Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
3. The Drummond Conversations
In the winter of 1618/1619 Jonson walked all the way to Scotland where he had conversations with William Drummond, a poet. Jonson told him that Shake-Speare “wanted art…in a play [The Winter’s Tale] he had brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles”. By 1618 Jonson idolised Bacon and would not have been so derisive about him.
Though Cockburn had little to say on Jonson’s conversations with Drummond, I find some of the most interesting comments to have come from Sir George Greenwood in his Ben Johnson and Shakespeare (1921). These are quoted in full:
But some four years before the appearance of the Folio of 1623, viz.: in January, 1619, Jonson was staying with Drummond of Hawthornden, and Drummond made notes of his conversation, and, under the title, or heading, "His Acquaintance and Behaviour with poets living with him," we have recorded remarks made by Ben concerning Daniel, Drayton, Beaumont, Sir John Roe, Marston, Markham, Day, Middleton, Chapman, Fletcher, and others. What do we find concerning Shakspere? "That Shakspere wanted arte. . . . Shakspeer in a play, brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwrack in Bohemia, where there is no sea neer by some 100 miles." Here, then, we have Jonson unbosoming himself in private conversation with his host and friend, and this, apparently, is all he has to say about the great bard who, only four years afterwards, he was to laud to the skies as the "Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage." We would have expected to find whole pages of eulogy, in Drummond's notes, of the poet who "was not of an age but for all time," instead of which we have only these two carping little bits of criticism: "That Shakspeer wanted (i.e., lacked) arte"—a curious remark to have proceeded from the mouth of him who wrote, in the Folio lines, that a poet must be "made as well as born"; that Nature must be supplemented by art; and that in Shakespeare's case such art was not lacking, but, on the contrary, was conspicuous "in his well-turned and true-filed lines." And then that niggling bit of criticism concerning the coast of Bohemia in the Winter's Tale, taken straight from the learned Greene's novel of Dorastus and Fawnia, which may be compared with the depreciatory allusion to Julius Caesar in the Discoveries. As Professor Herford remarks, "It is significant that both in the Conversations 'and the Discoveries,' where high praise is given to others, Jonson only notes in the case of Shakespeare his deficiency in qualities on which he himself set a very high value." (Article on Jonson in Dic. Nat. Biog.)
Now, though this shows that Jonson, at that time at least, believed that William Shakspere was the playwright Shake-Speare, it also demonstrates that we can’t take Jonson’s panegyric of Shake-Speare in the First Folio at face value as genuinely believing that he was “the star of poets”. His job was to get the folio ready for publication and to give it a good send off to the marketplace. Of course, this isn’t any new realization, but many people I come across offer it as proof, not only of Jonson’s belief of William’s authorship, but also of his true feelings toward him. A good description of this is by Andrew Lang in his Shakespeare, Bacon, and the Great Unknown, who in his rebuttal to Greenwood’s views above, said:
“In 1619, Ben spoke gruffly and briefly of Shakespeare, as to Drummond he also spoke disparagingly of Beaumont, whom he had panegyrized in an epigram in his own folio of 1616, and was again to praise in the commendatory verses in the Folio. He spoke still more harshly of Drayton, whom in 1616 he had compared to Homer, Virgil, Theocritus, and Tyraeus! He told an unkind anecdote of Marston, whith whom he had first quarreled and then made friends, collaborating with him in a play; and very generously and to his great peril, sharing his imprisonment. To Drummond, Jonson merely said that he :beat Marston and took away his pistol.” Of Sir John Beaumont, brother of the dramatist, Ben had written a most hyperbolical eulogy in verse; luckily for Sir John, to Drummond Ben did not speak of him. Such was Ben, in panegyric verse hyperbolical; in conversation “a despiser of others, and praiser of himself….Yet I have proved that Ben was the least consistent of critics, all depended on the occasion, and on his humour at the moment. This is a commonplace of literary history”.
Mr. Lang was one Stratfordian that believed that Jonson’s “Poet ape” actually did refer to William Shakspere and that he wouldn’t hesitate to direct his anger and envy at other playwrights, or would be poet-playwrights, as he did in Every man out of his Humour.