The Passionate Pilgrim 1.2: “The Poets’ War”: A Prelude

One of the most curious aspects of the so-called “Poets’ War” was the fact that when he chose to attack other, rival, playwrights, Ben Jonson was not acting from a position of strength. In fact, in 1597 he had been sent to Marshalsea prison on charges of sedition arising from the production of The Isle of Dogs by Pembroke’s Men at the Swan. Co-authored with Thomas Nashe, this was Jonson’s first play and it satirized various members of the Court, quite possibly including the Privy Council and the Queen. The play was immediately suppressed and no copies survive.

Marshalsea Prison, circa 1620

While in prison, Jonson met the actor Gabriel Spencer, and, subsequent to their release in 1598, they engaged in a duel which left Spencer dead. Spencer was then the lead actor for Pembroke’s Men and his death more or less ruined the company.

Jonson was taken to Tyburn Prison where he was to be hanged, but managed to escape this fate by reportedly claiming the “right of clergy” which provided clemency to scholars fluent in Latin. This “right” could be claimed only once, so if Jonson was taken to prison again, that would be that.

Jonson came out of Tyburn with no assets and no reputation. His thumb had been branded with a capital “T,” so there was no mistaking his status. Despite all of this, he found his way to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who promptly staged Every Man in his Humor with great success.

From the perspective of the “Poets’ War,” the play included some notable passages, in particular the Prologue in which Jonson asserted that plays should be about “deedes, and language, such as men do use” rather than fantastical events or historical pageants. Later, in Act I, Master Matthew, “the town gull” quotes rapturously to Captain Broadbill lines from The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s most famous play.

Thomas Kyd

By his own testimony before the Privy Council in 1593, Kyd declared that he had been “writing in one chamber” with Christopher Marlowe since at least 1590. Personally, I think that collaboration started much earlier as Kyd and Marlowe had known each other since Marlowe’s Cambridge days. The point being that Marlowe was very likely a contributor to The Spanish Tragedy, which has strong similarities to his own Tamburlaine, both of which featured bombastic characters and long descriptions of bloody battles, spectacular victories and glorious parades, all of which Jonson declared he had had enough.

Christopher Marlowe was declared dead in May, 1593 and Thomas Kyd died less than a year later. By 1598, there was no reason that Jonson should concern himself with their possible response to his mockery of their theatrical style. Instead, he was applauded for advocating a more natural form of theatre.

That said, Jonson had thrown down the gauntlet. He wanted to bring the theater down to earth. With Henry V then being prepared for production, the very type of play against which he had declared his opposition, he decided to turn his attention to Shakespeare.

The name Shakespeare had only recently been acknowledged in print. Francis Meres, in Palladis Tamia (1598), recorded him as a playwright and attributed twelve plays to him (Meres also complimented Jonson in the same volume). At nearly the same time, several of these same plays appeared in print under Shakespeare’s name. It is doubtful that Shakespeare approved of any of these quarto publications, but his name had never been in better repute and he would appear to have been beyond reproach.

It seems safe to say that Jonson should not have expected to improve his association with the Lord Chamberlain’s men by attacking its leading playwright and very significant partner. But, that is what he did.

Next:     Sogliardo Revisited

PeteHeadshotDr. 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).  Dr. Pete (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.

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