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

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 439 words.)