To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare

by Ben Jonson
Start Free Trial

What are the themes in To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare by Ben Jonson?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles


In Line 17, Jonson calls Shakespeare the "Soul of the age," which captures his overall feelings in the poem. He steers clear of any "crafty malice" in his elegy, noting that Shakespeare's works have marked him as the "applause...of our stage." Shakespeare effectively captured the heart and emotions of the time period in which he wrote, reflecting them through his works. Jonson notes that Shakespeare is more talented than Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Francis Beaumont, who are other respected British authors. He "outshine[s]" other popular playwrights such as John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher Marlowe. He goes on to note that ancient writers like Euripides and Sophocles would enjoy coming back to life in order to watch Shakespeare's tragedies being performed. Shakespeare is Britain's "triumph," its greatest source of pride, and all of Europe is in debt to Britain for producing this talent that is "for all time."

Timeless fame

In Line 22, Jonson calls Shakespeare "a monument without a tomb." By doing so, he is noting the timeless appeal of Shakespeare's works. As long as people continue reading his works and as long as his books exist, Shakespeare lives on through his art. This is part of the reason Jonson finds Shakespeare worth the praise in this elegy; he recognizes the timeless appeal of Shakespeare's work. Interestingly, this echoes Shakespeare's own thoughts at the end of Sonnet 18:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare himself recognized the ability of art, poetry, and literature to give life to an author after his death.

The importance of classical works and authors

Jonson notes that Shakespeare learned "small Latin and less Greek," which were marks of a thorough education during this time period. However, he goes on to give Shakespeare credit for his achievements in spite of his educational shortcomings and further notes that he outshines many other famous and often-studied authors. Indirectly, this shines a spotlight on the important achievements of other authors like: Chaucer, Spenser, Beaumont, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and around ten others. Jonson weaves this thread of classical education into his elegy and doesn't diminish their works in his praise of Shakespeare, only notes that the Bard is even more talented.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team