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Shakespeare and the Poets' War. .

James P. Bednarz. Shakespeare and the Poets' War.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. x + 334 pp. index. $49.50 (cl), $19.50 (pbk).

ISBN: 0-231-12242-8 (cl), 0-231-12243-8 (pbk).

In Shakespeare and the Poets' War, James P. Bednarz plunges into a thicket of controversy that drew the attention of the theatrical enterprise as London entered the seventeenth century and that has attracted the attention of literary scholars to this day. Aside from a minor scratch or two, the writer emerges with an admirable piece of research on the problems posed by the Poetomachia. His thesis that the conflict represented a crisis in the understanding of the appropriate roles of poet, player, playgoer, and entrepreneur moves consideration well beyond earlier simplifications or misreadings. Moreover, Bednarz develops a compelling timeline for each phase of the struggle (9, 265-76), carefully untangling the evidence of personal invective, reference and cross-reference, theater companies, authorship, interpolations, and publications. This book will be required reading for anyone who needs to explore the ramifications of the Poets' War.

The introduction sets up the familiar opposition of Shakespeare and Jonson as mighty opposites but presents their differences "as a major debate in the English Renaissance on the nature and function of drama" (5). Far more than a rivalry between adult and children's companies or a series of ad hominem attacks designed to amuse the cognoscenti, Jonson initiated a radical challenge to the practices of his profession that could not go unanswered. After outlining the three phases of the war, as well as Shakespeare's special place in the events of 1599-1601, particularly the literary history attached to his purge of Jonson in Troilus and Cressida, Bednarz examines each part of the struggle in detail.

When Every Man out of His Humour followed Every Man in His Humour at the Globe, Ben Jonson designated the new play as a comical satire in which he rejected his earlier foray into the release of festive comedy in favor of a classical ideal of social correction, with his own poetic authority for such correction sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth's presence in the concluding masque. This pattern of political validation for his role would subsequently mark Cynthia's Revels and Poetaster. Since the initial salvo attacked the absurdities of popular drama, premised on pleasing crude audience tastes, response came swiftly and variously. Already a target in other forms of satire, Jonson found himself brought onstage as clearly recognizable characters in the plays of Marston, Dekker, and Shakespeare performed by the Chamberlain's Men as well as by the Children of Paul's. Bednarz is especially skilled at sorting out the specific allusions involved, together with the economic politics of the theaters, the theoretical principl es at stake, and the personal wounds inflicted.

Shakespeare's reactions to the assault on his art began slyly with As You Like It ( the very title asserting his audience appeal), testing the competing claims of judgment and folly through Jaques and Touchstone, the claims of art and nature through a pastoral dialectic. Thus, "Shakespeare was an active participant in shaping his own myth" as "nature's paragon" (130). To some extent the mood darkens in Twelfth Night, where "[n] o consistent moral can be drawn" when "Olivia and Orsino are just as deluded as Malvolio," yet the former are rewarded and latter is punished "without pretense of reform" (193). Troilus and Cressida stages a cynical purge of Jonson as Ajax ("Ajaxla jakes" repeating the "Jacques/jakes" scatological joke). Here Shakespeare completely rejects the idea of self-imposed authority posited in "the Poets' War, since each antagonist would judge his success. . not by what he thought ofhimself but by what his critics conceived him to be" (51). In his most subtle teasing out of evidence and argumen t, Bednarz analyzes the significance of the "little eyases" in Hamlet, revealing a recapitulation of the events of the theatrical conflict, an uncertainty about the eventual winner, an undermining of the optimism of festive comedy, and "a powerful representation of the anxious circumspection that pervaded late Elizabethan culture" (255).

That Jonson abdicated the stage for a time in favor of court poetry makes the battle seem both less significant in its implications and more inevitable in its outcome than was indeed the case. Scholars owe Shakespeare and the Poets' War a careful reading to understand its complicated, careful analysis.
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Author:Cook, Ann Jennalie
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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