A close look at Ben Jonson’s Dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio

At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the “Ode to Shakespeare” with which he and the Pembrokes launched 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 the putative author, William of Stratford. Twenty years of promoting the plays as by 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 William himself was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and 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 Shakespeare’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the eye. The ability to  skillfully equivocate, must have been one of the reasons why the Pembrokes knew Jonson was the right man for the job.

For the group that published the First Folio, a primary concern would have been how to address the more highly educated members of London’s audience, who as soon as they read certain of the plays, would understand immediately, if they didn’t already know, the nature and extent of the author’s education. Concerned that anyone who might have pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs (three days ride by horseback on dangerous roads) would have find out that poor William of Stratford could not so much as write his own name, Jonson was forced to flat out lie. Following the odd negation of his opening phrases (attributed by his biographer, Richard Dutton, to the style of his popular epigrams) Jonson groups Shakespeare with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers (where he belongs), then, before comparing him to the greatest of the Greek dramatists, he states flatly that the great playwright could not possibly have read the ancient works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.” (Apparently he didn’t dare say “no 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 concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made a living writing letters for illiterate gentlemen and fair copies for the legal community of Westminster, London’s West End. Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of much of this audience, youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, educated women, the close connection 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 about 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 began his theatrical 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 was rescued from the wiles of Secretary of State Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford.  These (plus certain of his more dignified characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour or Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while Jonson’s take on William is shown by 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 Milord, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempts to train Caliban in The Tempest. (Like the ungrateful Caliban, Jonson soon repaid Oxford and his company for having saved him by writing for their rival companies at Henslowe’s Rose and the new Children’s company at the Second Blackfriars Theater.)

Jonson’s subversive messages

With the accession of King James in 1603, 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 (aka Henry Howard and Robert Cecil), Oxford’s ancient and most bitter enemies. According to Dutton, during this period, 1603-1615:

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 friends in high places like the Pembroke brothers) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair, “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks,” where he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations.” These were statements worded in such a way that they conveyed––to those members of his audience who appreciated such maneuvers––messages that can be read to contradict what they appear to state on the surface (as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser). 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 just as great as Plautus or Euripides.

Was Jonson equivocating? Does though have meanings other than although? Indeed it does. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of the word though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, first states in #1 its standard usage, which is to introduce “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 the OED 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, as the OED suggests, if we read “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” as “even if thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.” 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, of course, in today’s English, “I will do it even if it kills me!”

Make of this what you will, it should be obvious that the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to state something in such a way that it allows for another very different, even opposite, interpretation, was dealing with the delicate issue of Shakespeare’s education. If this kind of tinkering (something that’s second nature to lawyers, then and now) seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue as to what the poets were up to in the good old bad old days of the seventeenth century.

[Updated from an earlier blog of September 9, 2018, titled “Once More into the Breach, dear Oxfordians.” It’s useful to repeat certain important elements of the argument from time to time.]

3 thoughts on “A close look at Ben Jonson’s Dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio

  1. Thanks for the new piece. Question: Why was it necessary in 1623 to continue the ruse? Elizabeth was dead 20 years, Oxford 19, and Robert Cecil 11. Please keep up the great work.
    Francis Murphy

  2. Francis: long story short: the name William Shake-speare first appeared on plays in 1598 because the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were driven to publish the plays that they wanted to keep, leaving other plays by Oxford, popularized by Edward Alleyn at the Rose, for that company (the Lord Admiral’s Men, later known as Lord Stranges Men, then back to the Lord Admirals Men). From then on the name William Shakespeare (or sometimes, Shake-spear), continued with each publication until 1623, when, the editors of the First Folio were forced to continue to publish the plays as by William Shakespeare, partly for political reasons, and partly because the public were so used to the name by then that it would have been impossible to change it.

  3. Just found this. I don’t know whether you believe Edward de Vere died in 1604 or not. I don’t, and think one of the reasons for his disappearance was Henry Howard coming to a position of power, which you highlight here.

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