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A friend of the First Folio family




Ben Jonson’s Poetaster was undoubtedly conceived primarily as a satire of his own situation and riposte to his critics. It is spirited and passionate and at times drawn de profundis, reflecting the precarious position of his own art, the audiences for which were dwindling under the inevitable, though not yet complete, Puritan ascendancy. Its subtitle is The Arraignment: that is, the trial of Horace’s persecutors in the final act, which results in a guilty verdict and a vindication of the aggrieved party. There can be absolutely no doubt, of course, that the master satirist Horace represents Jonson himself. It seems highly likely that all the other poets in the play – Ovid, Cato, Virgil, and so on – also had their counterparts in the Elizabethan literary circle, the central magus of which was, as I have argued extensively, Sir Francis Bacon. Virgil would most plausibly in Poetaster then represent Bacon. However, this must remain conjectural.


There is far stronger evidence for a further identification. It has been postulated that Crispinus, the poetaster himself, the empty wannabe bore, may represent John Marston. However, he is far more likely to be a portrait of Will Shakspere, at least as perceived by Jonson. The Latin crispo means ‘I move rapidly up and down’, ‘I brandish’. It appears in line 313 of Virgil’s Aeneid I: ‘bina manu lato crispans hastilia ferro’, ‘brandishing [shaking] two broad-bladed spears in his hand’. We recall (Ugly Dick, pp, 218-9) that Bacon used it to indicate Will Shakspere, or Shakespeare, in Hal’s famous speech before the battle of Agincourt in Henry the Fifth, where the sevenfold reiteration of Crispine/Crispian, as well as the repeated misspelling of Crispinian as Crispian, serves to draw attention to a possible hidden meaning. In Poetaster too, Crispinus occurs in the variant Crispinas. Jonson also portrays Shakspere in the character of La Foole in Epicoene or The Silent Woman. Jack Dawe is Sir Francis Bacon, as we have seen; and Epicoene contains, in the gallery scene in Act IV, an elaborate set piece portraying the unmasking of Bacon as the author of (or at least the genius behind) the works of Shakespeare.  A further portrayal of Will Shakspere is to be found in Every Man Out of His Humour, in the character of Sogliardo, as first pointed out by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence in his Bacon is Shakespeare (1910). Jonson refers in III.i to Shakspere’s recent acquisition of a Coat of Arms:


Sogliardo  Yfaith, thank God I can write myself gentleman now, here’s my patent, it cost me thirty pound by this breath.

Puntarvolo  A very fair Coat, well charg’d and full of armorie.


Just so in Poetaster is there a jest in the same vein (II.i):


Crispinus  Yet, I pray you, vouchsafe the sight of my arms, Mistresse; for I bear them about me, to have ‘hem seen: my name is Crispinus, or Cri-spinas indeed; which is well expressed in my arms, (a Face crying in chiefe; and beneath it a bloody Toe, between three Thorns pungent.)


In the third line of the play, no later, its kinship as allegory with the other plays of the 1916 Folio is made plain:


Envie  Light, I salute thee; but with wounded nerves:

Wishing thy golden splendour, pitchy darkness.

What’s here? Th’Arraignment?  I: This, this is it…


– Where ‘I’ for the expected ‘Ay’ signifies that the unseen world or broader libido is the real subject of the trial: the points being: 1) On the level of the satire, that it is the unseen world which is the underlying cause of the Jonson’s vilification; and 2) On the level of the psycho allegory, that the libido is no threat to the Gnostic adept (Virgil-Caesar), but rather it is welcomed and transformed by him (Horace’s medicinal purging of Crispinus). The conspirators are repeatedly identified with the ‘I’ principle:


Ovid  Who, Pantilius Tucca?

Luscus  I, he…



Tucca  …Besides, when it shall be in the power of thy chev’rill conscience, to do right, or wrong, at thy pleasure, my pretty Alcibiades.

Lupus  I, and to have better men…



Ovid  Who? Cytheris, Cornelius Gallus love?

Tibullus I, he’ll be there too…



Crispinus  …an excellent ayre, an excellent ayre!

Albius  I, sir, ‘tis a pretty ayre.



And so on.  So too is Horace’s emblem, produced by the conspirators as evidence of his treason, identified with the ‘I’ principle:


Lupus   A libel in picture.

Caesar  A libel?

Lupus  I, I found it in the Horace his studio…

Tucca  I, and remember to beg their land betimes…



Lupus  A vulture? I; now, ‘tis a vulture.



Lupus  A wolf? Good. That’s I; I am the wolf.



Lupus  An ass? Good still: That’s I too.



It could hardly be plainer. The world which lies unseen below the surface of things, anathematised (or misprised) by the Puritan:


Ovid senior  Mis-prize? I, mary…



– is yet worshipped by the Gnostic artist:


Ovis senior I, your god of poets there…



The repetition of ‘I’ as in Tucca’s ‘I must ha’ money, I’ and ‘I cannot be importunate, I’ (I.ii), I take to identify the speaker with the unseen world, even though the second ‘I’ does not suggest ‘Ay’. There are numerous instances of this technique in Poetaster. Crispinus’ ‘I write just in thy vein, I’ is particularly interesting, for the libido, irrupting his Apollinist meditation to plunge him into crisis, continued to be a problem for Will Shakspere, as we have seen in Ugly Dick; and, further, there is a school of thought that the real Shakspere was a tavern-haunting Falstaffian type (certainly, this would accord with my ascription to him of the Boar’s Head tavern scenes in 1&2HIV): so that Jonson’s association of the ‘I’ principle with him would seem to be doubly appropriate. The Gnostic artist hearkens to the song of the underworld:


Horace  You said, you had somewhat to say to me, in private.

Aristius  I, but I see…



The identification continues as the conspiracy gathers head:


Tucca  I have commanded a hundred and fifty such rogues, I.

Pyrgus  I, and most of that hundred and fifty have been leaders of a legion.



Jonson’s choice of the name ‘Demetrius’ for one the conspirators is interesting, for this name represents always in the Shakespeare plays the false Alexander, or counterfeit of the Gnostic noble: that is, the Puritan ego (see for example A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Here is another key theme from Shakespeare:


Albius  I have read in a book, that to play the fool wisely, is high wisdom. 



Ovid’s banishment from the court represents the suppression of erotic desire by the Gnostic adept. Caesar is explicitly identified with Virgil:


Caesar  Welcome to Caesar, Virgil. Caesar and Virgil

Shall differ but in sound; to Caesar, Virgil

(Of his expressed greatness) shall be made

A second sur-name, and to Virgil, Caesar.


And Virgil will sit in Caesar’s chair during the arraignment. If Virgil represents Sir Francis Bacon, then Ovid’s banishment is appropriate, for Bacon had suppressed all heterosexual erotic desire in himself, his mariage de convenance notwithstanding. (Yet he was human after all, and his young male servants became the objects of his desire). Again, the locus classicus of this virtue is most plausibly the ritual of the twenty-eighth degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, which states: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, flee from this place of truth’. (Knight C. and Lomas R., The Second Messiah, Arrow, 1998). Ovid neatly sums up:


Ovid  She’s in thy heart: rise then, and worship there.

‘The truest wisdom silly men can have,

‘Is dotage, on the follies of their flesh.


Ben Jonson’s Poetaster then is a sophisticated treatment, as allegory, of the Gnostic poet’s stance vis-à-vis the unseen world of nature. He has, in Schopenhaurian terms, triumphed over it as will (the ‘I’ principle), and engages with it as idea. 




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