Marlovian Residue in Jonson's Poetaster

By Stapleton, M. L. | Early Modern Literary Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Marlovian Residue in Jonson's Poetaster


Stapleton, M. L., Early Modern Literary Studies


'He killed Mr. Marlow, the Poet, on Bunhill, comeing from the Green-curtain play-house'. John Aubrey.

Aubrey's uniquely bizarre anecdote in his biographical sketch of Ben Jonson has no known provenance.1 Yet it possesses a modicum of symbolic truth in the construction of literary histories. Scholars have long asserted that the bracing neoclassicism in poetry and drama that Jonson helped initiate in the early seventeenth century contributed to the demise of the comparatively ornate Elizabethan modes in which his forebears, including Marlowe, worked. Poetaster (1601-02), they argue, constituted a type of manifesto for the purpose, 'one of the most powerful statements of an Augustan literary programme in English', as Tom Cain, the play's best editor and probably its most perceptive critic, wrote.2 Those who preceded him in producing a modernised, annotated text such as Herbert S. Mallory and Josiah H. Penniman anticipated this observation in identifying and analysing the characters said to approximate Jonson's rivals in the Jacobean theatre, part of the critical site devoted to the 'terrible Poetomachia', the alleged War of the Theatres. Crispinus and Demetrius may represent John Marston and Thomas Dekker, and in what some might describe as a characteristically self-aggrandising touch, Horace, the ideal writer representative of the new aesthetic that would dominate English poetry and drama for the next two centuries, stands for Jonson himself. 3

The role of Ovid in the play signifies an entirely different matter. Commentators have read this infrequently appearing yet key figure as a surrogate for the outmoded 1590s poetical dispensation, an amalgam of the sonneteers and writers of erotic epyllia in the sixteenth century. Most have wisely refrained from making correspondences between this jovial, romantic young Naso and any specific contemporary, though Marston, Donne, and Shakespeare have been unconvincingly proposed. Cain implied that Poetaster, in repudiating the old Ovidianism, disclaimed Marlowe, its most notable practitioner, just as George A. E. Parfitt had stated explicitly before him.4 Yet he expressed reservations about such a parallel, following the argument of James D. Mulvihill, who cautioned that Jonson tempered his view of the Roman poet 'by an acute and sensitive understanding of the various currents of opinion which surrounded the renaissance Ovid and which inform the satiric vision' of this curious and theatrically unloved artifact. Accordingly, it would be just as unwise to argue that Jonson used the satirical comedy to renounce the poet and playwright who had died almost a decade previously. Various elements in Poetaster, including Ovid as author and abstraction, suggest Marlowe and his poetics, and comprise a type of homage to them. Jonson owed him far too much to repudiate him, and knew it.

I

The relatively modest critical interest in the play's representation of Ovid has included Marlowe infrequently at best, though Ovid and Marlowe have been long associated in early modern studies.5 Mid-twentieth-century scholarship generally regarded Jonson's portrayal of his antique literary character as unflattering. Unsurprisingly, such a perspective echoed the critics' implicitly negative appraisals of the Roman poet because of his eroticism. Therefore, they considered the Poetaster Ovid to be debauched, and, by extension, unmanly. To O. J. Campbell, he and Julia 'are overwhelmed . . . by a moral weakness which poisons their entire natures'. Eugene M. Waith condemned him similarly: 'He shows himself a moral weakling, dominated by his passion,' one who behaves in a 'ridiculous fashion.' This reading of Jonson as rigidly straitlaced informed Jonas A. Barish's contention that the dramatist fails by 'imperfectly trying to imitate an alien spirit' in Epicoene and Poetaster, works designed, according to Frank Kermode, 'to establish that Ovid desecrates poetry and truth.'6 Yet several commentators have approached the issue differently, beginning with E. …

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