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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 1. Ben Jonson’s character and friendships

BEN JONSON the man is better known to us than any of his literary contemporaries. Drummond’s record of his conversations has preserved an unkindly but vivid picture of his manners and opinions; and, indeed, his egoism made everything that he wrote partly a portrait of himself. Almost every contemporary reference to him has added something personal and characteristic. We hear of his quarrels, his drinking-bouts, his maladies and his imprisonments, as well as of his learning and his theories of literary art. We know him as the huge galleon of Fuller’s account, “built far higher for learning, solid but slow in his performances,” engaging in those memorable wit combats at the Mermaid tavern with that “English man-of-war,” Shakespeare, who “took advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention”; and, again, as the autocrat of those later lyric feasts of Herrick’s reminiscence, where each verse of his “outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.” His humours, his dissipations, his prejudices make distinct and human for us the main interests of his life. Huge of body, bibulous and brawling, he yet loved Latin as heartily as canary, and could write the tenderest epitaph as well as the grossest epigram. Laborious and pertinacious, he rode his hobbies hard, confusing his scholarship with pedantry and his verse with theory; but few have ever served learning and poetry with so whole-hearted a devotion.

Since the days of Fuller, Jonson’s personality and work have rarely been discussed or even mentioned without reference to his “beloved master” Shakespeare. The myth of his devouring jealousy of Shakespeare, supported by Chalmers and Malone, was demolished by Gifford nearly a century ago. But the facts about which the dispute was waged may be again recalled, because of the light that they throw on Jonson’s character and friendships. That he criticised Shakespeare is known from the remark to Drummond that Shakespeare wanted art and from the well known passage in Discoveries. It also seems likely, from a reference in The Returne from Pernassus, that, in the famous “war of the theatres,” Shakespeare and Jonson were on opposite sides. In addition, there are scattered about the works of Jonson various remarks directed against Shakespeare’s plays—especially, the ridicule of chronicle history plays, like Henry V, in the prologue to Every Man in His Humour, the remark on “tales, tempests, and such like drolleries” in Bartholomew Fayre and the petulant gird at Pericles in the Ode to Himself. In each of these instances, Jonson is defending one of his own plays and censuring a dramatic fashion contrary to his own practice and hostile, in his opinion, to the best interests of the drama. While it would be absurd to regard Jonson as representative of a dramatic theory and practice at all points opposed to Shakespeare, we shall find his plays representative of carefully considered views which imply a close criticism of much in Shakespeare and the contemporary drama. His criticism of Shakespeare was based on a definite literary creed and methods, and not on jealousy or personal feeling. On the contrary, we have abundant tradition of his close friendship with Shakespeare, and we have the appreciative as well as discriminating passage in Discoveries, together with the generous eulogy prefixed to the folio, to testify to Jonson’s admiration of his friend’s plays, as “not of an age, but for all time.” No other of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has left so splendid and so enthusiastic an eulogy of the master.

Of Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, Beaumont and Donne, Jonson has likewise left us words of sharp censure and of ardent praise. With regard to Beaumont, Donne, Fletcher, Chapman, Bacon and others, as in the case of Shakespeare, he has mingled praise of their work with protestations of personal affection. With Marston, to whom, for a time, he was most bitterly hostile, he came to a full reconciliation. In all his relations with his literary rivals, we see a man, vain, assertive, arrogant, quick to censure, strong in his loves and hates and always ready for a fight, but also one whose quarrels often ended in friendships, and who was loved and admired by the worthiest of his time. His boasting and carping could not conceal his sturdy honesty of intellect and heart and his generous admiration for high merit in either art or conduct.