Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
4. The First Folio Commendatory Poem
Much has been read into form this Poem titled “To the memory of my beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare”, by different advocates to the authorship question. For instance, both the Oxfordians and those favoring Mary Pembroke see the “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a sly reference to their candidate. For my purposes I just want to focus on a couple of other issues.
First, Jonson puts emphasis on Shakespeare the poet, using phrases as “For though the Poets matter”, “For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne”, and “Starre of Poets”, but nowhere in the folio or in any other reference by Jonson is there a mention of Shake-Speare’s non-dramatic poetry. This is odd in view of the immense popularity of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Besides the extremely sparse biographical references, oblique ones at that, to Will Shakspere of Stratford, the lack of any reference to this Star Poet’s major poems, in a work meant to immortalize the author “for all time” is one of many inconsistencies that have bothered critical authorship commentators. Did Jonson not think that William Shakspere wrote them?
The second issue arises from Jonson’s observation of Shakespeare’s “small Latin, and less Greek”. This and the other reference to the Avon river, are most likely references to William of Stratford and would therefore suggest that Jonson considers him the true author.
But, along with the lack of any more biographical data and the ambiguity in some words and phrases, as well as Jonson’s friendship with Bacon, leave open the possibility that Jonson was deliberately concealing his knowledge of or belief in a different person as the true author.
The “small Latin” is especially troubling. If Jonson was a friend of Will Shakspere, and if we agree that the reference is of him, then, Jonson being proficient in Latin, we should be safe in agreeing that Will Shakspere did indeed have “small Latin”. The troubling part is that the evidence shows Shake-Speare, the author, to have much more than “small Latin”.
English translations of classical sources used by Shake-Speare were not always available. Here’s one list of Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish sources Shake-Speare likely used that did not then have English translations (except Venus and Adonis but the Latin version of this was used to some extent):
The Comedy Of Errors: a Latin source; The Two Gentlemen of Verona: a Spanish source (or a French translation of it); Richard II: two sources in manuscript in 15th century French; The Merchant of Venice: an Italian source; Much Ado About Nothing; an Italian source (or a French translation of it); As You Like It: a Spanish source; Twelfth Night: two Latin sources – University plays in manuscript; Hamlet: a Latin source and a French source; Troilus And Cressida: a Greek source (or Latin or French translations of it); Measure For Measure: an Italian source (or a French translation of it); Othello: an Italian source (or a French translation of it); Macbeth: a Latin source; Timon of Athens: a Greek source (or three Italian or one French translation of it); Cymbeline: an Italian source (or a French translation of it)”: Venus and Adonis: a Latin source (and an English translation of it); The Rape of Lucrece: a Latin source.
Even with an English translation available it is clear Shake-Speare consulted the original Latin. In 2 Henry VI, 5.1.157 the hunchback Richard is addressed with: “Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump”. The Latin in Shake-Speare’s source, Ovid’s Metamorphosis is “Rudis indigestaque moles”. Whereas Golding’s translation is “rude and pestered heap”.
For these reasons scholars conclude that Shake-Speare read Latin with ease. Kenneth Muir in his Shakespeare’s Sources: Comedies and Tragedies (1957) wrote: “Shakespeare, then used translations when they were available; but he did not use them slavishly, and there is plenty of evidence that he read Latin works of which there was no translation – 2 plays by Plautus, Buchanan, Leslie, some of Livy and (if we are to believe Mr. E. Honigman) two manuscript chronicles about King John. He knew some Virgil in the original, …”. The Arden editor of The Comedy of Errors wrote: “[Shake-Speare] had an acquaintance with a wide range of Latin literature”.
In addition, he had a tendency to Latinize his English. Lewis Theobald in his Preface to his The Works of Shakespeare (1773) wrote of “the surprising effusion of Latin words made into English, far more than in any other author I have seen”. E.K. Chambers in his William Shakespeare (1930), writing of Troilus And Cressida, said “The language is highly Latinised, …” Very occasionally he even puns in Latin, as in Cymbeline 5.5.447-9.
As the plot sources listed above show, Shake-Speare had a considerable knowledge of French and Italian literature. Sir Sidney Lee in his The Life of William Shakespeare (1931) wrote “There is no reasonable doubt that the dramatist possessed sufficient acquaintance with Italian to enable him to discern the drift of an Italian poem”. Allardyce Nicoll in his Shakespeare (1952) said “He was easily familiar with Latin, French and Italian…he read widely in these as in English”. Andrew Cairncross, a former Arden editor wrote that “His knowledge and use of Italian is established”. Kenneth Muir, again in his Shakespeare’s Sources, Comedies and Tragedies (1957) said “He certainly read French, perhaps even medieval French”. A few scholars are not in full agreement with the above. Schoenbaum in his William Shakespeare, A Compact Documentary Life (1987) refers to Shake-Speare’s “smattering” of Italian. A couple others think that if one “has some knowledge of Latin” then it’s easy to read novels in French, Italian or Spanish. But why would an author with “small Latin” struggle through Latin, French and Italian source material when plenty of English stories are available for plot ideas? Also, Ben Jonson, who had bragged to William Drummond that “he [Jonson] was better versed in and knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the poets in England” had also then admitted that when it came to French or Italian he could read neither.
This has been just a brief view of this topic, hitting some of the highlights. But it’s a major problem for arguing William Shakspere’s authorship. And this is all the more so considering that this language learning is evident so early in the Shake-Speare works. So Ben Jonson may or may not have believed that Will Shakspere wrote the plays. But his observation of Shakspere’s “small Latin” makes it difficult not to question this authorship.