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Category — Rambler

The Informant

Get the Joke, Solve the Puzzle

Following the anonymous Histrio-Mastix, Ben Jonson wrote Poetaster. These plays are part of the sequence of Elizabethan plays known as the Stage Quarrel, or Poetamachia. Poetaster is set in Augustan Rome. There’s an easy to read and search edition of Poetaster online here. Much has been written about the characters Horace, Crispinius, and Demetrius. Some scholars argue that these stand for Jonson, Decker and Marston. Other than Horace as Jonson, these attributions aren’t critical to my argument here. Scholars don’t generally attribute Virgil and Ovid in the play to specific Elizabethan writers. Theses characters lack the extensive personal allusions. As you may guess, I’ll be tackling Ovid in Poetaster, but not right away. He’s the subject for another day.

There are two players in Poetaster, they belong to the same company, Histrio and Æsop. Æsop is a non-speaking role. Both of these characters act as informants, turning in Horace and Ovid respectively to the authorities in separate events in the play. Ovid suffers some consequences, though Horace is acquitted of wrong doing.



In Poetaster, Æsop is a player and politician. He’s described as smelling seventeen times worse than sixteen dunghills.  Rambler has discussed other examples of seventeen as an allusion to the 17th earl of Oxford.  Rambler has also noted, in multiple blog entries, hints of Shaksper as informer or spy.  Here are three of his posts concerning Fly in Jonson’s The New Inn that are worth reading.  Here, here, and here.

Rambler quotes The New Inn:

“Lady Frampul.   So do all Politicks in their Commendations. 

Host.  This is a State-bird, and the verier Fly;”

Was that Shaxper as informant, or Vere?

Fly was a ‘State-bird.’ He has the ear of the sovereign figure, Pru, in the play.

In Poetaster, Æsop is a player and a politician. (politician per OED A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person.  a self-interested manipulator – for usage, OED cites Chapman, “This was a sleight well maskt. O what is man, Vnlesse he be a Politician!” – from Bussy D’Amboise!) Note the mention of  Politicks by Lady Frampul in The New Inn quoted by Rambler in his discussion of Fly as informant.

In Chapman’s The Gentleman Usher, Medice has the ear of the Cortezza, who stands for the queen. Cortezza reveals her ‘bumbasted leg’ in a stage direction. Queen Elizabeth had a serious lesion on her leg. Shaksper has the queen’s ear in this play as well.

In A Tale of a Tub, Poll Marten is the gentleman usher to the queen figure, Lady Tub. He was base-born, and named Marten Polecat. Lady Tub made him a gentleman and gave him a new name. Well it’s just a re-arrangement of his old name with a hyphen added. In the scene where they are both introduced, Lady Tub is obsessed with Squire Tubs comings, goings and intentions It seems to be Poll-Marten’s full time job to keep her informed of the Vere figure’s actions. When he doesn’t know where the Squire has gone, Lady Tub threatens to take away his name and gentleman status. At the end of the play, he’s rewarded with Audrey’s hand. Audrey, here and in Shake-speare’s As You Like It stands for the plays.

The other Shaksper figure in Tub is Miles Metaphor. It’s revealed that he’s betrayed his master. He’s labeled a “Jack-a-Lent” which is a Judas figure. Judas was the ultimate historical betrayer/informant.

In act V of Poetaster, the charges against Horace occasioned by Æsop’s informing are settled. Æsop is called in before the emperor’s court.  Captain Tucca tells him what he thinks his fate will be.

“Thou shalt have  Monopoly of playing confirm’d to thee and thy Convoy, under the Emperor’s Broad Seal for this Service.”

Unfortunately, Tucca gets it wrong. The emperor orders Æsop to be whipped.  Remember that Histrio-Mastix, the title of the earlier play translates from Latin as as ‘The Player Whipped.”




Common scholarly wisdom among the tourist-aligned scholarly consensus is that Will Shaksper was the head of the Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, which were the sovereign’s company of players and did enjoy a monopoly on playing within the city, which they enjoyed along with The Admiral’s Men. In The Gentleman Usher, Medice tells us they made him ‘King of the Gypsies” implying he did head up an acting company.

We must remember these plays are comedies. They contain jokes and satires. Most of the jokes are lost on us as the people and circumstances are gone from view. To the extent we can parse out the humor, we can learn what happened.  Tucca’s statement that Æsop   “…shalt have  Monopoly of playing confirm’d to thee and thy Convoy, under the Emperor’s Broad Seal for this Service.” is both funny and biting satire IF a player/informant was rewarded for their service with the leadership of sovereign’s company of players. 

If you get the joke, you solve the puzzle.





October 12, 2014   2 Comments