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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: September 2020

Chapter 7 - Anecdotal Jonson

from Part III - Jonsonian Afterlives


In the ‘two bucket’ version of literary history whatever praise lightens Shakespeare’s load must fill Jonson’s with invective. This history is abetted by anecdotal accounts that bring the writers together in ‘wit contests’, which ransom Shakespeare’s reputation at the expense of Jonson. The prevailing morphology of the Jonson anecdote is that he often ends up as the butt of the joke. Such stories seem to respond to his attempts to manage his own legacy, especially his effrontery in supervising his own ‘works’ in 1616. This essay studies the tradition of Jonsonian anecdotes – including three previously unknown eighteenth-century examples – all of which show Jonson trying and failing to play executor to his own literary legacy. Tellingly, these rebuttals to Jonson often address him in his own terms, specifically poetic ones. For be it epigram, epitaph, or epilogue, these anecdotes offer light verse rejoinders to Jonson’s attempts to have the last word. Attention to Jonson’s reputation in his own time and in the century following his death complicates and enriches a narrative about the dilation of that reputation across the centuries, presenting him as not just the foil to Shakespeare but the casualty of his efforts to author his own legacy.

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