To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare

by Ben Jonson
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

The theme of this poem concerns the nature of the praise that can be given a great writer by a contemporary of almost equal stature. Jonson has the task of devising a strategy that will enable him to praise Shakespeare without sounding foolish, sycophantic, envious, or uninformed. He has to create a poem that will give a universal genius his due. This is no easy matter, and he has to do this in such a way as to prove his own credentials as a poet.

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The major theme of the poem is that Shakespeare transcends time and place, and belongs to the ages. For Jonson to perceive this and to state it with such grace is a magnanimous and outstanding achievement. At the outset, he declares his competence to evaluate such greatness by saying that he will not draw envy on Shakespeare with excessive praise, although he confesses that it is impossible to praise him too highly. This craftily qualified opening is followed by a series of dismissals of ignorant, blindly affectionate, and deceptively malicious praise. Shakespeare is “Abovethe need” for such tribute; the word “Above” is important because it expresses the theme that Shakespeare has ascended into the empyrean, where he outshines the achievements of his classical predecessors and contemporaries.

Jonson applies the transcendent, or spiritual, term to Shakespeare to indicate that, although he is physically dead, he is still present through his creative genius. He is the “Soul of the age,” “a monument without a tomb,” an enduring influence who does not need to be buried next to other great authors to display his greatness. His work is enough to grant him immortality: “And art alive still while thy book doth live,/ And we have wits to read and praise to give.”

At the beginning of the third section, Jonson goes beyond his earlier praise of Shakespeare as the “Soul of the age” by saying that he is “not of an age, but for all time.” Shakespeare was born in a time when the muses were in their prime, and he is at one with them and nature; as a result, his lines are both natural and carefully formed: “Shakespeare’s mindbrightly shines/ In his well-turned and true-filed lines.”

In the last section, Jonson brings Shakespeare to his final ascendance when he depicts him as the “Sweet swan of Avon.” Since his death, he has ascended to the heavens as a constellation that still influences the earthly stage. Shakespeare continues to shine forth as the “star of poets,” whose volume, his magnitude as expressed in the First Folio, lightens, that is, brightens and lifts, “the drooping stage.”

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