Monday, May 13, 2013

What Was The Ben Jonson / William Shakespeare Friendship?

I guess I always thought that most of Shakespeare's "friends" recognized his genius and organized themselves around him like some sort of disciples re-learning their craft.  I don't know where I got that, it's just the image that works for me - they've got this good thing going, they think they're at the top of their game, then along comes this new kid who pretty much reinvents how it should be done, and then they're suddenly in a position to try and keep up with him.  

Specifically, though, I'm curious about Ben Jonson since he's typically recognized as the most famous and successful of Shakespeare's friends.  What exactly was that relationship?  Twice today I spotted references like this one:
Jonson was pals with Shakespeare (and defended him often), but considered himself a genius and Shakespeare a hack (he often heckled Shakespeare's plays).
...and I realized that I probably have a lot to learn about this aspect of Shakespeare's life.  I get that Jonson thought he was a genius, I've seen that before.  But is it true that he looked down on Shakespeare's work?  If there was really any heckling I can only assume that it was good-natured among friends, and I can totally believe that.

Who wants to take the floor and tell us about Mr. Jonson?

5 comments:

Mark Merenda said...

Johnson seems to have thought Shakespeare was a genius, but one who was, artistically speaking, out of control. As Emperor Joseph II supposedly said, "Too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes." Jonson felt that Shakespeare not a good editor of his own work:

I REMEMBER the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. “Sufflaminandus erat,” as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter, as when he said in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him: “Cæsar, thou dost me wrong.” He replied: “Cæsar did never wrong but with just cause; and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

It is difficult to imagine that Jonson did not suffer from more than a little professional jealousy. Still it was Jonson who wrote (in the first folio) "He was not of an age, but for all time!"

Duane Morin said...

THank you, Mark, for reminding me of this:

http://blog.shakespearegeek.com/2009/04/would-he-had-blotted-1000.html

A few years back I questioned whether the "would he had blotted a thousand!" line was an insult or a dream of what could have been (i.e. had he blotted certain lines he would have come up with even greater ones).

This comment brought up a lively discussion, including much of the Jonson commentary you've made here.

orlandocreature said...

We are so used to putting Shakespeare in his own tier, above all his colleagues and rivals, that it is easy to forget that he was just considered one of a number of wildly talented playwrights at the time. The real veneration doesn't start until Garrick. He was often criticised for mixing his genres, for failing to observe the Aristotlean Unities, and for lacking a refined taste. The idea of disciples gathered at his knee is a bit of a retro-projection fantasy, though he does seem to have taken a role in mentoring Fletcher, before handing over the playwright-in-chief gig to him.

orlandocreature said...

We are so used to putting Shakespeare in his own tier, above all his colleagues and rivals, that it is easy to forget that he was just considered one of a number of wildly talented playwrights at the time. The real veneration doesn't start until Garrick. He was often criticised for mixing his genres, for failing to observe the Aristotlean Unities, and for lacking a refined taste. The idea of disciples gathered at his knee is a bit of a retro-projection fantasy, though he does seem to have taken a role in mentoring Fletcher, before handing over the playwright-in-chief gig to him.

JM said...

orlandocreature wrote: "He was often criticised for mixing his genres, for failing to observe the Aristotlean Unities, and for lacking a refined taste."

--Add to all that his 'heresy' in treatment of the accepted dramatic-poetic form. One striking thing to his peers might have been that it was successful at all, never mind that it worked so stunningly well.