A Post Stratfordian Shake-speare Blog
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Category — The Devil is an Ass

The King Desyred

The next, and fifth example of a gentleman usher as an allusion to authorship is in Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass. 

The gentleman usher in the play is Ambler, and he’s serves Lady Tailbush. Another character, Pug, a junior devil sent from hell steals Ambler’s things, and later takes his job. Ambler is Vere and Pug is Shaksper. We’ll examine this relationship in some detail.  But first let’s consider the timing and circumstances of The Devil is an Ass. There’s a second Vere character, Fitzdottrel who figures in the story as well.

Oxfordians frequently point out that there was no praise, no encomiums for Shaksper at the time he passed. I think that is the wrong focus. Rather than looking at the absence of praise, look for the presence of any commentary whatsover on Shaksper. It does exist. The season after Shaksper’s passing saw the staging of a new play by Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass. Shaksper is the Devil character, and he is an Ass. The portrayal just months after Shaksper’s passing is not kind.

The Sequence of Events surrounding Devil.

  • January 1615 – Work begins on Jonson’s Folio
  • February 1616 – Jonson recieves 66£ pound pension.
  • April 1616 – Will Shaksper of Stratford dies.
  • October/November 1616 – Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass is staged.
  • October/November 1616 – The Devil is an Ass is quickly closed as “the King desyred.”  It will not see the light of day for 15 years.
  • December 1616 – Jonson’s Folio is published

Jonson’s Folio of 1616 contains cast lists for some plays. Shakespeare is listed twice, for Every Man in His Humor and Sejanus. The name is spelled differently each time, with Sejanus using two capitals, Shake-Speare. Unusual.  Ben Jonson was very much in the King’s favor in 1616. He recieved a pension of 66 pounds at the beginning of the year that enabled him to not have to worry about being an impoverished poet. Stratfordians view Jonson’s two mentions of Shake-Speare as among the most important ‘proofs’ for their man as an actor, although they are not contemporaneous with the performances. Here’s an idea. Magician’s use ‘misdirection’ as a key component for their allusions. Getting one to ‘look over there’ while they perform their trick elsewhere is the essence of the art. Perhaps the two events of 1616, the Shake-Speare cast lists are the misdirection that allowed Jonson to tell Shaksper’s story in Devil?  It’s a possibility. The events are concurrent, so they maybe related.

Whatever the circumstances, we know the play offended someone, as Drummond who interviewed Jonson later in life reports the show close as “the King desyred him to conceal it”

“A play of his, upon which he was accused, the Devil is an Ass; according to Comedia Vetus, in England the Devil was brought in either with one Vice or other: the play done the Devil carried away the Vice, he brings in the Devil so overcome with the wickedness of this age that thought himself an Ass. Παρεργως s discoursed of the Duke of Drownland : the King desyred him to conceal it.” (Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond)

Was it the portrayal of Vere and Shaksper that was objected to?  Who knows. But we do know Jonson did not get in trouble for Devil. But it saw few performances before being buried for 15 years.

An earlier post on the character Guilthead from Ass mentioned the motto of the play. That’s worth repeating.

Jonson includes a motto for the play on the title page, it’s from Horace.

Ficta voluptatis Causâ, sint proxima veris.
Fictions meant to please should approximate the truth.

Ben Jonson is letting us know right up front that there is truth in this plays. And as Vere himself is ‘truth’, the motto is a double entendre. The play approximates Vere.

There’s a good, online edition of The Devil is an Ass here.

This blog builds on the work of Rambler’s Quake-speare Shorterly. Rambler posted a fair amount on Devil, but one post in particular, 17 June 2013, is must reading, especially before we proceed here. The Festival Robe is nothing without his work.

Anne Barton in Ben Jonson Dramatist makes two interesting observations on Pug’s name. These are a good place to start.

“When Pug appears in answer to Fitzdottrel’s summons, he tells him plainly: ‘Sir, I am a Divell…A true Divell’ (I.iii.25-26) But Fitzdottrel cannot be persuaded. He sees no evidence of a cloven hoof, and declines to accept Pug’s explanation that this is a ‘popular error that decieves many.’ (I,iii,30). In the end, he accepts Pug as a servant only because he asks for no wages and for the sake of what he takes to be his eccentric surname. (emphasis  mine)…Fitzdottrel is entranced by the prospect of a manservant called ‘Devil.’ Lady Tailbush, later, will strip Pug of even that. She insists snobbishly upon altering ‘Devil’ to ‘De-Vile’ which, as Lady Either-Side pronounces, ‘sounds me thinks / As it came in with the Conqueror‘ (IV,iv,189-190).”  Barton – p.223.

  1. That Fitzdottrel (Vere) hired Pug solely on account of his name is fascinating. Shakespeare is all about wordplay. He recognized the wordplay in Shaksper from the start. The Oxfordian G. W. Phillips’ in  “The Tragic Story of Shakespeare” (1932) wrote, “his name was his fortune”  (hat tip Rambler.)  Indeed.
  2. Once again we have a Shaksper character making slight changes to their name, Devil, to De-vile. (there are various spellings depending on editions some with two lls.) But here, like Poll-Marten a hyphen is added. And like Poll-Marten the name change is effected by the older, senior female figure in the play, in this case, Lady Tailbush. Note also the name sounds as it ‘came in with the Conqueror – De-Vile, not unlike de Vere.

Jonson has captured the two important features of the Shaksper to Shake-speare name that has come down to us, both the built in word play, and the subtle spelling change.

The next post will get into some scene-by-scene examinations of the Fitzdottrel/Ambler/Pug relationship.

more anon.


November 13, 2014   No Comments