At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the Ode to Shakespeare with which he would launch the First Folio, part of the daunting task he faced as lead editor was the need to make a more solid connection between the plays and William of Stratford. Twenty years of the King’s Men promoting the plays as the work of William Shakespeare had made it impossible ever to attribute them to anyone else.
When “Mr. William SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” was finally published in 1623, although the putative author was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and apparently buried beneath the Stratford church floor), older courtiers and theater folk who had known the real author were still around, so however Jonson approached the delicate matter of the author’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the reader’s eye.
Then as now, the major question for the more highly educated members of Shakespeare’s audience, was their inescapable awareness of his education. Concerned that anyone who pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs would soon find out that William could not so much as write his own name, Jonson had no choice but to lie. Following the oddly contradictory style of the opening phrases (attributed by biographer Richard Dutton to the style Jonson often affected in his popular epigrams) and to his perpexing denial that Shakespeare was buried in the Abbey after grouping him with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers but before he compares him to the greatest of the ancient Greek playwrights, Jonson appears to state flatly that the great Shakespeare could not have read the works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.”
With both the true author and his proxy dead and gone, the audience that Jonson was addressing in the First Folio, probably the only one still deeply concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made what livings they could writing and making copies for the legal community of Westminster––the community most involved in publishing. Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of this audience: youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, the close relations between the writing of plays and the selling of cheap pamphlets should be seen as the actual first step towards what today we know as the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the People. By turning gossip into stories and plays into literature, these quickly produced and cheaply sold publications were responsible for launching the English popular press at the same time that Shakespeare and his actors were creating the London Stage.
Ben Jonson had known both Oxford and William from the mid-to-late nineties when he first began his theater career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (It’s very likely that following Jonson’s 1596 incarceration for his part in creating the scurrilous Isle of Dogs, he had been rescued from the wiles of Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford (plus certain of the characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour and Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while his opinion of William is revealed in the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out. It may be that Oxford and Jonson (and one other) also collaborated on Cynthias’s Revels, at a time when Oxford, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempted to train Caliban. Also like Caliban, Jonson repaid Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for their support by departing in 1599 to write for their rivals at the Rose and the Second Blackfriars Theater.
Jonson’s subversive messages
With the accession of King James Jonson found himself in a tight spot between the former supporters of Essex, who were his best audience, and the recently empowered Earls of Northampton and Salisbury (Henry Howard and Robert Cecil). During this period, 1603-1615, as Dutton put it
Jonson found himself in trouble with the authorities over his plays on at least four occasions: over the lost Isle of Dogs, for which he was imprisoned; over Sejanus, for which ‘he was called before the Council’ (and perhaps accused both of popery and treason’; over Eastward Ho, when he and Chapman ‘voluntarily’ imprisoned themselves and ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut and noses’; and over The Devil is an Ass, ‘upon which he was accused. (136)
Although Jonson managed to get off without being cut or hanged (doubtless due to recently acquired friends in high places) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, which he subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair: “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks.” In this he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations”––statements worded in such a way that they actually conveyed to those members of his audience who were on the lookout for them, messages that contradict what they appear to convey on the surface, as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser (reminding us of Brer Rabbit pleading with Brer Fox, “O please, whatever you do to me, please, please, please don’t throw me in that briarpatch!” the briarpatch, of course, being Brer Rabbit’s home). Thus it may behoove us to examine a little more closely Jonson’s statement that––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––Shakespeare was every bit as great as Aeschylus or Euripides.
Was Jonson equivocating? Did the word though have meanings other than although? Indeed it did. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, under #1 comes the standard usage: “Introducing a subordinate clause expressing a fact.” However, under #2: we learn that it can also introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a supposition or possibility: even if; even supposing that; granting that.” Under #4 it goes even further: “In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition”!––this followed by a further support for Jonsonian equivocation with, “After negative or interrogative phrases with wonder, marvel . . . where if or that is now substituted.”
Therefore, if, as the OED suggests, we read “though thou hadst small Latin” as “even if you had small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles” etcetera. Under #5, where the use of that with though is discussed, the OED has chosen a line from King John as its example: “Though that my death were adjunct to my act, by Heaven I would do it!” (Act 3 Scene 3)––meaning, in today’s English, “even if my death . . . .”
Make of this what you will, the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to say something by stating it in a particular way that allows for another very different interpretation, if this kind of tinkering seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue to what the English poets were up to back in the early days of the 17th century.