Acrostics in
Ben Jonson's Every Man Out of his Humour

Excerpt from the essay Those Shakespeare Manuscripts:
originally appeared in Baconiana Oct. 75

by T.D. Bokenham

 

or most people, no serious problem exists regarding the authorship of the Shakespeare plays and poems, which began to be printed towards the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign. The plays first appeared in small quarto sized books with no author's name to them. IN 1598 Francis Meres, a Divine and M.A. from Pembroke College, Cambridge, announced in his Palladis Tamia tht the author of twelve named plays was William Shakespeare. In that year also, the plays Richard II, Richard III and Loves Labours Lost were reprinted with the name William Shakespeare (or Shake-Speare) on the their title pages.This double evidence of authorship obviously satisfied the majority of theatre goers, but one captious critic, who evidently knew the player Shakespeare who in 1596 had performed in his first play, was convinced that this "fellow" was not the true author. In fact, he was so incensed at this apparent fraud that he made Shakespeare the subject of a most vindictive lampoon in his next play Every Man out of his Humour, first played in 1599. The man was Ben Jonson, who has been accused of being jealous of Shakespeare as an author. Whether this was so or not, a personal attack on an apparently successful writer would seem to be the worst possible way of gaining recognition in the theatre, unless it was that Ben was aware that other discerning critics were also sceptical about this recent imposture. It is known that at this time one or two gentlemen in Court circles were writing plays, and other poetry for that matter, and publishing them under other names, and it is probable that Jonson was exercising his vitriolic wit not only at the expense of the man Shakespeare, whom he describes in his play as an "essential clowne ambitious to become a gentleman," but also at the expense of the anonymous author who had picked on this most unlikely character to act as his nom-de-plume.

Ben Jonson, who was genuinely critical of "Shakespeare's" style, was able to extract much fun from the Plays as they appeared. In some of his later plays he almost tells us the name of the man whom he suspected as being the real author, though evidenly he thought it would be unwise to reveal this openly. In 1616, however, when the first edition of Jonson's collected works was published, the play Every Man out of his Humour was reprinted. In one comic scene Sogliardo, the "essential clowne," who elsewhere in the play is clearly shown to represent the actor Shakespeare, is encouraged to impersonate a gentleman of quality in order to court the lady, Saviolina. She is prepared in advance for this meeting and is told that the mysterious gentleman is a kinsman to Justice Silence. His good qualities are described by Sir Puntavolo in terms which epitomise certain contemporary descriptions of Francis Bacon. This speech is so printed that the initial letters of its lines read POET CANBO F, which could hardly make things clearer &emdash; Shakespeare acting as counterfeit for F. BACON, the poet.

 

Page 158 Every Man out of his Humour

This clever acrostic does not appear in the earlier quarto of this play and was discovered by the author [Ewen MacDuff] of the recently published book The Sixty-seventh Inquisition.

The point of all this is to show that the Shakspeare authorship question is by no means a new one and that, in certain literary circles, the name of Francis Bacon has been associated with the Shakespeare plays since the early part of the 17th century. Since that time a vast amount of evidence has been discovered which, though not acceptable to the general public, nevertheless, more than justifies Ben Jonson's convictions............

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