War of the Theatres

War of the Theatres – Detailed Note

The War of the Theatres is a strange and controversial issue which attracted the attention of many scholars and critics of literary arena. It was actually ‘a stage quarrel‘ among some of the playwrights of the Elizabethan era.

There was a dispute among playwrights which made them attack each other through their comical satirical works from 1599 to 1602. The dramatists involved in this so called ‘stage-quarrel’ were Ben JonsonJohn Marston and Thomas DekkerWilliam Shakespeare’s involvement in this dispute is not yet identified.


The dispute started in 1599 when John Marston portrayed Ben Jonson in the character of Chrisoganus in his comical satirical play “Histriomastix”. John Marston added some features to the character of Chrisoganus which provoked Jonson with anger.

Marston was good at satires and he ridiculed Ben Jonson. He excessively flattered Jonson which made Jonson angry. Jonson either did not understand Marston’s point of view or he was irritated by his clumsiness of flattery.

As a result, John Marston soon found him on the receiving end, when Ben Jonson produced his comedy of humour “Every Man out of His Humour”. This comical satire appeared in the latter part of 1599. Ben Jonson, in “Every Man out of his Humour” ridiculed Marston by employing sentences laden with strange and striking words, which could hit Marston hard.

In this play, Jonson attacked Marston’s bombastic style of writing. He wisely and adroitly handled the weapon of satire which had been used by his rival.

The play “Every Man out of His Humour” was performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Theatre in 1599, and it was published in 1600. There is a fine blending of irony and satire which provoke laughter and puzzle the reader.

In this comedy, Marston was portrayed in the character of Clove who is a clown expressing his thoughts in bombastic and pompous style. The reader can find it in Act I and Scene IV of “Every Man out of His Humour”.

Every Man out of His Humour” differs basically from Jonson’s “Every Man in His Humour” as far as its structure is concerned. Jonson called it as a ‘comical satire’, and not a comedy.

In the play, Jonson lashed out at the follies and foibles of people and commented on the decay and degeneration of values. The reader can find the characters really out of their ‘humour’.

Owing to the brutal attack by Jonson, John Marston gathered his venomous tools of satire again and he employed them in his next satiric comedy “Jack Drum’s Entertainment”.

The play appeared in 1600, and it was acted by the Children of Paul’s. Some scholars deemed it as a burlesque while the others tagged it as ‘a strange mixture of genres’.

Marston’s “Jack Drum’s Entertainment” attacked Ben Jonson strongly and Marston mocked at Jonson with his subtle and sharp satiric language. Marston has portrayed Ben Jonson in the person of Brabant senior. It is said that Thomas Dekker also collaborated with Marston in this venture.

“Jack Drum’s Entertainment” is a critique on human foibles and craziness. In this play, John Marston harshly attacked people who are in love, the people who do not feel love, and the people who consider themselves superior to others. It was also directed at Ben Jonson.

In response to Marston’s harsh attack, Ben Jonson produced his next play “Cynthia’s Revels” or “The Fountain of Self-love” in 1601. The play was performed by Children of the Chapel, and this time Jonson really hit both Dekker and Marston hard with his satire and parody.

Ben Jonson portrayed Marston and Thomas Dekker in the characters of Hedon and Anaides respectively. The attack was direct and sharp; Jonson dexterously delineated the characters of Marston and Dekker as a pair of empty-headed gallants. Crites disdainfully treats them. The character of Crites is identified as Jonson himself.

Ben Jonson’s “Cynthia’s Revels” was performed in 1600 by the Children of the Chapel at the Blackfriars Theatre, and it was published in 1601.

Jonson attacked on the Court amusements in Act V of “Cynthia’s Revels”. There is fine interplay of allegorical symbolism, mythological fancy and satire. Like other plays mentioned earlier, “Cynthia’s Revels” is also a comical satire and not a pure comedy. The play alludes to Queen Elizabeth and Essex.

John Marston and Thomas Dekker responded with equal force in their play “What You Will” which appeared in 1601. The title of the play also alludes to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. Both Marston and Dekker really attacked Jonson strongly than before. They portrayed Jonson in the person of Lampatho Doris. Another character in the play also shares some qualities of Jonson.

In the latter part of 1601, Ben Jonson responded in “The Poetaster”. He delivered a direct assault upon Marston and Dekker. He portrayed them in the characters of Crispinus and Demetrius respectively, and Jonson can be identified as Horace. The play was performed by the Children of the Chapel, and it was published in 1602.

This time Jonson set the play in Augustan Rome. The play abounds in songs, repartee and mockery. Here, in “The Poetaster”, Marston is portrayed as a button-holing bore, and Horace somehow manages to escape from Crispinus’ boring talk.

It is through the character of Tucca, Jonson has brutally attacked Marston’s dramatic style, and Thomas Dekker is portrayed as a reviser of old plays.

In “The Poetaster” Jonson has criticized lawyers, soldiers and players as well. But the attack was mainly directed at Marston and Dekker. He wanted to give answer to his rivals who had kept him restless and provoking him at every corner and on every stage.

Owing to Jonson’s brutal and harsh treatment, Thomas Dekker attacked Jonson in his play “Satiromastix” or “The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet”. The play was performed in the latter part of 1601, and it was published in 1602.

The play “Satiromastix” was acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Company and also by the Children of the Paul’s. Dekker wanted to give answer to Jonson, so he introduced the same characters of “The Poetaster” in “Satiromastix” again. Dekker criticized Jonson for his churlishness and arrogance. He made fun of Horace’s dress, his behaviour, and vanity.

Thus, the War of the Theatres was really a controversial issue. Nobody knows whether there was any rivalry among the poets or it was merely a means of propaganda. But it is certain that drama really served as a means of expression when satire was banned both in prose and verse.

William Shakespeare probably alluded to the war of theatres in his famous tragedy “Hamlet” in Act II and Scene II.

The literary scholars have different opinions and interpretations on this matter. Some scholars think that it was a competition between theatre companies while the others opine that it was merely propaganda in order to promote their plays. Some other critics think that it was a debate on the status of literary and dramatic authorship.

It is really interesting to note that Ben Jonson and John Marston collaborated with George Chapman’s comedy “Eastward Ho” which was published in 1605. There was reconciliation between the two poets after the ‘Stage Quarrel’.

The play was performed by the Children of the Revels at the Blackfriars. In this play there were some abusive remarks about the Scots, Ben Jonson and George Chapman were imprisoned for this offence; but Marston managed to escape. The play presents the London life of the time.

In spite of all these views, it is important to note that all the three dramatists involved in this dispute, commented on the social and political conditions of the Elizabethan age through their satirical comedies and they also unveiled London life through their plays. Una Ellis Fermor in her famous book “Jacobean Drama” calls it as “The Theatre of War”.

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