Poor Ben Jonson! What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup. Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church. Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.
Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.
But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority. It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever. Mary was dead. Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church. It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it. It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.
The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End. Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them. But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.
The printer was waiting. He stared at the blank sheet before him. This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language. It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus. Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?
How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education? Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks. They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature. Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.
The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished. But this was a flat out lie. Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek. Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek. Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it. Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.
Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet. Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death. It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career. Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.
Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument. The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?
This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.