Since there’s so much material related to Ben Jonson and Shake-Speare and William of Stratford and also of Bacon, and since he’s such a key witness, it will take a series of posts to review the evidence, which I’m primarily taking from N.B. Cockburn, as usual. But I’ll also add other observations from others.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) Part 1
Jonson wrote the principal commendatory poem in the First Folio and to assess its significance we shall have to examine his relationship with both Shakspere and with Bacon. Jonson was 7 years younger than Shakspere and 10 years younger than Bacon. He was the son of a clergyman but was raised by his step-father, a bricklayer, and briefly followed the same trade, after some years as a scholarship student at Westminster School. He was then for a short time a soldier in the Netherlands. On his return he probably supported himself by acting and reworking old plays for the Earl of Pembrok’s company. In 1597 he and his colleagues were thrown into jail for two months for performing the ‘seditious and slanderous’ Isle of Dogs, a play originated by Thomas Nashe, but which Jonson helped to complete. Then, as now, writings that were disapproved of by a reigning power could be censored. Fortunately, in the West at least, we’re no longer thrown into a prison for this. Jonson saw the performance of his first original play, Every man in his Humour in 1598.
His acquaintance with Shakspere perhaps began when that play was staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with Shakspere himself in one of the roles. Nicholas Rowe in his Life of Mr. William Shakespeare related a story, which may not be true, that it was Shakspere himself who persuaded his company to put the play on. Shakspere also acted in Jonson’s Sejanus. Later Jonson knew Shakspere well enough to tell us in the first Folio that he had “small Latin and less Greek”. And in his Timber or Discoveries (1640) Jonson writes: “I loved the man and do honour his memory this side idolatry, as much as any”. However, in the Elizabethan vocabulary, “love” often meant no more than “friendship”. Jonson, who was not homosexual, sometimes ended letters to male friends with valedictions such as "“Your true love"”(see The Works of Ben Jonson edited by Percy Simpson (1925), Vol. 1, p. 190ff). This is the sum of our hard evidence as to the relationship between the two men. But there are various stories about them, mostly hatched in the second half of the 17th century, and none reliable. In one story, for example, the two men jointly compose a humerous epitaph on Jonson. In another, Shakspere, alleged to be godfather to one of Jonson’s children, makes a feeble joke about giving the child Latten spoons for Jonson to translate them. A third story attributes Shakspere’s death to a fever contracted during a bibulous evening with Drayton and Jonson.
Jonson is regarded by Stratfordians as their star witness. So it is necessary to examine carefully all his references to Shake-Speare and Bacon.