Ben Jonson and the 1623 Folio

Chapter 10


From the book,

Enter Francis Bacon

Bertram Theobald

In the earlier days of Ben Jonson's career, as we have just seen, he invariably sneered at the actor Shakespere, and it quite evident that he saw through the man's pretensions. He also had a poor opinion of the Shakespeare plays, since he himself belonged to the old classical school of writers, whereas "Shakespeare" disregarded many of their canons and broke fresh ground in his dramas. Besides which, Jonson was jealous of Bacon, no doubt thinking--as others had done--that a man who was ostensibly a lawyer and statesman had no right to enter the domain of the professional playwright and compete with those who were earning their livelihood by literature.

Now in or about 1620, if not earlier, Jonson became on friendly terms with Bacon, assisting him to translate some of his works into Latin, since Bacon, with all his prodigious stores of knowledge, was not an accurate classical scholar in the academic sense. From this time onwards Jonson's admiration for Bacon was both warm and sincere; and, for a man so sparing in his praise of others, the splendid eulogy in his Discoveries, 1640, is as fine a tribute from one great man to another as may be found anywhere; quite as fine, indeed, as his eulogy of "Shakespeare" in the 1623 Folio. Herein lies the true explanation of his apparent change of attitude towards the Stratford man. We may well ask why he should, in the prefatory matter of the Folio, laud to the skies the very man whom he had lost no opportunity of flouting during that man's lifetime. The fact is that he never did change his opinion of the actor. He saw clearly that this man was only a mask for the hidden author, and the references in his plays prove this. Even in these Discoveries, wherever he alludes to the actor, as distinct from the author, his remarks are very condescending. The much discussed passage from that work is equivocal, and cannot be taken as genuine admiration. He could not well be as contemptous as formerly, in view of his lavish praise, in the Folio, of the author, whom he purposely confused with the actor. Therefore in the later Discoveries he was obliged to appear moderately friendly. But the note of condescension is very apparent. His remarks are altogether on a different level from the almost fulsome praise of the Folio.

The crux of the matter therefore is, that Jonson became entrusted with Bacon's secret's about 1620, if not before, and was fully cognisant of the whole position. Bacon was busy from 1621 to 1623 preparing his important works, such as the De Augmentis, for the Press, and likewise revising his "Shakespeare" plays for publication, since he evidently feared that his end might be near. In order to keep his own name still in the background, he seems to have arranged that Jonson should play the part of editor and sponsor to this Shakespeare Folio, Henning and Condell being mere puppets who lent their names in order to throw dust in the eyes of the unthinking public. (It is already admitted that the prefatory matter signed by them was actually from Jonson's pen.) Accordingly it was his duty to give a good send-off tot he whole venture. But it has been proved to demonstration that these Introductions contain many misleading , absurd, and apparently false statements. How does this square with the insistence of Stratfordians that "honest Ben" could never be a party to any deception? The facts are that he was. He deliberately told a cock and bull story about the origin of the manuscripts from which the Folio origin was printed, at one time intimating that they had been "collected, " without naming the sources, and at another time saying that they had been received from "him," apparently pointing to the actor Shakspere, who had been seven years in his grave and mentioned no manuscript in his will. Nor does he explain who it was who had the audacity to revise many of the plays, such alterations in most cases being quite in the manner of the true author, as critics agree. Neither does he tell us that six of the Folio plays had never been printed before, nor heard of on the stage, so far as we know. The argument of some editors that these had been sold prior to his death will not hold, since there is no trace of any such sales in the official records of the Stationers' Hall. The whole thing is full of puzzles and contradictions which have given rise to endless controversy among commentators. Finally, in those sphinxian lines facing the frontispiece, he writes in a suspicioulsy quizzical vein, as any one can see who reads them attentively.

Now one word about the "Sweet Swan of Avon." Has it ever struck anyone that if this phrase is to be taken at its face value, it is singularly inept as a simile? The verses of a poet are melodious,or should be. A poem may often be termed a song, and the poet himself the singer of it. Hence are poets described as sweet singers and compared to singing birds, as when Edmund Waller spoke of Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon as "nightingales." But what of the swan? Is it a bird of song? Hardly! And Jonson is not even alluding to the mythical "swan song" ; in fact a few lines lower he speaks of "those flights." He is thinking of the movements of the bird, not of its song-- and quite naturally too. Here are the lines in question :

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our Iames!

If we are meant to take these lines even in a partially metaphorical sense, Queen Elizabeth and King James are represented as having taken pleasure in the sight of the "Sweet Swan," thus pointing rather to an actor on the stage than to an author in his study; especially as the theatres of those days were situated close to the Thames Bank. In other words, Jonson was not so foolish as to compare the melodious verses of the author to the harsh tones of a swan. He was not thinking of the author's writings at all, and there is another explanation to the whole matter.

Jonson had recently been assisting Bacon to translate the latter's works into Latin; and if he did not already know Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (though he almost certainly would) he would at any rate have seen, and perhaps even translated, the passage from Bacon's De Augmentis, Book II, Chapter vii., where mention is made of the following charming little fable : 

Ariosto "feigns that at the end of the thread or web of every man's life there hangs a little medal or collar, on which his name is stamped; and that Time waits upon the shears of Atropos, and as soon as the thread is cut, snatches the medals, carries them off, and presently throws them into the river Lethe; and about the river there are many birds flying up and down , who catch the medals, and after carrying them round and round in their beak a little while, let them fall into the river, only there are a few swans, which if they get a medal with a name immediately carry it off to a temple consecrated to immortality." (Spedding, iv, 307)

The application of this allegory is clear. Shakspere, whose acting was done on the banks of the Thames, was the swan "flying up and down" who eventually caught Bacon's medal and carried it off to the "temple consecrated to immortality"; for we see that it was not the swans themselves who earned immortality ; rather did they rescue from oblivion (the river Lethe) those who were considered worthy of immortal fame. Thus the actor Shakspere did not earn immortality for himself, he helped to secure it for Francis Bacon. Apart from the minor detail that thsi cutting of the thread by Fate would seem to be pictured as occuring at the end of a man's life, whereas Bacon was still alive, the whole allegory fits admirably. And as Jonson's utterances in the Folio are replete with double meanings, it is far more probable that he had this fable in mind than that he should compare a poet to a swan with its discordant note. I believe Walter Begley was the first to call attention to this explanation, and it has since been given by other writers.

If any confirmation be needed of the propriety of this interpretation, it may be found from John Weever's Epigrams. A few years ago I had occasion to visit the Bodleian Library in order to examine Weever's epigram to Shakspere, since this rare book is not in the British Museum; and while doing so, noticed another epigram, which was addressed to Edward Alleyn, the famous actor, contemporary with Shakspere. It runs as follows :

Rome had her Roscius and her Theatre,
Her Terance, Plautus, Ennus and Meander.
The first to Allen Phoebus did transfer,
The next Thames Swans receiv'd fore he could land her.
Of both more worthy we by Phoebus doome
Than t'Allen Roscius yield, to London Rome.

The drift of this seems to be that before Phoebus Apollo could hand onthe fame of the Roman playwrights here mentioned to a London dramatist, as he had handed on the fame of the Roman actor Roscius to Alleyn, a Thames Swan had seized it and carried it off. Thus Weever interprets this allegory in like manner to Jonson. After taking note of this, I found that Dr. Lawrence had also quoted Weever's epigram in his book. (p. 191)

We are told that Jonson's eulogy of "Shakespeare" in the Folio is irrefutable, and that hs phrase "Sweet Swan of Avon" settles the matter. We have seen that this expression is very far from doing any such thing, and the remainder of the eulogy need not cause any more difficulty. In this small book there is not space to discuss the matter fully, but I must insist once more on the essential distinction, orthographically and phonetically, between "Shakespeare" and "Shakspere." The author spelt hs pseudonym in the former way; the actor only left half a dozen scrawls which do duty as signatures, and these may be "Shakspere," though some of them might be "Shaksper." Jonson knew the facts of the case and throughout the Folio wrote it "Shakespeare." Also, it has been frequently been pointed out that many of the early quarto title-pages have "Shake-speare," a very broad hint that this word wa only a pen-name.

Next I will ask the orthodox to explain why Jonson suddenly reversed the contemptuous attitude which he had always shown towards the actor; and why it happened seven years after the actor's death, and just after he had become intimate with Francis Bacon and was actually staying with him at Gorhambury; and most of all why he should think it necessary to dissemble and make equivocal statements, instead of giving a straightforward account of the origin and publication of the Folio. On the Stratfordian theory there was no need to do this; it was a foolish thing to do, and raises suspicion at once. But on the Baconian theory everything is clear. His duty as editor was to preserve the fiction about Shakspere in order to conceal the true author, and he did it very cleverly. In such cases a reasonable amount of dissembling may be necessary. At any rate it is hard to avoid, as witness the cases of Sir Walter Scott and Fiona Macleod. Certainly it would be wholly justifiable according to seventeenth century standards of literary etiquette. If, then, Jonson penned his prose introductions with double meanings to fit in with all this innocent deception, obviously his poetic eulogy must have been conceived in the same spirit. This is why he inserted misleading phrases such as "Sweet Swan of Avon" and others too. All the same time he was speaking sometimes of the actor and sometimes of the author, purposely confusing the two.

Dr. Lawrence ( Notes on the Authorship of the Shakespeare Plays and Poems, Basil E. Lawrence London, Gay and Hancock, Ltd. 1925) made an interesting point on p. 188 of his book when he reminded us that in Act I, Sc. i of The Poetaster, Jonson puts into the mouth of Ovid Junior this line :

"Envy the living, not the dead, doth bite."

Yet in his eulogy of Shakespeare he commences :

"To draw no envy, (Shakespeare) on thy name,"

It is fair deduction that by using this phrase Jonson really implied that Shakespeare was still alive at that time. And even though the lines :


"Thou art a moniment without a tombe
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live"

may be understood metaphorically, one may well argue that Jonson also implied that the author was still living on the earth.

What , then can we conclude with regard to Jonson's testimony as a whole? Just this. Throughout his life he treated the actor with jibes, with the exception of the passage in his Discoveries, and even this is very patronising. In his plays he represents him as "an essential clowne," a boar without brains. In one of his epigrams he dubs him "Poet-Ape." Early in his career he discovered that Francis Bacon was poet and playwright, and he caricatured him in several of his plays. Eventually, however, he came to know Bacon intimately, and afterwards wrote a glowing tribute to his character and attainments. Having seen through the pretensions of Shakspere, and having identified Bacon as a concealed dramatist, he would easily put two and two together, and would be confirmed in his surmises when he became Bacon's literary assistant. Hence he was just the man to act as sponsor to the 1623 Folio. His attitude fits in pefectly with the Baconian theory. This theory gives a coherent and reasonable explanation of all the factors in the problem. Stratfordians, on the other hand, turn a blind eye to the highly significant references in Jonson's plays, pass lightly over his epigram, "To Poet-Ape," or attribute it to malice, and only have eyes for the 1623 eulogy. Thus they ignore the many facts which are adverse to their theory, and only stress the few which appear to support it.


 SEE: Ben Jonson and The First Folio


W. Lansdown Goldsworthy