Marlovian Residue in Jonson’s Poetaster

M. L. Stapleton


Scholars have long asserted that the rigorous neoclassicism in poetry and drama that Jonson helped initiate in the early seventeenth century contributed to the demise of the ornate Elizabethan modes in which his forebears worked, including Marlowe. 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 wrote (1995). It is alleged that the play’s characters approximate Jonson’s rivals in the Jacobean theatre, part of the critical site devoted to the 'terrible Poetomachia,' the alleged War of the Theatres. In what some might describe as a characteristic touch, Horace, the ideal writer and representative of the new aesthetic that would dominate English poetry and drama for the next two centuries, is Jonson himself. Yet The role of Ovid constitutes an entirely different matter. Commentators have read this key figure who appears infrequently as a surrogate for the old 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, Jacobean Naso and any specific contemporary. James D Mulvihill (1982) argued that Jonson tempered his view of the controversial 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 dramatic artifact. Cain, the play’s best editor and probably its most perceptive critic, implied that Poetaster, in repudiating not Ovid but the old Elizabethan Ovidianism, disclaimed Marlowe, its most notable practitioner. I argue that various elements in Poetaster, including the ancient writer as poet and construct, indeed suggest Marlowe and his poetics, but comprise a type of homage to them. Accordingly, Jonson cannot be said to have used the satirical comedy to renounce the poet and playwright who had died almost a decade previously. He owed his predecessor far too much to repudiate him, and knew it.


Marlowe; Jonson; poetaster; ovid

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