Satiromastix owes its fame to its attack on Ben Jonson. Apparently the play was patched up in some haste in order to reply to Jonson’s Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment (pr. 1601), which caricatures Thomas Dekker and John Marston. The literary community of Renaissance London was a relatively small but highly active arena in which personal and professional egos frequently collided. Clashes such as the “Harvey-Nashe controversy” and dueling pamphlets and verses were numerous. Conflicts were even more frequent among playwrights and actors.
During the 1599-1600 theatrical season, London experienced what came to be called the War of the Theatres, in which rival stage companies sniped at one another through increasingly sharp and satirical attacks written into their new productions. The playwright who became the acknowledged leader in these attacks was Ben Jonson. Already known as a satirist, Jonson created highly unflattering portraits of his fellow dramatists in works that reached a climax in Poetaster, in which he singled out Marston (as Crispinus) and Dekker (as Demetrius Fannius) for special attack. Jonson scored points against the two as being incompetent as writers, unlearned as scholars, and unsuccessful as businessmen. The two writers, with Dekker apparently doing most of the composition, responded with Satiromastix, which contains their own powerful assault on Jonson. This particular aspect of the play—its intensely topical, transitory, and highly specific satire—has caused problems for critics and scholars since the initial production in 1601; they frequently cite Dekker’s “unbalanced” dramatic structure, which restricts the main plot to relatively few scenes while allowing a subplot and the satirical lampoon on Jonson to overwhelm the action.
Satiromastix has three plot lines. The first centers on the marriage of Sir Walter Terrill and his bride, Caelestine. At their wedding feast, the young couple is accosted by William Rufus, king of England, who demands that Caelestine spend her wedding night at his palace. He clearly intends to seduce the young bride, but, because of his royal rank, his...
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