to the world,/and charitable to the poor. Now men/ That, as he, love goodness, though in smallest measure, / Live without compass of our reach.”

Now that’s obviously not true. Banks was neither loving nor charitable to the clearly impoverished Mother Sawyer. Two reasons for this moment come to mind. First would be the Master of the Revels or the Elizabethan censor. Whether Dekker believed it or not, he had to parrot the party line as concerns Banks. But that Dekker didn’t have much sympathy for Banks is made clear in the opening scene. Second, consider who it is that praises Banks—the Devil himself. Though it pleaseth the censor, we the audience have no reason to believe the devil. Indeed, the very opening of Act II belies the devil’s assertions. Why would the devil refuse to harm Banks? Well, he’s the devil and the play had to be somewhat true to its source.

Why I like this passage is that it reveals that even during those times there were those who were sensible to the cruelty and absurdity of witch trials and the accusations substantiating them. We tend to think that people before our own enlightened times weren’t themselves enlightened, but Dekker’s portrayal is almost feminist in its sympathies. Isn’t it obvious, he all but says, that such women as Mother Sawyer are being targeted because they’re poor, misshapen in some way, and easily bullied?

Dekker’s own experience with the hypocrisies of the law are brilliantly dramatized in Act IV. In Scene i we see a villager come in crying, “Burn the Witch, the Witch, the Witch, the Witch.” This is soon followed by all on stage crying, “Hang her, beat her, kill her.”

I find this is no accident. Just a minute or two later, while Mother Sawyer is defending herself before the Justice, the audience is presented with this exchange:

Sawy. A Witch? who is not?
Hold not that universal Name in scorne then.
What are your painted things in Princes Courts?
Upon whose Eye-lids Lust sits blowing fires
To burn Mens Souls in sensual hot desires:
Upon whose naked Paps, A Leachers thought
Acts Sin in fouler shapes than can be wrought.
Just. But those work not as you do.
Sawy.                 No, but far worse:
These, by enchantments, can whole Lordships change
To Trunks of rich Attire: turn Ploughs and Teams
To Flanders Mares and Coaches; and huge trains
Of servitors, to a French Butter-Flie.
Have you not City-witches who can turn
Their husbands wares, whole standing shops of wares,
To sumptuous Tables, Gardens of stoln sin?
In one year wasting, what scarce twenty win.
Are not these Witches?
Just.                      Yes, yes, but the Law
Casts not an eye on these.
Sawy.                    Why then on me,
Or any lean old Beldame? Reverence once
Had wont to wait on age. Now an old woman
Ill favoured grown with years, if she be poor,
Must be call'd Bawd or Witch. Such so abus'd
Are the course Witches: t'other are the fine,
Spun for the Devil's own wearing.
Sir Art.                  And is thine.
Sawy. She on whose tongue a wirlwind sits to blow
A man out of himself, from his soft pillow,
To lean his hand on Rocks and fighting waves,
Is not that Scold a Witch? The Man of Law
Whose honeyed hopes the credulous Client draws,
(As Bees by tinkling Basons) to swarm to him,
From his own Hive, to work the Wax in his;
He is no Witch, not he.
Sir Art.                   But these Men-Witches
Are not in trading with Hells Merchandize,
Like such as you are, that for a word, a look,
Denial of a Coal of fire, kill Men,
Children and Cattel.  

Now this is as fine an exchange as I’ve read in Elizabethan theater. The second interlocutor, Sir Arthur Clarington, is hardly a respectable claimant to ethical or moral behavior. In the play’s subplot, he has lecherously fornicated with the maid in his own household and, at the play’s end, is held to be largely responsible for the events of the play. Says the Justice: “you have indeed been the instrument that wrought all their misfortunes”. In Sir Arthur’s comments to Mother Sawyer, we have the pot calling the kettle black.

More interestingly, I don’t think it’s accidental that Dekker begins this scene with the crowd’s chants that Mother Sawyer should be killed. This entirely undercuts Sir Arthur’s claim that “these Men-Witches” cannot with a word or look “kill Men”. Indeed, this is precisely what all these Men-Witches were doing at the scene’s opening. They are, with words and looks, calling for Mother Sawyer to be killed. While she is accused of her accomplishing her aims by means of the devil, the others accomplish their aims by means of the law. And I can’t help but read Dekker’s critique of the law and its hypocrisy in these lines.

And think of our own times, when we have a corrupt President who, with the aid of a corrupted Department of Justice and a corrupt Party willing to shield him, has placed himself above the law. It could equally be said of him that the ‘law casts not an eye on him’. Think also of Mother Sawyer’s critique, in essence, of the One Percent.

Have you not City-witches who can turn
Their husbands wares, whole standing shops of wares,
To sumptuous Tables, Gardens of stoln sin?
In one year wasting, what scarce twenty win.
Are not these Witches?

Then as now, conspicuous consumption at the expense of the poor was blessed by the law, the law being an arm of those conspicuously consuming. Mother Sawyer represents not just Dekker but anyone and anyone of us who are not just blamed but abused for our own misfortunes.

In Act V Dekker drives home the point he’s making, and goes further by contradicting the claim made by Sir Arthur that these “Men Witches / Are not trading with Hell’s Merchandize”.

Clow. It seems you Devils have poor thin souls [...] where
do you borrow those Bodies that are none of your own? [...]
Dog. Why wouldst thou know that? fool, it availes thee not.
Clow. Onely for my mindes sake, Tom, and to tell some of my
Friends.
Dog. I'll thus much tell thee: Thou never art so distant
From an evil Spirit, but that thy Oaths,
Curses and Blasphemies pull him to thine Elbow:
Thou never telst a lie, but the Devil
Is within hearing it, thy evil purposes
Are ever haunted; but when they come to act,
As thy Tongue slaundering, bearing false witness,
Thy hand stabbing, stealing, cozening, cheating,
He's then within thee: thou play'st, he bets upon thy part;
Although, thou lose, yet he will gaine by thee.

In other words, the notion that Men-Witches aren’t also trading in Hell’s Merchandise, or the hypocrisies of the law for that matter (though Dekker doesn’t dare state this outright), is utter self-delusion. The devil is “within thee” too, he plainly states.

What I haven’t discussed is the subplot by John Ford. This involves a bigamous young man, Frank Thorney, who murders his second wife, Susan, in order to escape with his first wife (the first wife being the maid with whom Sir Arthur had had an affair before she married the young man). The subplot is less interesting, for modern readers, but well-handled by Ford. The scene in which Frank murders his second wife is particularly heartless given her devotion to him, but it’s telling that the characters within the play have more sympathy for him (who is hanged along with Mother Sawyer) than for Mother Sawyer. Apparently, bigamy and cold-blooded murder (even if influenced by the devil) was worse than being a witch who caused another women to take her own life.

All that said, the finest and perhaps only poetry in the play, though brief, can be found in those passages. Susan, who Frank will murder, says to him:

You, Sweet, have the power
To make me passionate as an April-day:
Now smile, then weep; now pale, then crimson red.
You are the powerful Moon of my blood's Sea,
To make it ebb or flow into my face,
As your looks change.

Though the subplot was written by Ford, this particular instance feels more like Dekker than Ford. It’s entirely possible that Dekker touched up some of Ford’s verse as they pieced the play together. As I read more of these plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, I’ll continue to share my impressions.

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.
Caes.
O, be his AEsculapius, gentle Horace!
You shall have leave, and he shall be your patient. Virgil,
Use your authority, command him forth.
Virg.
Caesar is careful of your health, Crispinus;
And hath himself chose a physician
To minister unto you: take his pills.
Hor.
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.
Dem.
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.
Caes.
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.
Virg.
Thus envious souls repine at others’ good.
Hor.
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?
Cris.——Puffie——inflate——turgidious——-ventosity.
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
passage.
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.
Virg.
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.

SCENE,—LONDON
PROLOGUE.

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!
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!
Exit POET
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.