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Poetaster: Textual Essay

David Bevington

The F1-only passage at 1.2.73-5 and 77-109 is a continuation of the debate with which the scene has been concerned prior to line 73, namely, Ovid Senior’s ire at his son’s neglecting the study of law in his pursuit of verses, poetry, and play-making (lines 6-7), all of which the father regards as anathema. He is encouraged in his berating of young Ovid by the tribune Lupus, who is no less convinced that players ‘are an idle generation’ (28), and by Tucca, the brusque military man, who objects that a man of his profession cannot be seen in a bawdy house ‘but he shall be straight in one of their wormwood comedies’ (39-40). The continuation in F1 is of a piece with this, so that the cut version in Q proceeds smoothly enough. Still, the F1 passage is outspokenly satirical of the law as having no respect for merit and being well suited to a plodder who can ‘make noise enough’ and ‘be impudent enough’ (95-100), and as a profession in which one can ‘do right or wrong at thy pleasure’ (104). Scholarly consensus is that it must have been cut in response to the uproar to which Jonson addresses himself in his Apologetical Dialogue. It appears to have been cut before the compositors got to work, since there are no signs here of rearranging type at the last minute as in the instances cited above, including that of the Apologetical Dialogue. Jonson may have been under orders to excise the passage, or may have done so himself as a prudent move. See commentary note at 1.2.73-109.

The F1-only passages at 3.4.250-5 and 308-10 are the briefest of the substantial F1 additions, and the least certain to have been censored. Jonson could have written the first of these afresh for folio publication. Nonetheless, it is in a speech by Tucca, a favourite target for excision for reasons explored in this essay, and it does deal with the touchy matter of the actors versus London shopkeepers: Tucca professes to have defended the players when they ‘have beene said to prey vpon ‘pu’nees [i.e. ‘puny’], and honest citizens, for socks, or buskins’, and when the shopkeepers have called the players ‘vsurers, or brokers’ who might help one ‘to a peece of flesh’. Perhaps this another bit of prudent self-censorship on Jonson’s part, when the quarto of Poetaster was under such intense scrutiny. If so, it is a passage that he was determined to restore to the definitive text of F1. The second F1 addition in 3.4 (308-10) is still more brief, and certainly could be a new addition in F1 intended to provide a smooth transition to the entrance of Horace and Trebatius, but it too is in a speech by Tucca.

All of 3.5, and three preceding transitional lines at the end of 3.4, are also missing from Q. As the headnote to 3.5 in this present edition argues, it could have been written by Jonson as he revised the play for folio publication, but its closeness to English libel law in its last sixteen lines (expanded from the seven lines in Jonson’s source in Horace) may suggest instead that this passage, along perhaps with 3.5 as a whole, was written earlier, close to the time that Jonson found himself threatened with censorship or prosecution for his writing of Poetaster. As a translation perhaps not intended for stage presentation, it lacks dramatic movement and reads as a set piece. Whether Jonson intended it nonetheless for performance in 1601 and then publication in Q but was constrained by the circumstances to leave it out, we cannot be sure, but in any event he felt it was appropriate for the more literary occasion of folio publication. If it had been cut from the Q text, the cut must have been made before the compositors got to work, since there are no signs of disarray on Q F4v at the end of act 3. See Introduction and notes to 3.5.

In a new note ‘To the Reader’ in 1616 at the end of the play, Jonson describes his Apologetical Dialogue as ‘only once spoken upon the stage’. The suggestion is that it was suppressed thereafter, perhaps in the wake of the play’s original performance. If so, that could help explain why it was excised from the 1602 quarto despite an attempt on Jonson’s part to see it printed then. In Jonson’s proud view, it embodies ‘all the answer I ever gave to sundry impotent libels cast out (and some yet remaining) against me and this play’. Combined with 1.2.73-109 and 3.5, then, the Apologetical Dialogue seems to have constituted for Jonson a supreme defence of his position in the War of the Theatres and more broadly in the writing of drama for the London stage. These passages constitute his major contributions to the revised Poetaster text of 1616.

Omission of Q material in the F1 text is rare. One substantial passage does occur at 4.5.107, where Q continues Ovid’s speech to Julia after ‘Cotqueanity’ as follows: ‘we will lay this City desolate, and flat as this hand, for thy offences. These two fingers are the Walls of it; these within, the People; which People, shall be all throwne downe thus, and nothing left standing in this Citty, but these walls’. Why F1 omits this passage is not clear. The omission could be unintentional. Cain (1995), 193 proposes that it was omitted from F1 ‘because of its non-literary nature’. The hand gestures that must have been intended to accompany this passage could have been risibly sexual, suggestive of ‘the cuckold’s salute’ with the first and fourth fingers raised, as Cain suggests. Might Jonson have excised it from F1 as indecorous? Certainly one editorial choice would be to include it in a critical edition, as Cain does.

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