Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
5. The Eton College Discussion
Jonson also spoke of Shakspere (William) when he was at Eton College. This is mentioned in Nicholas Rowe’s Some Account of the Life of William Shakespeare (prefixed to his edition of Shakespeare’s Works, 1709. Rowe concluded from the story that “It is without controversy that he had no knowledge of the writing of the ancient poets”. The conversation itself, probably occurring before 1633 went thus:
“In a conversation between Sir john Suckling, Sir William D’Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eton and Ben Jonson, Sir John Suckling, who was a professed admirer of Shakespeare, had undertaken his defence against Ben Jonson with some warmth. Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben Jonson reproaching him [Shakspere] with the want of learning and ignorance of the Ancients, told him at last “That if Mr. Shakespeare had not read the Ancients, he likewise had not stolen anything from them (a fault the other made no conscience of) and that if he would produce any one topic finely treated by any of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakespeare”.
From the above we find Jonson is in the same view as in the First Folio commendatory poem where he wrote of Shakespeare’s “small Latin”. In this case Jonson is arguing for Shakspere’s “want of learning” and “ignorance of the Ancients”. If Jonson believed Shakspere to also be the playwright Shake-Speare, then Jonson is also referencing his views of the learning content of the plays in addition to his knowledge of the learning of the man. And this view of the learning content found in the plays seems to have been a common view, even of the literati of the time. Another example comes from Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England: Warwickshire (1662), who wrote:
“Plautus, who was an exact comedian, yet never any scholar, as our Shakespeare (if alive) would confess himself….Indeed his [Shakspere’s] learning was very little…”
So again we’re struck with the divergence of Jonson’s perceptions, or assertions, and with reality as we know it today. Continuing research throughout the 20th century has revealed more and more about Shake-Speare’s sources, not only for his plots, but for countless individual lines and allusions. From these it is obvious that Shake-Speare read very widely, which most scholars accept. Following are some examples.
Lord Dacrre in his article What’s in a Name (Nov. 1962), wrote of Shake-Speare: “We realise that he was highly educated, even erudite. It is true that he does not parade his learning. He wears no carapace of classical or biblical or philosophical scholarship, like Dante or Milton. Be he is clearly familiar, in an easy, assured manner, with the wide learning of his time; and had the general intellectual formation of a cultivated man of the Renaissance. He was at home in the Aristotelian cosmology of his time, he had learned the new Platonic philosophy. He was familiar with foreign countries, foreign affairs, foreign languages”.
A.L.Rowse in Shakespeare the Man (1973), p. 53, wrote:
“The player-poet was a very much a reading man – one might almost say bookish, except for the pejorative overtone; for him life was more important than books”.
Peter Levi in The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1988), p. 34, wrote:
“The one certain thing we know about Shakespeare’s youthful occupations is that he read a great deal…he was an omniverous reader…at some point he read a lot more Latin [than he had read at school], learned French well, and I think some Italian later, attempted a study of the Law and in general devoured whatever came to his hand…[at p. 87] Shakespeare draws on wider reading and more intense experience of poetry than most scholars can command”.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the poet and philosopher, wrote in Biographia Literaria, xv.4 (1817)) (Vol. 2, p. 18, of the edition by J. Shawcross, 1907):
“Shakespeare, no mere child of nature; no automaton of genius, no passive vehicle of inspiration, possessed by the spirit, not possessing it; first studied patiently, meditated deeply, understood minutely, till knowledge, become habitual and intuitive, wedded itself to his habitual feelings, and at length gave birth to that stupendous power by which he stands alone, with no equal or second in his own class”.
This is not surprising considering Shake-Speare’s immense vocabulary. In N. G. Clark’s Elements of the English Language (1866) he said that “The vocabulary of Shakespeare becomes more than double that of any other writer in the English language… English speech, as well as literature, owes more to him than to any other man”.
Sometimes Shake-Speare seems more learned than the editors who to this day have failed to perceive the sources (and hence sometimes the meaning) of some of his lines.
When we now return to Ben Jonson and his comments at Eton College what are we to think? Well, if he believed that William of Stratford was Shake-Speare the playwright, then he must not have known him well or must not have been very astute himself. Otherwise he must surely had recognized that William was very well read and highly learned, if he was indeed the author. We can excuse Ben from not seeing the deep learning in the plays since many other learned readers had also overlooked it. But Ben should have been aware whether or not a person he knew well was “want of learning” or not, if he knew him well and was learned and astute himself.
But if Jonson had not actually known Shakspere well then we have two other possibilities. If William was the learned Shake-Speare, then we cannot use Jonson as a reliable witness to his authorship since we have concluded that Jonson didn’t know William well enough to be sure of that observation. And if Shakspere was only pretending to be the author Shake-Speare, then Jonson could be fooled by this just as he was unable to perceive the deep learning in the Shake-Speare plays.
Finally, if Ben Jonson knew that Shakspere wasn’t the true playwright and was only pretending to believe that he was in order to protect his friend Bacon as the author, then that may be why Jonson would try to convince others that Shake-Speare ‘wanted learning’ and was ‘ignorant of the Ancients’ for surely he knew that Bacon did not fit that profile.