To the Memory of My Beloved
If someone asked you to think of the best artistic rivalries of our age, what would you say? Music seems like an obvious place to start, with classic clashes like *NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys and Tupac vs. Biggie. In the literary category, competition is fiercest in the Young Adult genre, with best-selling series like The Hunger Games and Twilight still duking it out for the honor of being the ultimate tween title. Partly thanks to HBO's current hit series, Game of Thrones, the 20th century battle between Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia now has a third contender, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
The list of modern day rivalries goes on, but the one thing all of these showdowns have in common is that they're all about the fame and publicity; you don't have to like boy bands from the 90s, but we dare you to find folks who have never heard of the Backstreet Boys. So while it might be hard for some of you to imagine Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare occupying the popular spotlight in the same way that any of the above-mentioned artists and authors do or did—no Teen Beat covers for them—Ben Jon and Willy Shakes were the two premier authors of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and their rivalry with each other is arguably the most famous of the era.
With that backdrop in mind, consider then that Jonson's elegy (a poem written to memorialize the dead), "To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Master William Shakespeare, and What he Hath Left Us," was first published in 1623 as part of the preface to Shakespeare's First Folio, a space traditionally reserved for commemorative verses from the author's greatest friends and admirers, and amounts to the only extended commentary on Shakespeare issued by one of his contemporaries.
Before you assume that Jonson did a total 180 on Shakespeare and decided he was awesome, you should read the poem. Sure, it honors Shakespeare and his work, but Jonson isn't shy about emphasizing that there are significant differences between himself and Shakespeare (and that he wouldn't want it any other way). Still, though, the elegy represents a truly awesome moment in literary history, a brief interlude where personal rivalries were put ever-so-slightly to the side and one literary great took the time, energy, and words to honor another. So get comfy Shmoopers, there's a lot going on in this little ditty, and we're here to soak up every word.
Why Should I Care?
What happens next?
Well, that depends. If you're a normal guy or gal from the 17th century, you probably don't know how to read and have no idea who those two dudes are or why they seem to be talking in some weird, rhythmic pattern. You ignore them and proceed to buy a round of ale for your mates. If you're Christopher Marlowe, you probably fight with the bartender because he won't split your check and end up getting stabbed. If you're Shmoop, miraculously transported back to London in 1600, you order a pint, sit down, and shut up because holy crap it's Shakespeare and Jonson and you should probably listen to everything they have to say.
That, Shmoopers, is why this poem is important: because it's one massive literary mind sitting down to contemplate, memorialize, and honor another. It's important because it highlights both the differences and similarities between two men, two styles, and two completely different but somehow inextricably intertwined literary legacies. It's important because stuff like this doesn't happen that often and because it sheds light on one of the most complex literary rivalries of all time. Not that you needed any more convincing.