To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare

by Ben Jonson
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Please analyze To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare by Ben Jonson.

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Jonson's poem, which appears in the 1623 First Folio, is a tribute to William Shakespeare. Jonson knew Shakespeare personally, and, while the nature of their relationship is not completely clear, it is fair to say that they were literary rivals. Jonson's appreciation, then, is that of a fellow artist. His poem is not, however, an attempt to render Shakespeare as an individual, or a tribute to their friendship; instead, it is meant to elevate Shakespeare to the pantheon of great poets.

Jonson begins by explaining the sort of praise Shakespeare does not need: the praise of the ignorant, or the malicious. Shakespeare, is "above" the need of such false praise. It is unclear, however, what Jonson's intent in this prologue might be; this can be read as an attack on others who would praise Shakespeare with lavish claims of greatness, or it could be a dig at his own project in this poem.

The next section launches into hyperbole, calling Shakespeare the "Soul of the Age!" whose greatness, even in death, transcends the usual literary honor of a grave in Westminster Cathedral: he is "a Monument without a tomb," who will reman alive as long as "thy book doth live." This section celebrates Shakespeare's natural genius: though Shakespeare had "small Latin, and less Greek" (unlike the classically educated Jonson), he places him amongst the great playwrights of antiquity—Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Shakespeare is a "triumph" for Britain, "to whom all scenes of Europe homage owe."

The poem then turns from praising Shakespeare's talent to praising his craft. Jonson asserts that "a good Poet's made, as well as borne / And such wert thou," and praises his "true filed lines: / In each of which he seems to shake a lance" which is "brandished at the eyes of ignorance." Jonson admires (as only a fellow playwright could) the skill needed to create lines that seem natural, contain truth, and work as poetry as well.

A final section calls Shakespeare the "sweet swan of Avon" who swam in the same Thames that Queen Elizabeth and King James traveled, and suggests that, since his death, the world has been plunged in darkness, save for the light of his plays.

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