Now, One the Better; Then, Another Best

Yet it was in many respects a hard and disenchanted age. Satire was very much in the air. Given the macabre atmosphere ‘ around the declining queen, it could hardly fail to be so. The final stages of an ancien régime always provoke black humour. It was the age of Donne’s satires and of such books as Lodge’s Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madness.

On I June 1599 the Archbishop of Canterbury banned all satire in verse. The Privy Council ordered that the number of plays be restricted. But the new vogue for satire came directly to involve Shakespeare in what is known as the “Poets’ War.” Like all internecine conflicts its origins are uncertain, and have as a result been endlessly debated. We may trace a source or origin, however, in John Marston’s association with the Middle Temple and with the choirboys of St. Paul’s who performed dramas in their singing-school by the cathedral.

John Marston had acquired a reputation as a precocious satirist, especially of those older writers who had attained success or renown. One of his earliest productions, The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image, was a burlesque upon Venus and Adonis. His satire at Shakespeare’s expense, however, did not prevent him from borrowing or copying extensively from the work of the older dramatist. Marston is a familiar type. Shakespeare already knew him; as a member of the Middle Temple Marston’s father had stood surety for Shakespeare’s cousin, Thomas Greene, to become a member of that institution. For the members of the Middle Temple, in late 1598 or early 1599, Marston wrote a satirical play, Histriomastix, in which he glances unfavourably at both Shakespeare and Jonson.

Ben Jonson, never one to ignore or forgive an offence, then parodied Marston in Every Man out of his Humour. He had some reason to be sensitive. He had already been touched by Shakespeare. In Henry V the character of Nym continually repeats “That’s the humour of it,” a direct echo of Jonson’s favourite theatrical device. In As You Like It the character of Jaques, melancholy and voluble in his “humorous sadness,” has often been taken as a satirical if good-humoured presentation of Jonson himself.

Jonson was a less endearing humorist. In Cynthia’s Revels, in 1600, he pilloried Marston as well as his play-writing colleague, Thomas Dekker; one was “a light, voluptuous reveller” and the other “a strange arrogating puff.” In his next play, The Poetaster, he ridiculed Marston as a hack poet and plagiarist. Marston eventually counter-attacked with What You Will, in which Jonson was lampooned as an arrogant and insolent failure. In his aggressive manner Jonson then challenged Marston to a duel; since he was already branded on the thumb for murder, this was a foolhardy strategy. He probably guessed, however, that Marston would decline the challenge. Jonson then sought his man in the taverns of London, and found him. Marston pulled a pistol, whereupon Jonson took it from him and thrashed him with it. That is the story that went around London. Jonson repeated it later.

Dekker had already returned to the fray in Satiromastix in which Shakespeare is gently lampooned as the lecherous playwright Sir Adam Prickshaft but in which Jonson is more cruelly ridiculed as a failed court dramatist. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men nevertheless agreed to perform Dekker’s Satiromastix. At this point the literary feud ceased to be the “Poets’ War” and became known as the “War of the Theatres.”

The problem came with the boy-actors. Both Marston and Dekker had written their satirical and cynical plays for the Children of St. Paul’s. The boys’ companies had a long history, and in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth they were the dominant force in the London theatre. The rise of the public playhouses had somewhat dimmed their lustre but, in this era of satire in the late 1590s, they had returned to popularity. They performed a large number of “railing plays,” and one contemporary condemned those “committing their bitternesse, and liberall invectives against all estates, to the mouthes of Children, supposing their juniority to be a priviledge for any rayling, be it never so violent.” 1 The connection between boys and adult satire was an aspect of a larger tradition. It is in part the legacy of the boys’ dramas written by John Lyly a generation before, which deployed a setting of classical history and legend. Cynthia’s Revels and Poetaster, among other plays of the Poets’ War, used similar classical settings. It is also likely that the connection of the boys’ companies with court and Church, as well as their status as private companies, rendered them relatively immune to the usual condemnations of the civic authorities and the Privy Council. The experience of watching children playing adult parts was in any case quite a different thing. They could, as it were, mock adults in a different key. To be a boy, and to play an adult passion, is to throw that passion in sharper perspective. The emotion, or obsession, is more purely defined. In a theatrical culture which encouraged unreality and artifice, the mimicry of the boy-players was thus doubly attractive.

But why did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men agree to perform Dekker’s Satiromastix in which Ben Jonson is caricatured? The immediate cause is not hard to discern. Jonson had begun writing for the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars. He and the adult players may have been involved in some kind of quarrel or conflict in connection with their productions of Every Man in His Humour and Every Man out of His Humour. It is perhaps more likely that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had rejected a new play offered to them by Jonson. Had he expected Cynthia’s Revels to be performed at the Globe? There was another irritant, however. The boys’ companies readily asserted their “gentle” associations and the exclusiveness of the private theatres. The playwrights who wrote for them took some delight in mocking the “common players” of the public playhouses. And this is what Jonson did. In the plays he wrote for performance at Blackfriars he ridiculed the “common actors,” “the decayed dead arras in a public theatre” and those who “will press forth on common stages.” He also accused the actors of being “licentious, rogues, libertines, flat libertines.” 2 The players of the Globe took their revenge.

It is even possible that Shakespeare wrote a scene for Satiromastix in which Horace, aka Jonson, comically labours over the composition of an ode. The author of the Parnassus trilogy refers to that “pestilent fellow,” Ben Jonson, and to the fact that “our fellow Shakespeare hath giuen him a purge that made him beray his credit.” 3 In a prologue later written for Poetaster, Jonson ruefully berated “some better natures” who had been persuaded to “run in that vile line.” At the time, however, Jonson was not so sanguine. InPoetaster itself he had attacked the Globe for ribaldry and its actors for hypocrisy and stupidity. But one of them in particular is addressed as “proud”: “You grow rich, do you, and purchase?” 4 The same actor is also mocked for his coat of arms, when it is made clear that his real pedigree is listed in the Statute of Rogues and Vagabonds that controlled the activities of players. It was in the autumn of 1599 that the Shakespeares had sought to impale their arms with those of the noble family of the Ardens.

Shakespeare did not reply directly. That was not his way. Instead he refers to the whole controversy in Hamlet, the play most notably established upon the devices of the theatre. Rosencrantz remarks to Hamlet that “there is Sir an ayrie of Children, little Yases [an eyas was a young hawk], that crye out on the top of question; and are most tyrannically clap’t for’t; these are now the fashion, and so be-ratle the common Stages (so they call them)” that as a consequence there was “for a while no mony bid for argument, vnlesse the Poet and the Player went to Cuffes in the Question” (1269-85). Hamlet’s uncharacteristically reasonable response is that the boys should not disparage the “common players” when, at a later stage, they were likely to become them.

The whole controversy faded away, and soon enough the major antagonists were working together once more. It had elements of “ado” about “nothing,” too, in the sense that Richard Burbage himself had leased the Blackfriars Playhouse to the Children of the Chapel Royal; the owner of the Globe was making money from his apparent rivals, and it is possible that the “war” was in part an advertising opportunity for the sake of attracting more custom. The nature of Elizabethan society in any case encouraged sudden “flares” followed by equally sudden reconciliations. The rumblings of the controversy, however, can still faintly be heard in Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida.

At the end of the century there was a positive rush of Shakespeare’s plays to the printers, which is some indication of his prevailing popularity. In the autumn of 1599 there were new editions of Romeo and Juliet and of the first part of Henry IV; there was also another edition of Venus and Adonis, suggesting that his standing as a poet was still as high as that of playwright. At the beginning of 1600, in fact, a “staying entry” was placed in the Stationers’ Register for “A booke called Amours by J.D. with certain other sonnetes by W.S.” In the previous year, as we have seen, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets had been pirated for a volume entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. It may have been that Shakespeare wanted his real work to be duly registered and noted.

The new edition of Romeo and Juliet was described as “Newly corrected, augmented and amended,” while the new edition of Henry IV was described as being “Newly corrected by William Shake-speare.” It may have simply been an advertising device, to persuade readers of the “newness” of the edition. In the same period the Admiral’s Men, about to move into the recently built Fortune, were also advertising their wares by publishing the works they owned. The two companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men, had a virtual monopoly on play texts as well as on plays. But in the phrase “newly corrected” there is at least a suggestion that Shakespeare was actually revising and rewriting his plays ahead of publication. His name was in any case at a premium, and had gone beyond the usual bounds of the universities and the legal Inns. In the summer of 1600 The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It were placed in the Stationers’ Register “to be stayed,” so that the very latest plays would at least in theory soon become available. It certainly meant that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, no doubt including Shakespeare himself, were eager to safeguard what was becoming more valuable literary property. These entries were followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second part of Henry IV, credited as being “written by master Shakspere.” Curiously enough Julius Caesar was not registered at all. This might suggest that the play was less than successful on the public stage, but there is a more pertinent explanation. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign it was not considered prudent or appropriate to publish a play in which a ruler is assassinated by his courtiers.

The number of Shakespeare’s plays published through 1599 and 1600 also suggests that the printed versions were becoming a staple part of the city’s literary currency, akin to pamphlets and to sermons. For a previous generation they had been catchpenny curiosities. Now they were regularly to be found on the bookstalls. Shakespeare was in the air. The Countess of Southampton was making playful allusions to Falstaff in the same year as verses were being written by admirers “Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare” in which he is praised as “honie-tongued.” 5

It was not an easy time, however, for the companies. In June 1600, the Privy Council limited playing time to two performances a week. The order did not preclude royal performances, of course, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played twice before the queen during the Christmas season. They were, however, about to encounter royal disapproval.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!