Posted By Roger Stritmatter 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 in 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.