Ben Jonson (1572-1637) part 8
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
7. Jonson’s Discoveries cont.
The last post which discussed the players mentioning how Shake-Speare “never blotted out line” only included a short part of Jonson’s notes in his Discoveries. The full note follows:
“I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted. And to justify mine own candour, for I loved the man and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped; Suffuminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it been so too. Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter; as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him: “Caesar thou dost me wrong”. He replied “Caesar did n ever wrong but with just cause” and such like; which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned”.
As with much evidence of Shake-Speare’s authorship, Jonson’s words here have been interpreted in different ways, showing their ambiguity. I think I’ve tried to adhere mostly to an orthodox interpretation but, of course, not from a context of belief in William’s authorship. So in this case, more than in the others, it does look like Jonson believed William to be the author Shake-Speare. If he didn’t really believe this then he did an excellent job of pretending he did. Still, his own observations again place doubt on his own belief, and this is aside from all the other evidence provided previously for Bacon’s proposed authorship.
Besides the difficulty of Shakspere having written each play without ever blotting out a line, it is equally difficult to understand how Jonson would fault him for this, knowing, as he should, that the plays had been extensively rewritten, there being many quartos and then changes in the Folio versions of the plays. This suggests once more that Jonson, though being a friend to Shakspere to some extent and at some point, didn’t know him intimately or read the published versions of the plays much, if at all. Maybe Jonson just saw the plays performed and never read them.
Jonson obviously knew William well enough to have observed his behavior in groups, as he remembered them later in his life. Though they aren’t much in the way of evidence of his authorship of the plays. Even without being the true author, if over the years William had been reading and playing in some of these plays then we should expect him to have absorbed some of the “excellent fancy, brave notions and gentle expressions” they contain, and to be able to either mimic them or ad lib from them, if his “wit was in his own power”. So, Jonson’s next observation is problematic. If William was the author then it’s surprising that “Many times he fell into those things, [that] could not escape laughter”. And the types of ‘things’ that William feel into were verbal expressions, even ones he supposedly created earlier for a play, that he misquoted or worded in a ridiculous manner, apparently not realizing the insensibleness of what he was uttering. It was even so bad at times that “it was necessary he should be stopped”. So Jonson lamented that William lacked a ruling power over his wit, and this was a memorable characteristic of him. This does not sound like someone who, “whatsoever he penned” it came out perfectly the first try.