Shakespeare and the Poets' War

Shakespeare and the Poets' War

Shakespeare and the Poets' War

Shakespeare and the Poets' War


In a remarkable piece of detective work, Shakespeare scholar James Bednarz traces the Bard's legendary wit-combats with Ben Jonson to their source during the Poets' War. Bednarz offers the most thorough reevaluation of this "War of the Theaters" since Harbage's Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, revealing a new vision of Shakespeare as a playwright intimately concerned with the production of his plays, the opinions of his rivals, and the impact his works had on their original audiences. Rather than viewing Shakespeare as an anonymous creator, Shakespeare and the Poets' War re-creates the contentious entertainment industry that fostered his genius when he first began to write at the Globe in 1599. Bednarz redraws the Poets' War as a debate on the social function of drama and the status of the dramatist that involved not only Shakespeare and Jonson but also the lesser known John Marston and Thomas Dekker. He shows how this controversy, triggered by Jonson's bold new dramatic experiments, directly influenced the writing of As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet, gave rise to the first modern drama criticism in English, and shaped the way we still perceive Shakespeare today.


Certainly it would be worth examining how the author became individualized in a culture like ours, what status he has been given, at what moment studies of authenticity and attribution began, in what kind of system of valorization the author was involved, at what point we began to recount the lives of authors rather than of heroes, and how this fundamental category of “the-man-and-his-work criticism” began.

Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”

To judge of Poets is only the faculty of Poets; and not of all Poets, but the best.

Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries

The legend of Shakespeare and Jonson's wit-combats is unarguably the most famous case of poetic rivalry in the annals of English literature. This book presents the theory that Jonson began in 1599 explicitly to define himself as Shakespeare's opposite through his drama, and that Shakespeare, over the course of the following two years, reacted in a series of metatheatrical plays answering his challenge. the Poets' War—the most important theatrical controversy of the late Elizabethan stage—commenced when Jonson, the younger playwright, became “Jonson,” the poet, by resisting Shakespeare's influence through the invention of a new critical drama that he called “comical satire.” the war continued with added momentum when Shakespeare, in response, molded his comedies to accommodate Jonson's satiric perspective while eschewing its self-confident didacticism. and the battle ended only after Shakespeare, having been stung by Jonson's attack on the Lord Chamberlain's Men in Poetaster, “purged” his rival in the guise of Ajax in Troilus and Cressida. It is consequently during the Poets' War that we find the first record of these writers' mutual commentary and criticism.

To our knowledge, Shakespeare and Jonson first crossed paths when they both wrote for the Chamberlain's Men between 1598 and 1599 and Jonson, using all the psychological ploys of a strong poet, defined himself through his drama in opposition to Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare is now often viewed merely as the butt of Jonson's process of self-creation, there is abundant evidence that he shaped his own literary representation in answering . . .

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