Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 98-103
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Shakespeare & the Poets' War. By James P. Bednarz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Illus. Pp. xii + 334. $51.50 cloth, $22.50 paper.
James Bednarz does not bring peace to the Poets' War; he temperately recreates it. For two contested years, autumn 1599 to autumn 1601, a small band of English writers waged a vigorous campaign in London's public and private theaters. As Bednarz shows, what was at stake in the so-called War of the Theaters, especially for Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston, and Dekker, was not simply the name, fame, or reputation of the author but the very question of artistic authority itself, the kind of art the leading playwrights of the day would stage before the nation and pass on as their chief legacy.
According to Bednarz, the war proceeded in three phases. First, in 1599, the year the Globe Theatre opened, Jonson began the battle by self-consciously using Every Man Out of his Humor to define himself in opposition to Shakespeare. Then, during the next two years, Shakespeare responded with critiques in As You LikeIt and Twelfth Night, or What You Will and was joined in the fray by Marston with Histriomastix, Jack Drum's Entertainment, and What You Will (peripherally Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge) and later by Dekker with Satiromastix, while Jonson countercharged with Cynthia's Revels and Poetaster. Finally, in 1601, the war came to a close when Shakespeare "purged" Jonson through the figure of Ajax in Troilus and Cressida (1) and, secondarily, through the "little eyases" passage in Hamlet (see Bednarz's chart on page 9). [End Page 98]
While the war may not have lasted long or involved many soldiers, it is historically important as "the first record of these writers' mutual commentary and criticism" (1). Indeed, the "first great dramatic criticism in England begins with this public dialogue—at once philosophical and personal" (2). For those interested in early modern literary history, in any or all of the four principals, in any or all of the thirteen battlefield plays, and especially in questions of authorship, imitation, and intertextuality, Shakespeare & the Poets' War will be a gripping read.
The book's title, though, is a site for dispute. It is vital for its clarification of the world's greatest writer as the catalyst of the war and will prove sobering to anyone still suffering from Romantic notions about the Bard; while not strictly the "ungentle" Shakespeare of Katherine Duncan-Jones's new biography,1 Bednarz's Shakespeare is nonetheless a figure more culturally embedded than many readers may be used to imagining. Above all, Bednarz's Shakespeare is a writer, bold in his public challenge to other writers, not simply an industrious man of the theater with a cool eye (or willing hand) for the commercial. Bednarz's title, however, is also gleefully misleading, because his book is about much more than Shakespeare. As if acknowledging this, the dust jacket reproduces two portraits, one of Shakespeare and one of Jonson, rightly portraying the compound at the book's core. But Marston also receives a good deal of press, and Dekker makes a strong showing as a fourth shareholder in the print company.
Bednarz's purpose is "to present the first comprehensive account of the Poets' War as a crisis of legitimation, a literary civil war during which Jonson's vanguard project clashed with the skepticism of Marston, Shakespeare, and Dekker, who literally laughed him off the stage" (3). This is the first such study since Alfred Harbage's 1952 Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, which itself was preceded by Roscoe Addison Small's 1899 The Stage-Quarrel Between Ben Jonson and the So-Called Poetasters. As this trajectory suggests, we benefit from a book on this topic every half-century, testifying to the subject's historical vitality. Why would that be so? Today, the answer may in part have to do with surprise. Evidently, amid the frenzy over performance, we don't expect Shakespeare—and perhaps his colleagues—to be so self-consciously literary in the...