Welcome to “The Passionate Pilgrim”, the blog dedicated to all matters dealing with the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. As this blog is sponsored by Island Shakespeare Festival, it will focus initially on the plays being offered by them during their current season.
Unlike the standard academic introductions to As You Like It, which discuss plot, character, theme and so forth, I want to start with the very unusual circumstance of the so-called “Poets War” or “War of the Theaters” and the unique role this play performed in this dispute.
The standard academic history of this “war” asserts that it was ignited by John Marston in the play Histriomastix (1599), which included an attack on Ben Jonson, which supposedly censured Jonson “for being too dependent upon scholarship” (Bednarz, James P., Shakespeare and the Poets’ War, p. 91)
Jonson responded with Every Man Out of his Humour (1599), which included the clown character Clove, generally understood to be a stand in for Marston, who speaks “fustian” [ie: pompous, pretentious speech] in mimicry of Marston’s style. Insults are said to have followed in several plays, with other poets, primarily Thomas Dekker, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination with Marston, throwing in their tuppence, until it all flamed out in 1602. Not atypically, there is some dispute about the sequence of these events, in particular whether or not Jonson’s satire of Marston actually preceded Histriomastix. In general, the academic version leaves Shakespeare out of the action.
The truth is a little different.
If there ever was such a thing as a “Poets’ War,” itself being a characterization created by nineteenth century academicians, then it must fairly be said to have begun with Jonson’s very direct attacks on Shakespeare in Every Man Out of His Humour, where he mocks a character named Sogliardo for his acquisition of a herald whose motto is “Not Without Mustard.” This is universally understood as an unflattering reference to Shakespeare who had recently acquired a Heraldic emblem with the Latin motto “Non Sanz Drocit” which translates as “Not Without Right.”
Interestingly, Jonson’s previous play, Every Man In His Humour (1598) is the only play that actually records Shakespeare as an actor. He is listed in the 1616 printing of Jonson’s Folio as a principal commedian. Shakespeare is often listed with the Lord Chamberlain’s and later the King’s Company, but only as a shareholder or player, never as an actor and never in any printed script as an actor, not even in those credited to him. All the academics who claim that Shakespeare played the Ghost of Hamlet, Amiens, etc., are just making it up (ie: Shakespeare is listed as a “player”, therefore he must have had a “part”, therefore I, Mr. Academic, based on nothing more than my personal preference, am going to cast him thus: post hoc ergo propter hoc at its best). There is, in fact, no evidence for Shakespeare playing any role onstage other than one written by Jonson.
After which, Jonson writes a play which mocks Shakespeare, and the Lord Chaimberlain’s Men, of which Shakespeare is a shareholder, immediately presents it. Even Stephen Greenblatt admits how strange this must have been:
“As a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will would have listened to this insult again and again in rehearsal and in performance. He probably laughed uncomfortably- how else does one get through this kind of teasing?” Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World, p. 80
All things considered, just as Greenblatt imagines that Shakespeare laughed it off, it is just as easy to imagine that by including Shakespeare in his Folio’s cast list Jonson was repeating the insult in print.
One might expect Shakespeare to respond to this as Marston appears to have done with an insult of his own. Or, as Greenblatt imagines, he might have laughed it off. What happened, however, is much more surprising.
Next: Will, Audrey and Touchstone
Dr. Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992). Doc Hodges (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.