Ben Jonson’s last laugh – part 1

Posted By on September 28, 2013

Stratfordians are fond of calling Ben Jonson to testify on their behalf. They employ the hearsay summary that Jonson and Shakespeare were best buddies, they hung out together at the Mermaid Tavern, and engaged in frequent “wit combats”– the nature of which, incidentally, is never specified.

Now, no doubt there is much truth to all of this. We possess ample circumstantial evidence, including the gift by Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford of a set of Plato books in Greek to Jonson circa 1617, for concluding that Jonson knew the de Veres rather well.  That Jonson engaged in “wit combats” with the author of the plays is also of course plausibly an echo of some original truth; traces of this process may even be detected in the plays in instances such as Shakespeare’s parodying of Jonson as Ajax of Troilus and Cressida.

But the closer we read Jonson the more we will be inclined to the conclusion that he is not really a very reliable witness for the Stratfordians. In one of his most famous utterances about Shakespeare he “loved the man, this side idolatry.”  The statement is from Jonson’s posthumously published Discoveries.

In itself it poses a question mark for Stratfordians. It may mean, as they assume, that Jonson is warning against bardolatry, simply saying “he was a man like any other.”  But the statement could equally be taken as Jonson’s sly dig at the entire Stratfordian belief. He loves the real Shakespeare, the one this side of idolatry, i.e. the real author, not the Stratford front.

In the same volume we find a striking parallel passage, used to introduce a passage on Sir Francis Bacon:

One, though he be excellent, and the chiefe, is not to bee imitated alone. For never no Imitator, ever grew up to his Author; likeness is always on this side Truth. Yet there hapn’d, in my time, one noble Speaker, who was full of gravity in speaking…..

Now isn’t that interesting?  Although he is ostensibly talking about Bacon, the phrase “likeness always on this side truth” echos off the other usage to impart a “Shakespearean” flavoring to it. But what does Jonson even mean, “likeness is always on this side truth”?  It seems to mean something like “if you are a mere imitator, you’ll never know what the original author, who is with me ‘on this side of Truth,’ is all about.”

Does it echo back at the statement about Shakespeare?  To be on “this side” of Shakespeare idolatry with Jonson is also to be on “this side,” with truth?

Where does that leave us?  Jonson has already given the tip. No matter how excellent your source, do not rely solely on him (or any author)  for creating your mental map. It is a type of admonition found over and again in varied permutations throughout Jonson’s writing.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


5 Responses to “Ben Jonson’s last laugh – part 1”

  1. Roger it seems to me that we indeed learn by mimesis or ‘likeness’. Dickens has no problem with Little Dorrit being all pervaded by King Lear.

    So it is the greatest minds who are free to be mimetic. Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Hopkins, and Dickens all freely draw from the overwhelming fertility of Shakespeare.

    Ben lives under the shadow of the greater genius of both Shakespeare and Bacon, two hugely powerful minds. Both he and even John Milton – after Comus – had to avoid the overwhelming power of the Shakespearean poetic – to survive!! But Donne does NOT have a problem with it and assimilates and transforms it freely!

    The problem for the lesser genius I think!! what do you feel?

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Heward,

    Thanks as usual for your astute observations. I think I understand and agree with everything you say, except that I would be shy about drawing too easy conclusions about Jonson’s genius. My hunch is that he is going to end up being a much bigger genius than we think he was before this story is done. He was *deep* in ways that very few people have appreciated. If you want to get a feel for this, read his *Discoveries* from start to finish holding in your mind what we know about Jonson’s role in the folio and more generally the “cover up.” You’ll see what I mean. He knew that this was what his reputation was going to rest on, and I’ll bet he did a more thorough job than we know…..yet.

    We are even further I think from apprehending the problem of Jonson than we are of Shakespeare.

  3. knitwitted says:

    Hi Doc,

    According to David McPherson {“Ben Jonson’s Library and Marginalia: An Annotated Catalogue”, *Studies in Philology*, 1974, pp. 51-52}, Jonson owned a copy of Nicholaus Hill’s *Philosophia Epicurea, Democritiana, Theophrastica ….* (1601). Hill was de Vere’s secretary.

    McPherson notes that the copy was discovered in 1955 by John Sparrow who states the hexameter written by Jonson on the verso of the title page is “evidently a disparaging comment on the contents of the book.” McPherson further notes: “Sparrow points out that Jonson in Epigram CXXXIII, 127-9, makes fun of Hill’s book. Jonson also told [William] Drummond a joke about Hill.”

    Interesting that Jonson had this book. Would Hill’s philosophy book have been popular?

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      On the contrary, the book would have been widely regarded as heretical, given its materialistic and atomistic philosophy; that may explain in part why it was published in Paris. Given that Henry de Vere is known to have given books to Jonson, it is possible that this volume originated in de Vere’s library. Certainly it would be worth examining from that point of view.

  4. knitwitted says:

    Thank you Roger! McPherson states Jonson’s copy is at Middle Temple Library, London. He also notes he has not seen the book and hence does not know if there are any marks in it. That would definitely rate a look-see.

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