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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.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 9. Quarrel with Jonson: Assaults and Counter-assaults

In 1599, a play was performed at court, probably by the boys of Paul’s, which carried on the practice of staging contemporary authors, and, in the personage of Chrisoganus, “Master Pedant” and “translating scholler,” who is advised, “goe, get you clothes,” the audience of the day probably recognised the most learned of the dramatic circle, Jonson, who “excelled in a translation,” and was famous no less for his scholarship than for his shabby garments. This play, Histrio-Mastix, based on an earlier drama, possibly by Chapman, was directed against adult players, perhaps with special reference to the Chamberlain’s company, and authors who wrote for it, of whom Jonson was one, and the evidence is strongly in favour of Marston’s responsibility for the greater share in its production. Jonson, when, for the first time, he attacks Marston in Every Man out of His Humour, selects for derision words used in this play as well as in Marston’s Scourge of Villanie, and, in the opinion of some critics, presented him as Carlo Buffone, “a most fiend like disposition,” “a public scurrilous and profane jester … who will swill up more sack at a sitting than would make all the guard a posset.” We are told that “he will sooner lose his soul than a jest, and profane even the most holy things to excite laughter.” The identification, however, is far from certain, and Carlo may have been intended for a certain Charles Chester, a familiar city character. Attempts have been made to identify various other characters in the play with well known contemporaries of Jonson—Fastidious Brisk with Daniel, Fungoso with Lodge and Sordido with Henslowe—but with more ingenuity than success. So far, Dekker had not been in the battle. Before this date, he and Jonson had been collaborators and may have been friends. Some critics have thought Emulo a portrait of Jonson; but nothing could be more inapplicable to that sturdy shabby scholar than a description such as this—

  • My brisk spangled baby will come into a stationer’s shop, call for a stool and a cushion, and then asking for some Greek poet, to him he falls, and then he grumbles God knows what, but I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue.
  • In Jacke Drums Entertainment, an anonymous play performed in 1600 by the children of Paul’s, in which Brabant Senior, “the censurer,” is probably a portrait of Jonson, and Sir Edward Fortune may be intended for Edward Alleyn, there is again evidence of Marston’s hand, his rhodomontade and fustian vocabulary, and these are ridiculed in Poetaster. “The new poet Mellidus” was probably a representation of the author himself. Jonson had already returned to the charge in Cynthia’s Revels, where Dekker has been thought to be staged for the first time as Anaides, and where, most probably, Marston is pilloried as Hedon:
  • The one a light voluptuous reveller,
  • The other a strange arrogating puff,
  • Both impudent and arrogant enough.
  • Both are represented as engaged in a plot against Crites, who, they agree to give out, is a plagiary, “all he does is dictated from other men,” and “the time and place where he stole it” is known. Anaides is described as one “who will censure or discourse of anything, but as absurdly as you would wish. His fashion is not to take knowledge of him that is beneath him in clothes. He never drinks below the salt.” He has a voice like the opening of some justice’s gate or a postboy’s horn, “a great proficient in all the illiberal sciences.” “He will blaspheme in his shirt. The oaths which he vomits at one supper would maintain a town of garrison in good swearing a twelve month.” We hear from him that, in argument with Crites, “because I could not construe an author I quoted at first sight, he went away and laughed at me.” Anaides revenges himself by describing Crites as smelling of “lamp-oil with studying by candle-light.” The Amorphus of this play may be Anthony Munday, who “walks most commonly with a clove or picktooth in his mouth,” and is “more affected than a dozen waiting women.” He will “usurp all the talk, ten constables are not so tedious,” and he has been “fortunate in the amours of three hundred forty and five ladies, all nobly, if not princely descended.” The epilogue to Cynthia’s Revels connects this play with Marston’s Antonio and Mellida. The actor who pronounced it had injunction from the author
  • I ’ll only speak what I have heard him say:
  • By God, ’tis good, and if you lik’t, you may.
  • The epilogue to Antonio and Mellida enters armed and remarks: “I stand not as a peremptory challenger of desert, either for him that composed the Comedy, or for us that acted it; but as a most submissive suppliant for both.” To the armed epilogue of Marston’s play succeeded the armed prologue of Poetaster (1601), Jonson’s most elaborate attack upon his detractors, where Marston is Crispinus, Dekker Demetrius. Hedon, in Cynthia’s Revels is supposed, by some critics, to be Dekker; but it seems more probable that as “a dresser of plays about the town here,” “one of the most overflowing rank wits in Rome,” he appears for the first time upon the stage as Demetrius. Poetaster doubtless presents other portraits of contemporaries; Virgil, a complimentary picture, may have been intended either for Shakespeare or Chapman. The pill which Caesar permits Horace to administer to Crispinus forces him to disgorge a number of Marston’s fustian words, which offended Jonson’s taste; and both he and Demetrius are sworn never again “to malign, traduce or detract the person or writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or any other eminent man.” The reply to Poetaster was entrusted by the aggrieved fellowship to Dekker, and his Satiro-mastix was produced in 1601. It seems certain that Jonson knew of the intention to reply to Poetaster, and that Dekker was to share in it, for the part of Demetrius looks like an afterthought. He is introduced as a stranger in the third act “hired to abuse Horace, and brings him in a play.” The controversy is carried on by the author of Satiro-mastix in a light, pleasant and facetious vein. Dekker cleverly introduces some of Jonson’s own characters and even improves that of the swaggerer Tucca, and, while this play falls far short of Poetaster in construction, its mockery is more genial, its humour more subtle and sparkling and the management of the whole is marked by a delightful air of irresponsibility. Jonson is charged with having “arraigned two poets against all law and conscience.” There are a number of jocose references to his personal appearance, his scholar’s pride, his slow methods of composition, his early trade as a bricklayer, his military service in the Netherlands, the duel in which he killed his adversary. The “humourous poet” is “untrussed,” and condemned to wear a crown of nettles. He is no longer to swear he will hang himself if he thinks any man could write as well as he, nor to enter the gallery when his comedies are performed, and there make vile and bad faces at every line to make men have an eye to him and make the players afraid.
  • Besides, you must forsweare to venter on the stage, when your play is ended, and to exchange curtezies, and complements with Gallants in the Lordes roomes, to make all the house rise up in Armes, and to cry that’s Horace, that’s he, that’s he, that’s he, that pennes and purges Humours and diseases.
  • And, again, “when your plays are misse-likt at Court, you shall not crye Mew like a Pusse-cat, and say you are glad you write out of the Courtier’s Element.” “We come,” says Crispinus, “like your Phisitions, to purge
  • Your sicke and daungerous minde of her disease.”