'Sheep-Skin-Weaver': Ben Jonson in Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix

By Roberts, P. B. | Early Modern Literary Studies, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Sheep-Skin-Weaver': Ben Jonson in Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix


Roberts, P. B., Early Modern Literary Studies


Satiromastix (printed in 1602) is Thomas Dekker's contribution to the 'Poets' War' that raged between 1599 and 1602, with Ben Jonson on one side and Dekker and John Marston on the other.1 Jonson held contrasting opinions of his two antagonists. He and Marston had a tempestuous relationship, with reconciliations, public avowals of friendship and respect, and renewed fallings-out.2 For Dekker, he seems only to have had blunt contempt. William Drummond's record of his conversations with Jonson in 1619 reflects this disparity: Jonson makes multiple digs at Marston, but dismisses Dekker once in passing as one of several writers he considers 'rogues'.3 Posterity has taken its cue from Jonson: beginning with Gerard Langbaine in 1691, critics have passed rapidly over Satiromastix, even though out of all the plays associated with the 'Poets' War', it is the only unequivocal attack on Jonson, with direct verbal quotations from his works.4 In this article I will redress this imbalance.

As it will appear, a dialectic of elite versus popular art is central to the Poets' War.5 Dekker's play was performed late in 1601, by the boy players of Paul's and the Lord Chamberlain's Men, while Jonson was working for the rival children's company at Blackfriars.6 So Satiromastix reached not only a wealthier audience at Paul's; the Chamberlain's Men played on what Jonson in Cynthia's Revels contemptuously calls 'common stages' like the Globe, whose capacity was much bigger than the private playhouses like Blackfriars but who charged a much lower admission price.7 Hamlet (first printed in 1603) conveys the impression the literary slanging match made on contemporaries, when Guildenstern reports to the Prince on the fortunes of 'the tragedians of the city' and the threat to their popularity from the boy actors.8 Significantly for my argument, Guildenstern envisages the 'Poetomachia' as a battle between literature (as represented by poetry) and commercial entertainment (embodied in the public theatre): he describes it to Hamlet as a conflict between 'the poet and the player' (2.2.353).9

The close relationship between Jonson's and Dekker's plays has obscured some fundamental differences. Satiromastix responds directly to Poetaster, where Jonson had made himself Horace, embodiment of integrity and poetic virtue, and caricatured Marston and Dekker as the envious and mediocre Crispinus and Demetrius. All three characters reappear in Satiromastix, but Poetaster ends with Crispinus and Demetrius 'arraigned' before Caesar for their crimes against literature generally and Horace particularly, and Satiromastix retaliates by having Horace 'untrussed' in front of the King for his arrogance and self-promotion. Furthermore, Jonson sets Poetaster, his manifesto about literature, in Rome during the reign of Augustus, 'When wit and arts were at their height';10 Satiromastix takes place in eleventh-century England, and the apparently arbitrary nature of this setting is part of the reason scholars have dismissed Dekker's play as undistinguished hackwork.11 But the clash between the two concerns more than superficial matters of setting. Jonson asserts equivalent status for his texts with the ultra-canonical literature of Greece and Rome, while Dekker's claims for his festive, celebratory satire are opposed.

As often in early-modern satire, each author picks up on external details about the other to suggest something about their moral or intellectual status.12 Dekker concedes in his preface that in preparing his satirical portrait of Jonson he has not restricted himself to 'his mindes Deformitie',13 and the play takes potshots at Jonson's physical appearance, including his clothes: the stage-direction at the start of 2.2 reads 'Enter Horace in his true attyre'. In fact, images of clothing recur throughout the 'Poets' War' plays, but the only scholar to have noticed this is Tom Cain, and he merely infers two things about Poetaster: that contemporary costumes will have heightened the play's conflation of ancient Rome and Elizabethan London, and that Jonson's original Inns of Court audience might have recognized the individuals satirized onstage by their clothes. …

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