Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
Poor Poet Ape
This next item is no more than a possible reference to Shake-Speare. In 1616 Jonson published a collection of Epigrams (as part of the Folio of his Works), though they were written some years earlier. No. 56 reads:
Poor poet ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it,
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours,
He marks not whose t’was first and after times
May judge it to be his as well as ours,
Fool! As if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.
Cockburn Comment: “Poet ape” means “Someone who aped poets”; in other words a bad would-be poet. Thus Sir Philip Sidney said in his The Defence of Poesy (1595): “The cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not of poets”. Jonson in his plays twice used the term of actors who aspired to write poetry, but a poet ape could be anyone. So it is wrong to assume, as some have, that the poet ape of Jonson’s epigram was necessarily an actor. He has often been thought to be Shake-Speare. I doubt this because Shake-Speare did not buy the reversion of old plays, except possibly for King John and Hamlet, and did not plagiarize to the extent the epigram alleges. Some have proposed Dekker or Marston. How about Thomas Heywood? Louis B. Wright in his Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England, p. 629, wrote: “Though Jonson gave an immense stimulus to the drama of London life, he was no such idol of the multitude as was Thomas Heywood”. Perhaps Jonson resented Heywood’s popularity Another possibility I think, is that the poet ape may have been, not a specific poet, merely a type of poet. However, if he was Shake-Speare, the relevant point for our purposes is that Jonson evidently believed him to be Shakspere since “And told of this he slights it” could not apply to Bacon, nor would Jonson have written of Bacon in such a hostile tone.
My comment: I considered not including in this review this possible Jonson reference to Shake-Speare, since there is so little that can be gleaned from it. I’ve read some of both the “anti-Stratfordian” interpretation as well as a rebuttal of that interpretation. And along with Cockburn’s analysis it’s clear that there’s no justification for claiming it is about Shake-Speare and William of Stratford, though it would seem (from the anti-Stratfordian point of view) to jibe with what Robert Greene had written of the “shake-scene”. Such an interpretation is self-serving and won’t stand up to scrutiny. But I think it does provide a glimpse into the character of the theater world in Elizabethan England and of the rivalries and controversies and allegations then. It also is another example of the indirect references to events and to others that writers used to vent, warn, or to cajole others.