It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.
In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.
That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.
What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?
“To draw no envy on thy name”
What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.
In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).
Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.
“Thou art a monument without a tomb”
However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.
The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?
Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.
Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?
Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).
Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.
Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.
What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.
“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”
As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?
Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.
Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.
Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.
Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.
“Sweet swan of Avon”
These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.
As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.
Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.
“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”
But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.
Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?
Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?