‘Sheep-skin-weaver’: Ben Jonson in Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix

P.B. Roberts


Satiromastix (printed in 1602) is Thomas Dekker's contribution to the 'War of the Theatres' that raged between 1599 and 1602, with Ben Jonson on one side and Dekker and John Marston on the other. Caricaturing Jonson as Horace, the play attacks not only his works and personality but also his physical appearance and dress. The quarrel was long thought of as purely an exercise in personal satire, but in Shakespeare & the Poets' War (2001), James P. Bednarz has argued that it concerned differing concepts of authorship, with Shakespeare and Marston critiquing the humanist programme that Jonson sets out in his 'comical satires'. In this article, I discuss a largely ignored textual crux in Satiromastix that relates to Jonson's self-image as an author, as seen in the distorting mirror of Dekker's satire. Recent scholars such as Bednarz and Edward Gieskes disregard Satiromastix, stating that Dekker promotes a humanist credo largely identical to Jonson's, and that consequently the play has little more to offer than some entertaining ad hominem abuse. I argue that in fact the differences between the two are significant. Jonson associates himself with elite culture and classical ideas of satire, while Dekker's satire is more closely related to a festive and popular model, where a community punishes and drives out from amongst them a figure who contravenes their values. Ultimately, Dekker satirizes the gap between Jonson's self-image - as elite defender of literary standards, heroic castigator of vice and folly - and the reality of his status as former actor and mercenary playwright for the public stage.


Jonson; Dekker; satire

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