Ben Jonson (1572-1637) - Part 9
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
Ben Jonson’s references to William Shakspere of Stratford, as the author Shake-Speare, especially in the First Folio, have been taken as the clincher for settling the authorship question. The thinking seems to be that Jonson, being considered the second best poet of his Age, must have known the true identity of Shake-Speare, the best poet. No one gives anything like as much weight, for example, to the other three commendatory poems in the First Folio by minor poets who likewise identify Shake-Speare with Shakspere. But this reasoning is faulty, resting as it does on unfounded assumptions and ignoring or slighting vast amounts of other evidence on the issue. The likelihood of a poet knowing the Bacon/Shake-Speare secret, if there was one, does not depend on the poet’s own eminence. It depends on chance, on whether the secret happened to reach his ears; which may in turn depend (though not necessarily) on the intimacy of his association with Shakespere or Bacon or their close circles.
We do not know how well Jonson knew Shakspere. They were attached to rival companies, though 6 of Jonson’s plays were acted by Shakspere’s company at one time or another. Jonson was so cantankerous and egocentric that it is hard to see him as anyone’s close friend. The Stratfordian I.A. Shapiro in an article on the Mermaid Club in Modern Language Review, Vol xlv, 1950, p. 16 added: “Jonson’s conversations with Drummond suggest that he was very much better acquainted with Beaumont, Chapman, Daniel, Donne and Drayton than with Shakespeare, and what we know of their temperaments and tastes would lead us to expect this”. In any event, Shakspere would not himself have disclosed his secret to Jonson. One can imagine what contempt Jonson would have felt for Shakespere, and possibly expressed, if he had learnt that he was only a front for a patrician author.
As to Bacon, he no doubt condescended to treat Jonson as a friend. But the friendship may have begun after most of the Shake-Speare plays had been written. There was a huge social gulf between the two men. Jonson was not the sort of person to whom Bacon would have imparted his secrets.
Note: not all Baconians agree with Cockburn’s above views. Many of them see Jonson as being in on Bacon’s secret authorship and working for him in getting the First Folio published.