WHO WAS HALL'S LABEO AND JONSON'S POET-APE?



The identity disguise popular in Elizabethan works complicates their interpretation. Meanings become fuzzier still with the use of verse, metaphor and analogy, as is generally the case in the satires of Joseph Hall and John Marston. A full understanding of these works requires familiarity with classical myth, ancient history, contemporary writing fashions and the minutiae of the social scene in Elizabethan London. Most of the detailed allusions in these satirical verses are now obscure to us.
 
Nevertheless, it is possible to discern their broader themes.  In his satires of 1597/8, one of Hall's principal targets is a contemporary author, whom he labels variously as Labeo and The Cynic.  This Labeo-Cynic is portrayed as a newly practicing poet, writing under a pseudonym.  Hall berates him for the poor quality of his poetry, its pornography and the hiding of his true name.  He criticizes Labeo-Cynic's use of another poet's inspiration and, in this context, refers to a "thirsty swain" - most probably an allusion to Shakespeare (via the Ovidian quote on thirst for poesic waters, in
Venus & Adonis).

Within his own biting satires, Marston responds to Hall, berating the latter's carping attitude and defending Labeo.  In a separate passage he professes amazement that even "
mediocria firma" is unsafe from Hall's spite.  With this reference to the heraldic motto of the Bacon family, Baconians perceive an unveiling by Marston of Labeo's identity.  Labeo-Cynic must be Francis Bacon, who has been castigated by Hall for writing the pornographic poem, Venus & Adonis, under the name of another - the actor, William Shakespeare.

This hypothesis is dependent on each and all of three key assumptions:

  1. Marston intended "mediocria firma" to represent Francis Bacon;

  2. This representation was also alluding to Hall's Labeo;

  3. Labeo's unskilled, pornographic poetry, berated by Hall, was Venus & Adonis.


However, not one of these assumptions can be substantiated.  In fact, not one is remotely sustainable, based on an objective reading of the satires.

In reality, Marston's "mediocria firma" points unwaveringly to Sir Nicholas Bacon, then head of the Bacon clan (and the eldest surviving half-brother of Anthony and Francis).  In his first collection, Hall savagely satirizes an unnamed person, whose unusual profile exactly captures Sir Nicholas, in a poem which has nothing to do with Labeo or the subject of authorship.  This fully explains Marston's response, which is also unrelated to authorship or Labeo ...... except that the latter was evidently Marston himself, who, under a pen-name, had written a pornographic poem which imitated the style of
Venus & Adonis!  As to the author of the latter and its accomplished, serious-themed follow-up, Lucrece, both published some years before, all we can reasonably conclude from the evidence of the satires is that he was not Hall's emerging and unskilled pornographic poet, Labeo.

Those who are interested in a fuller account and the underlying evidence will find it in my essay, Flavours of Bacon
. Here I also give some details of Marston's history, including his tendency to feud with other authors.  After his quarrel with Hall he went on to clash with Ben Jonson, both physically and in print.  Each caricatured the other scathingly in his plays, with Jonson portraying Marston as the plagiaristic, unskilled poet-scholar-satirist of his Poetaster.  Such history makes Marston easily the leading candidate to be the similar subject of Jonson's dismissive poem On Poet-Ape, whose unnamed target is depicted as a plagiaristic, self-important poet-playwright.

Subpages (1): Flavours of Bacon