3. ‘So Bold A Thief’ – Who is Poet-Ape?

brokage poet-apePoor POET-APE, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it.
Ben Jonson

This chapter explores whether William Shakespeare is in fact the only viable candidate for Ben Jonson’s ‘Poet-Ape’, a man who went from ‘brokage’ of ‘old plays’ to representing the works of others as his own … and whether this is the best explanation for the seven plays by other people which were published under Shakespeare’s name in his lifetime.

Read the first section, and continue through chapter by using the links at the bottom of each post. Sections are summarised below.

  • Jonson’s Poet-Ape In 1616, the year of William Shakespeare’s death, the playwright and satirist Ben Jonson published ‘Poet-Ape’, a poem about a man who went from ‘brokage’ to representing the plays of others as his own. Who was Jonson’s ‘Poet-Ape’?
  • Ambiguity and Interpretation Jonson didn’t coin the term ‘poet-ape’. What did he mean by it? One thing’s for sure – ‘poet-ape’ does not equate, in Jonson’s mind, with ‘actor’.
  • Plagiarism From Jonson’s description, the identity of Poet-Ape will clearly be a name with which scholars of early modern drama will be familiar. Is Jonson accusing Thomas Dekker or John Marston of plagiarism?
  • Thomas Lord Cromwell – ‘Written by W.S.’ In 1602, the play Thomas Lord Cromwell was published, declaring it was ‘Written by W.S.’ Most scholars subscribe to the idea that this was a piratical publication. But as a play owned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, it can be seen as part of a pattern of Shakespeare’s play-broking.
  • The London Prodigal – ‘Written by William Shakespeare’ In 1605, The London Prodigal was published as ‘written by William Shakespeare’, the first of the apocrypha to be so boldly attributed, and again it was associated with Shakespeare’s company. The publisher was Nathaniel Butter, who published King Lear three years later.
  • A Yorkshire Tragedy – ‘Written by William Shakespeare’ A Yorkshire Tragedy, was published as ‘written by Shakespeare’ in 1608 by the man who had published Henry V six years earlier. Piratical or authorised, further evidence of Shakespeare’s work as a play-broker?
  • The Puritan – ‘Written by W.S.’ The publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, George Eld, is responsible for publishing The Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street, as ‘Written by W.S.’ Were these initials supplied to Eld by Shakespeare himself?
  • The Troublesome Reign of King John – ‘Written by W. Sh’ The Troublesome Reign of King John was published as ‘Written by W.Sh.’ in 1611. Is this another piece of evidence for Shakespeare’s play-broking activities?
  • Newly Augmented and Corrected Even putting The Troublesome Reign of King John aside, we must ask how so many plays came to be published under Shakespeare’s name that were not his own.  The ‘rogue publisher’ theory is appealing enough as a generality, but on interrogating the individual circumstances of each publisher and play, it begins to fall apart.

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