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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: November 2019

Chapter 2 - Staging the Poets: Ben Jonson’s Poetaster


Chapter 2 examines the staging of lives in early modern England, focusing on what is probably the most densely biofictional play of the period, Ben Jonson’s Poetaster (1601). Poetaster is predicated on what Matthew Steggle has called the ‘poetics of personation’, creating fictional versions of the playwright and his contemporaries. But the ‘poetics of personation’ encompasses not just modern lives but ancient ones, too. Jonson’s play resurrects Virgil, Tibullus, Horace and Ovid based on extended passages of translation from their works. Poetaster thus actively stages the dynamics of biofictional reading. But in this multiplicity of characters ancient Lives and texts mingle and merge. Ovid enacts episodes from the biography of the emperor who banished him, Gallus belies his ancient life, regaining the favour of the emperor who – according to the biographical tradition – forced him to commit suicide. Issues are complicated further when Jonson’s ancient and modern ‘poetics of personation’ contaminate each other: Ovid mirrors the recently dead Marlowe; Crispinus and Demetrius figure Jonson’s rivals Marston and Dekker. Above all, Jonson himself lurks behind the figure of Horace, as the gap between ancient texts and modern biofictions allows the play to explore the political tensions between the poet and the state and the responsibilities of authorship.