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To the Memory of My Beloved

To the Memory of My Beloved


by Ben Jonson

Analysis: Calling Card


Ooooh, Shmoop used a fancy word. Given the context, however, it seems appropriate. We just couldn't resist.

Erudition is a word a lot of people probably don't know, which is a wee bit ironic because it means "having or showing great knowledge or learning." Jonson, folks, had a big old brain and he loved showing off just how smart he was in his writing.

Let's look at line 31, the famous backhanded compliment: "And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek." Now, the sentiment expressed in this passage is that Shakespeare didn't need a bunch of classical training to write good plays. The tricky thing about the following lines, though, is that Jonson is simultaneously showing off his own impressive knowledge of the classics while serving Shakespeare a backhanded compliment on how well he did without it. That list of names Jonson rattles off in lines 33-35 includes some well-known names but hey, even Shmoop had to look up a couple of those people. And "him of Cordova dead?" Not providing a name is even more of a show-off move. You'd have to have some major Google-fu to figure out he's talking about Seneca.

We mean, in a poem memorializing someone with "small Latin and less Greek", isn't it a little show-offish to prattle on about famous Greek and Roman tragedians whom Shakespeare likely never read? Isn't it super braggy and a little patronizing, like trying to explain long division to a third grader by starting with advanced calculus and theories of numerology?

The answer is yes, it is, but it is also so typical of something Jonson would do. He loved the classics and while he might condescend to admit that Shakespeare did okay without them, it is very, very clear that Jonson considers himself the more fortunate of the two.

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