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Ben Jonson and other writers of Shakespeare’s time satirized a social-climbing playwright-actor who stole their words and passed them off as his own.

In epigrams, stories, and plays they attacked this pretentious plagiarist, who made a lucrative career by patching together popular plays out of bits and pieces from their works.
These satires portray an uncultured, overdressed fellow who (as one of Jonson’s caricatures) acquires a coat of arms so he can be called a gentleman—mirroring a documented incident in William Shakespeare’s life.

The writers’ code of the era (plus fear of imprisonment) prevented these authors from naming the object of their satire, and possibly more than one playwright was targeted. Dr. Sabrina Feldman argues convincingly that most of the lampoons take aim at one highly successful playwright: the chief author of the Apocrypha.

In this episode, Allan Armstrong continues his interview (begun in Episode 4) with Sabrina Feldman, author of The Apocryphal William Shakespeare, to explore these hilarious and pointed parodies and to uncover the identity of their target.

 

Recommended Reading

Books and articles for further exploration:

Sabrina Feldman manages the Planetary Science Instrument Development Office at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Born and raised in Riverside, California, she attended college and graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she enjoyed the wonderful performances of the Berkeley Shakespeare Company, studied Shakespeare’s works for a semester with Professor Stephen Booth, and received a Ph.D. in experimental physics in 1996. She has worked on many different instrument development projects for NASA, and is the former deputy director of JPL’s Center for Life Detection. Her scientific training, combined with a lifelong love of literature and all things Shakespearean, gives her a unique perspective on the Shakespeare authorship mystery. Dr. Feldman lives in Pasadena, California with her husband and two children.

Special thanks to actors Mark Anders, Chris Ensweiler, Leslie Law, David Anthony Lewis, Hannah Mootz, and Mark Waldstein.

 

Ben Jonson portrait
Ben Jonson lampooned an unscrupulous actor-playwright in his epigram On Poet-Ape and through the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out of His Humour.
This 1598 woodcut is the only likeness we have of Robert Greene. It depicts him writing one of his "repentance" pamphlets (hence the sackcloth he's wearing).
This 1598 woodcut is the only likeness we have of Robert Greene. It depicts him writing one of his “repentance” pamphlets (hence the sackcloth outfit).

 

Nashe was a Cambridge-educated satirist and a good friend of Robert Greene.
Thomas Nashe was a Cambridge-educated satirist and a good friend of Robert Greene.

 

Guy of Warwick
Guy of Warwick, legendary medieval hero of English Romance. Detail of a miniature from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (manuscript held by the British Library Royal).

 

Guy of Warwick
Touchstone’s verbal assault on William the clown in As You Like It has been interpreted as an attack by The Bard on Shakespeare of Stratford. Touchstone, Audrey and William by William Knight Keeling.