Was John Fletcher Shakespeare's Co-Author or Ben Jonson's “poet ape”?


To Bill Bryson in Shakespeare – The World as a Stage (London 2007), there was no such thing like the issue forming the central subject of the course initiated by Goldsmiths, University of London under the aegis of Dr. Ros Barber. His biography closes: “Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man – whoever he was.” (195) No matter, that is, how questionable his identity may be, he is it, unquestionably. Are we not in for a variant of this other supposedly witty all-too-well-known-all-too-witty-and-all-too-withered statement: “no doubt that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone named Shakespeare”?

At start Bryson had sounded less assured. “For the rest, he is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron – forever there and not there.” (9)

But ultimately only this “electronic” man from Stratford could have given us those incomparable works; Bryson could, therefore, have chosen another title, an apter one, kind of counterpart to his, A short history of nearly everything, namely A short history of nearly nothing, with the subtitle The quantum theory of Shakespeare, though this title might have been misleading, for the lack of a reasonable quantity of information is precisely one of the salient characteristics of his book – as Bryson himself admits: ”this book was not written so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series does. The idea is a simple one: To see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.”

"Which is one reason, of course, it’s so slender".(20-21)

For sure, William Shakespeare or – Shakspere as authorship doubters prefer to spell the name to distinguish the author, whoever he truly was, from the man to whom the works are usually attributed – is a nightmare to orthodox scholars and doubters alike.

Some doubters would fain getting rid of him altogether. However, was he not really attacked as Shake-scene by the professional writer Robert Greene? Yet even some orthodox writers, non-doubters, have questioned that he had anything to do with this diatribe. Was he not a real payee for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1595? Well, even Charlotte Stopes, a 19th-century Shakespeare expert, by no means a doubter, thought there might be a fly in the ointment with dating and/or attribution of that record. So… But was he not officially recorded along with other actors of the company as having received 4 yards of red cloth to take part in the coronation procession of James I in March 1604, and not just “along with other actors” but on top of the list? Was it some “front”, a counterfeit in the guise of an actor dubbed William Shakespeare? And, to boot, he was recorded not as William Shakespere but as William Shakespeare. And in the new patent granted by James VI of Scotland on 3 May 1619, shortly after his accession, now King James I of England, by virtue of which, the King himself became the patron of his company, so that his company, formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men. And he was recorded not as William Shakespere but as William Shakespeare. And in 1598 Ben Jonson, thought to have later become his great rival and great friend, did he not mention him in the folio edition of his, Jonson’s, complete works in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s or Shakespere’ s death, on top of a list of the principal “Comoedians” in one of Jonson’s plays, Every Man In His Humour, first acted in the Fall of 1598, and once more on top of a list of the principal “Tragœdians” in 1603 in another of Jonson’s plays Sejanus?

Here the doubts about his authorship end up.

And here the doubts about his authorship and exact role in the world of the theatre also set in.

For in the year 1616, the year Ben Jonson published the Folio edition of his own works, Shakespeare died in Stratford. Neither in this folio edition nor outside of it, Jonson lost the least word on Shakespeare’s death. Nor did his fellows, though three of them, Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell, had each been given 25s 8d in Shakespeare’s last will to buy a ring, without doubt a ring of remembrance, as in analogous last wills of other fellows, players cum shareholders . Those three fellows with their ring of remembrance must have known that he had died.

In his Folio Ben Jonson also listed several other lists of actors who had performed in his plays, in three plays between 1599 and 1611. Shakespeare is mentioned once in 1598. And in 1603. Also in 1603? Much later similar lists were printed in the folio edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, play first staged during Shakespeare’s lifetime by his company (1610, 1611, and 1611 or 1613-4). Shakespeare is not mentioned. And, as will be seen later more detailedly, there are serious doubts whether he actually is the “Will. Shakes-Speare” mentioned in 1603.

This has led some people to doubt whether he had been an actor at all and to recur to the simple device that each time or about each time the name William Shakespeare appears, not William Shakespere of Stratford is referred to but the true author.

There are other odd circumstances. Above all: both daughters of the soul of the age were illiterate or quasi-illiterate.

And there are those glaring gaps created by his absence from the chronicles of England’s literary life. Sure, both Richard Barnfield and Francis Meres lionize him alongside Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton in 1598 . But it would be more exact to write that Barnfield-Meres lionizes him, for Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia is, in fact, a commonplace book, and the overwhelming majority of his comments on English writers are not original but, as befitting for a commonplace book, taken from other works (among others Arte of English Poesie, Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetry, etc., and, even, a work Barnfield published in 1598). Not only Shakespeare (mentioned 3x) is extolled by Meres above the rest, but equally Spenser (mentioned 3x), Daniel (mentioned 3x) and Drayton (6x). Here Meres echoes Barnfield’s “A Remembrance of Some English Poets” in his Poems in Divers Humours (published in 1598). “A Remembrance of Some English Poets” is a quatrain of which celebrates in this order Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, and, in the fourth stanza, Shakespeare. “And Shakespeare thou, whose hony-flowing Vaine,/ (Pleasing the World thy Praises doth obtaine, Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweete, and chaste)/ Thy name in fames immortall Booke have plac’t.”

The Silence of Thomas Lodge

But against Meres-Barnfield’s run-of-the mill praise stands Thomas Lodge’s stunning silence. In 1596 Lodge, whose romance Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie is thought to be the main source of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, must have known Shakespeare. He must have known Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, published in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece, published in 1594, which made the name Shakespeare famous, when he himself published Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse – Discovering the Devils Incarnat of this Age in 1596. This work contains a chapter superscribed “Of the great Devill Belzebub, and what monstrous and strange Devils he hath bred in our age”. Belzebub is the God of envy. Lodge warns those authors against the devil Envy who he obviously considers as the leading contemporaneous authors: “Divine wits, for many things as sufficient as all antiquity (I speake it not on slight surmise, but considerate iudgement) to you belongs the death that doth nourish this poison: to you the paine, that endure the reproofe. LILLY, the famous for facility in discourse: SPENCER, best read in ancient Poetry: DANIEL, choice in word, and invention: DRAITON, diligent and formall: TH. NASHE, true English Aretine. All you unnamed professours, or friends of Poetry, but by me inwardly honoured) … (The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 4 volumes, volume fourth, edited by Edmund W. Gosse, New York 1963, p. 63)

The Silence of Thomas Nashe

In 1596 too Thomas Nashe published his last pamphlet against Gabriel Harvey Have With You to Saffron-Walden. On page 77 heaps lavish praise upon an unnamed person:

“... to take the wall of Sir Philip Sidney and another honourable Knight (his companion) about Court yet attending; to whom I wish no better fortune than the forelocks of Fortune he had hold of in his youth, & no higher fame than he hath purchased himself by his pen; being the first (in our language) I have encountered, that repurified Poetry from Art’s pedantism, & that instructed it to speak courtly. Our Patron, our Phœbus, our first Orpheus or quintessence of invention he is; wherefore, either let us jointly invent some worthy subject to eternize him, or let war call back barbarism from the Danes, Picts, and Saxons, to suppress our frolick spirits, and the least spark of more elevated sense amongst us finally be quenched and die, ere we can set up brazen pillars for our names and sciences, to preserve them from the deluge of ignorance.”

Three years after the publication of Venus and Adonis, two years after The Rape of Lucrece, two years before Barnfield and Meres, one may think that Nashe’s “our Orpheus”, “our Phoebus” and, “our quintessence of invention” and perhaps “our Patron”, all refer to Shakespeare. But as the name Shakespeare had been made public with the two epic poems, what could have been Nashe’s motive for omitting his name? For Nashe’s phrasing implies that the Patron, the Orpheus, the Phoebus he means has not connected his true name to his own literary production.       
But it will be apposite to return to Nashe’s words when looking anew into John Davies of Hereford’s epigram about “our English Terence”.

The Silence of Peter Heylin and EK Chambers’s Silence on the Silence of Peter Heylin

            Peter Heylin (1599-1662) was in his time a well-known scholar with close connections to the court, the center of power. He was chaplain to King Charles I and Archbishop Laud, for whom he wrote an apology after his execution. It is not likely he would not have known Shakespeare. Yet in 1621, two years before the printing of the First Folio, he published his Microcosmos: A little Description of the Great World which was acclaimed over two centuries later by Charles Dickens:

      “Here we have lying before us an old geography book, printed early in the reign of Charles the First. It is what Mr. Carlyle happily designates "a dumpy quarto"... presenting somewhat the appearance of a modern school-book; and is entitled Mikrokosmos: A Little Description of the Great World. The Fourth Edition. Revised. By Peter Heylyn. Oxford, Printed by W. T. for William Turner and Thomas Huggins. 1629." The first edition appeared in sixteen hundred and twenty-one; so that we see the work was held in no inconsiderable estimation at the time. Indeed, Peter, though now known only to a few inquirers, was a man of some importance during his life; and, for several years after his death, was quoted as an authority. The substance of the quarto now before us was originally delivered in the form of lectures at Magdalen College, Oxford, when the writer was only seventeen years of age; and, being afterwards enlarged, was published as a book. Subsequently, Heylyn entered the Church; became one of the chaplains of Charles I., a great favourite of Laud, and a doughty champion of kingly and priestly domination; suffered for his opinions under the Commonwealth; and finally died in prosperity after the restoration of the Stuarts. He was a ready and voluminous author; and will be regarded with interest as one of our earliest newspaper-press men, having published at Oxford a weekly paper called the Mercurius Aulicus. ( Charles Dickens. "An Old Book of Geography" Household Words: A Weekly Journal (1854) Vol.9, p.75.

            In the first edition of Microcosmos (1621) he mentions Spenser, Drayton, and Daniel as the chiefest poets, but, like Thomas Lodge, omits Shakespeare, making a trio of the Barnfield-Meres quartet. That is: Peter Heylin eliminated Shakespeare from the Meres-Barnfield quote.

Vicar John Ward of Stratford notes in his diary:
https://archive.org/details/diaryrevjohnwar00sevegoog on page 184:

"Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jhonson, had merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of feavour there contracted.

 Remember to peruse Shakespears plays, and bee versd in them, yt I may not bee ignorantin yt matter.

Whether Dr. Heylin does well, in reckoning up the dramatick poets which have been famous in England, to omit Shakespear.

A letter to my brother, to see Mrs. Queeny, to send for Tom Smith for the acknowledgment."

The otherwise meticulous EK Chambers changes the order in Ward’s diary and puts the remark on the “merry meeting of Shakespear, Drayton and Ben Jonson” in the middle between the “remember” line and the “A letter to my brother” – at the expense of Peter Heylin’s omission, which disappears. Hard to believe it is only due to a fortuitous slip of the great scholar’s attention.

 Fletcher and Ben Jonson’s Epigrams

(Ben Jonson’s Epigrams were published in 1616 8in the folio edition).
Epigram 55 is dedicated to Francis Beaumont, whom Jonson greatly appreciated:

L V.

To Francis Beaumont.

 How I do love thee Beaumont, and thy Muse,
 That unto me dost such Religion use!
How I do fear my self, that am not worth
 The least indulgent thought thy Pen drops forth!
At once thou mak'st me happy, and unmak'st;
 And giving largly to me, more thou tak'st.
What Fate is mine, that so it self bereaves?
 What Art is thine, that so thy Friend deceives?
When even there, where most thou praisest me,
 For Writing better, I must envy thee.

Beaumont dies in March 1616. One would expect that epigram 56 would have been dedicated to Beaumont’s “alter ego”, to wit John Fletcher (died in 1625). But epigram 56 is a sneer at a poet ape.

L V I.

On Poet-Ape.

 Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our Chief,
 Whose Works are e'en the frippery of Wit,
From brocage is become so bold a Thief,
 As we, the rob'd, leave rage, and pitty it.
At first he made low shifts, would Pick and Glean,
 By the Reversion of Old Plays; now grown
To'a little Wealth, and Credit in the Scene,
 He takes up all, makes each Mans wit his own.
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such Crimes
 The sluggish gaping Auditour devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first: and After-times
 May judg it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool, as if half Eyes will not know a Fleece
 From Locks of Wooll, or Shreds from the whole Piece?


Can it be inferred from thence that Jonson meant not Shakespeare but John Fletcher? This is what Richard Malim concluded with reference to Claire Asquith (Richard Malim, The Earl of Oxford and the Making of “Shakespeare”, Jefferson, NC, and London 2012, p.203) .

For more than one reason, for in my opinion, too, Fletcher makes good sense. Better than Thomas Dekker, John Marston and, let alone, William Shakespeare or Shakespere. By 1616 Fletcher had become the chief dramatist of the King’s Men for the next decade.

But what did Jonson mean by “brocage” and “reversion of old plays”? That the “poet-ape” was a play broker?

About two decades ago I’ve been searching for a play broker. Finally, I was happy to have found one at the end of a frenetic combing of The Library. And soon afterwards sad to have to drop him again. The article(s) in question: Gerald D. Johnson, “John Busby and the Stationers’ Trade, 1590-1612”, The Library Sixth Series, Volume VII, No. 1, March 1985. Gerald Johnson occasionally used terms as “kind of literary agent”, but it becomes soon clear he does not intend to equate John Busby Sr.’s role as a play procurer to the profession of a play broker, for which there was neither a place in relation to theater managers like Philip Henslowe or within the system of the Stationers’ Company. Actually John Busby Sr (and afterwards John Busby Jr) were themselves stationers (Busby Sr published some works of Thomas Lodge) and actually procured The Merry Wives of Windsor for Arthur Johnson. But Busby retained some rights in the works (not only plays) he procured. Regarding the possible play broker William Shakspere, I think Philip Buchan (with whom I probably don’t agree in many points) has opposed the strongest (to me personally even irrefutable) argument during the Goldsmith course. Buchan’s argument could, in my view, be epitomized as follows:

There was no sufficiently developed market to enable a virtual play broker to earn a living from such a profession.

And for once I would also agree with Tom Reedy that non-Stratfordians are desperately seeking for hard evidence on some role for Shakespe(a)re’s . Well, a deplorable tristesse they share with Stratfordians who, however, can point to his presence on paper (which is why a comparison with the French poetesse Louise Labé, “creation of paper”, according to Mireille Huchon (see “A joyous entry”), would be useful, though only within certain aspectual limits.

But I repeat: I don’t think “play broker” a workable concept.
 If Fletcher is the “poet-ape”, what could Jonson’s epigram teach us? A lot I think.
For convenience once again the text:

On Poet-Ape.

Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our Chief,
 Whose Works are e'en the frippery of Wit,
From brocage is become so bold a Thief,
 As we, the rob'd, leave rage, and pitty it.
At first he made low shifts, would Pick and Glean,
 By the Reversion of Old Plays; now grown
To'a little Wealth, and Credit in the Scene,
 He takes up all, makes each Mans wit his own.
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such Crimes
 The sluggish gaping Auditour devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first: and After-times
 May judg it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool, as if half Eyes will not know a Fleece
 From Locks of Wooll, or Shreds from the whole Piece?

To begin with, if Fletcher was Jonson’s “poet-ape” and Jonson contrary to his great appreciation of Beaumont didn’t esteem Fletcher very high, to put it charitably, and further given that Fletcher by 1616 had indeed become the chief dramatist of the King’s company, practically the successor of Shakespeare, it would be understandable he thought himself “chief” of the poets.

How to understand “brocage”? Not as “broker” I think, but more generally as “intermediate,” “middleman,”.

How to understand “reversion of old plays”? In real estate law, “reversion” meant that a conditional gift returned to the donor when the feoffee died without heir. In administrative law “reversion” meant that the office was granted to the appointed successor when the previous office holder had quitted, be it by death or resignation. Ben Jonson himself held the reversion of the office of Master of the Revels after George Buc’s retirement and the appointment of Sir John Astley (Ashley). However, the reversion never materialized because Ashley was bought out in 1623 by the third Earl of Pembroke in favor of Henry Herbert who held the office beyond the period of the Commonwealth till 1673.

But I think “reversion” here takes on a slightly different meaning of “old plays becoming freed for revision”.

On the basis of this interpretation some things fall into place.

First the plays attributed to Fletcher before 1616, date of publication of Jonson’s epigrams and Beaumont’s death. Among these plays are Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen; also The Tamer tamed, the latter sort of inverted Taming of the Shrew. In Jonson’s view, as here understood, this means, as some scholars have already hypothesized, these were old plays. Two Noble Kinsmen possibly was a remake of Palæmon and Arcyte.

             Jonson seems to say that readers will easily recognize “fleece”, the whole piece, (I understand: the true original author, probably Shakespeare, maybe Beaumont) from the wool, the shreds (I understand: what the poet-ape Fletcher has contributed himself).

This has come true. Spedding and others, including Brian Vickers, were able to dissociate “wool”, the scenes written by Fletcher from the “fleece” those written by Shakespeare.
But if I’ve interpreted Ben Jonson correctly, the original, “non-Fletcherized” texts were earlier. And there can be no question of contemporaneous composition.

 An Alternative Scenario

For Timon of Athens I’ve proposed an alternative and IMO plausible scenario.


Contrary to a still widely held and often repeated view Timon, as we have the play from the First Folio, was staged in 1601 or before (allusion in Jonson’s Poetaster). A play on Timon was staged as early as 1584.

Here the whole relavant passage from the file:

Still an older Timon play - A Scenario”

To our knowledge John Jowett is the only editor of Timon of Athens (Oxford University Press, 2004) to have taken into account a no longer extant play on Timon. He refers to William Warner's epistle to the reader prefacing his Pan His Syrinx, a collection of tales published in 1584. Warner refers to three plays recently staged. "And yet, let his coy prophetess presage hard events in her cell, let the Athenian misanthropos or man-hater bite on the stage, or the Sinopian cynic bark with the stationer; yet, in Pan his Syrinx, will I pipe at the least to myself." (see: Timon of Athens, Shakespeares Sophoclean Tragedy.)

The Sinopian cynic ("dog") is Diogenes of Sinope, main character in John Lyly's play Campaspe, printed in 1584 (hence "bark with the stationer"). With the "coy prophetess" is meant Cassandra refuting the advances of the God Apollo. In 1584 a play The History of Agamemnon & Ulisses in which Cassandra must have appeared was performed at court. (Documents relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, edited by Albert Feuillerat, Louvain, 1908, p. 365). Feuillerat believed "that Agamemnon and Ulysses, (though I agree it might have been »a probable subject for Lyly«, as indeed it might have been for any other dramatist of that time), is one of Oxford's lost comedies." (p. 471). By the beginning of the 17th century all Lyly's known had appeared in print. The play on Timon, the Athenian misanthrope, was not among them. So it might have been another of Oxford's "lost comedies", the more so because it was performed by "the Earle of Oxenford his boyes".

Who were these Earl of Oxford's boys? In 1583-4 Henry Evans was one of the managers of the boy company "The Children of the Chapel" playing at the Blackfriars theatre. Henry Evans, threatened with ejection from the owner, "tried to elude him by a further transfer of the sub-lease to the Earl of Oxford, who passed it on to John Lyly, the poet... [what did King David, the jolly good fellow, play on his harp, lute or flute? No allusions detectable to Oxford, he decreed]: Doubtless Hunnis, Lyly, and Evans were all working together under the Earl's patronage, for a company under Oxford's name was taken to Court by Lyly in the winter of 1583-4 and by Evans in the winter of 1584-5, and it seems pretty clear that in 1583-4, at any rate, it was in fact made up of boys from the Chapel and Pauls's" (Edmund K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vol., Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1923, vol. II, 497). With the lease of the Blackfriars expiring about Easter 1584, the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel ceased to nominally exist. But they merged with the Children of Paul's still under the direction of John Lyly, sometimes playing privately in rooms around St Paul's Cathedral, sometimes publicly in James Burbage's "The Theatre". In 1593 John Lyly was scoffed at in Pierce's Supererogation by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey as "He hath not played the Vicemaster of Poules, and the Foolemaster of the Theater for naughtes... sometime the fiddle-stick of Oxford, now the very bable [a jester's mock-sceptre] of London..."(Gabriel Harvey, Works. ed. Alexander B. Grosart, London, 1884-5, vol. II, 212).

Hence, it is highly likely that the three plays referred to by William Warren: Lyly's Campaspe, the play on Timon, and Agamemnon and Ulysses were acted by the boy company which was also known as Oxford's Boys.

In 1589 the Children of Paul's were also dissolved. But in 1599 they resumed playing. In September 1600 Henry Evans refounded the Children of the Chapel as a separate group, again playing at the Blackfriars theatre and therefore also called "Blackfriars Boys." It should be noted that they acted Ben Jonson's comedies Poetaster in 1601 and Cynthia's Revels in 1600 (and his The Case is Altered as well).

Lyly was no longer involved. Nor Oxford. Our hypothesis is that Henry Evans had remained in possession of the manuscript of the 1584 play on Timon and requested the young and unexperienced Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), who wrote for them A Trick to Catch the Old One, to write up the old play on Timon.

 Robert Detobel (2018)