“That Reason Wonder May Diminish”:
The Androgyne and the Theater Wars
He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had
an excellent fantasy; brave notions, and gentle expressions:
wherein he flow'd with that facility, that sometime it was nec-
essary he should be stop'd. …
—Ben Jonson on Shakespeare
And will you have poor woman such a fixed Star, that she
shall not so much as move or twinkle in her own sphere?
An oblique line in the anonymous play The Return from Parnassus, Part II, produced early in 1602 at St. John's College, Cambridge, implicates Shakespeare in the “War of the Poets” that had recently enlivened the London stage. This famous quarrel had most obviously and explicitly raged between Ben Jonson, John Marston, and Thomas Dekker, who—reviving a tradition as old as Aristophanes' Progs— satirically attacked one another in successive London stage productions between 1599 and 1601. But in a now-famous passage from Parnassus II, an actor impersonating Will Kempe awards Shakespeare laurels in the dubious dramatic contest. Beginning, “Few of the university “men” pen plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphoses, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter,” Kempe then gloats, “Why, here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye, and Ben Jonson too.” “Kempe” further boasts that Shakespeare has given Jonson a much deserved “purge” (II, 4.3.1766–73).
The comment has prompted a wealth of interpretations within the numerous twentieth-century “readings” of the Renaissance poetomachia. In her biography of Jonson, Rosalind Miles suggests that the lines probably refer to Troilus and Cressida, but may signify the