We should all be so lucky as to have a friend like Ben Jonson.
No, hear me out: Ben Jonson, author of plays like Volpone and Bartholomew Faire, was a man of hefty ego, irascible temper, stinging wit, and a somewhat combative nature. Yet he was also a man of deep and stirring sentiment, as much of his poetry shows. He also seems to have had a long and close friendship with William Shakespeare – a friendship that was not without its disagreements and its rivalries, but which endured and inspired nonetheless. The elegy he wrote for the First Folio is not only a paean to the “Sweet Swan of Avon” and the “soul of an age;” it is a letter to a friend. A friend who had died seven years earlier, but whose memory had not faded.
Jonson was far from the only Londoner to comment on Shakespeare’s works and his personal character (other contemporary playwrights did as well, along with lawyers and historians), but I don’t think anyone else gives us as much tantalizing insight into what Will’s daily working life might have been like. The two men flourished at the same time, at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and into James I’s. Shakespeare’s company performed many of Jonson’s plays, and he is known to have acted in at least two of them. I love to imagine the two of them sitting at a table in the Mermaid Tavern, as historian Thomas Fuller attests they did, debating on wordcraft and stagecraft: Jonson, the bricklayer’s son, favoring the Classical Unities, arguing for crisp structure and deliberate plotting; Shakespeare, the man from Warwickshire, less bound by convention, whose plots interwove and sprawled like ivy, calling for a lighter and more felicitous hand.
Jonson had high regard for Shakespeare’s poetic abilities, but often criticized his errors (such as placing a sea-coast in Bohemia) and his ungoverned style. Even in the Folio poem, Jonson can’t resist ribbing his departed friend for having “small Latin and less Greek,” and years later, Jonson wrote:
“I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out 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 choose 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 flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d. … But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised, then to be pardoned.”
Harsh words? It’s easy to see them as such, but Jonson himself refutes that. He was just speaking, as he always did, bluntly and honestly – and who but a good friend can see your faults, plain and clear, and still love you with so much heart?