To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare

by Ben Jonson
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Last Updated on August 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

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From the title itself, Ben Jonson makes his tone and subject clear: he writes of his “beloved master,” William Shakespeare. The word “beloved” connotes the feeling of adoration that will weave throughout the elegy, and Jonson submits himself with the word “master,” noting the greatness that Shakespeare has achieved and placing himself in a lesser position.

Jonson begins the poem by establishing his purpose: he isn’t writing this elegy out of any sort of “envy.” He isn’t writing out of “blind affection” for Shakespeare’s works. He has given this much thought and evaluation because simply echoing sentiments of praise “doth ne’er advance / The truth.” It is important to come to one’s own sense of value when critiquing literary greatness, and that is what Jonson has done prior to writing this elegy.

In lines 11 and 12, Jonson returns to the idea that some might consider this elegy “crafty malice” and think that he is only pretending to praise Shakespeare. However, in line 15, he notes that Shakespeare himself stands as “proof against them.” In effect, Shakespeare’s works are so rich and noteworthy that their greatness cannot possibly be denied by anyone.

In line 17, Jonson calls Shakespeare the “Soul of the age,” a high compliment noting his influence on and reflection of the time period and society he represents. His works capture the very soul of his audiences. Therefore, he is also the “applause . . . of our stage,” an interesting metaphor linking Shakespeare to the very symbol of appreciation given when his works are performed. He is the breath of enthusiasm on the stage of Britain.

Jonson goes on to say that Shakespeare is even greater than Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont—other well-respected and popular British writers. He calls him a “monument without a tomb,” noting that Shakespeare will always continue to live as long as books live and people can read. Shakespeare is immortal through his efforts and talents.

In line 30, it is acknowledged that Shakespeare did not receive the thorough education some would expect from a renowned author; he only knew a little Latin and “less Greek.” Jonson then lists several Roman and Greek writers and asserts that they would love to be alive again just to witness Shakespeare’s performances. Shakespeare is connected to the writers of the past, since he “did from their ashes come.” But while these writers are now “ashes,” connoting a final death, Shakespeare lives on through his popular works. In line 43, this is reinforced through the famous statement “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

In line 47, Jonson notes that nature was often woven into Shakespeare’s works and that Nature (personified) was “proud of his designs.” She wears his descriptions as her “dressing” that is “woven so fit,” noting the particular skill of Shakespeare in capturing the often indescribable beauties found in nature.

Jonson notes that Shakespeare had natural talent, while Jonson himself must work at his craft. He is at peace with this, as evidenced in line 64: “For a good poet’s made, as well as born.” He goes on to note that Shakespeare’s “face” can be seen in his “issue,” likening the artist and his art to a father and his children.

Historical importance is given to Shakespeare’s popularity in line 74. Both Queen Elizabeth and King James I were patrons of Shakespeare’s works, and they requested his appearance at court numerous times. Therefore, Shakespeare often took “flights” to London (and the Thames) to perform and entertain for royalty.

In the end, Jonson implores his “master” to keep shining on future generations as a “Star of Poets,” as Shakespeare’s death has left the theater in a state of “despair” in his absence.