Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nine Sparrows

In my paper Ben Jonson's 'Villanous Guy', I suggested that as part of his general lampooning of Ben Jonson in Satiromastix, Thomas Dekker had included an allusion to Guy of Warwick. Satiromastix was part of the ‘Poets' War’ (or ‘Poetomachia’ or ‘War of the Theatres’), a stage quarrel around 1599-1601 involving a sequence of plays by Jonson, Dekker, Marston and probably Shakespeare.

If Dekker alluded to Guy of Warwick during the Poets' War, might not Shakespeare have as well? Shakespeare’s part in the ‘war’ is disputed, but many scholars believe he was involved, and James Bednarz in Shakespeare & The Poets' War (2001) argues the case for this strongly, and, in particular, for the key role played by Troilus and Cressida in Shakespeare’s involvement.

A major part of Bednarz’s argument is that Shakespeare uses the character of Ajax in Troilus to satirise Jonson. This is not a new idea. It has been championed by a number of scholars, and goes back to the nineteenth century. Of course, it is also disputed by others.

I don’t intend to discuss the merits of this identification of Jonson with Ajax in Troilus, except to say that I believe it is sufficiently strong to warrant looking very closely at passages in the play involving Ajax. If Ajax is in part a representation of Jonson, then the following scene (Act 2, Scene 1) is especially interesting:

Enter Achilles and Patroclus

Achill. Why, how now, Ajax, wherefore do ye thus?
How now, Thersites, what's the matter, man?

Thers. You see him there, do you?

Achill. Ay: what's the matter?

Thers. Nay, look upon him.

Achill. So I do: what's the matter?

Thers. Nay but regard him well.

Achill. Well? - why, I do so.

Thers. But yet you look not well upon him, for who-
somever you take him to be, he is Ajax.

Achill. I know that, fool.

Thers. Ay, but that fool knows not himself.

Ajax. Therefore I beat thee.

Thers. Lo, lo, lo, lo, what modicums of wit he utters –
his evasions have ears thus long. I have bobbed
his brain more than he has beat my bones: I will
buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his pia mater
is not worth the nineth part of a sparrow. This lord,
Achilles - Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and
his guts in his head - I'll tell you what I say of him.

No prizes for guessing what I’m going to say next. I suspect this 'Lo, lo, lo, lo' rant by Thersites, with its extended insulting of Ajax, may be a reference to Sparrow in Guy of Warwick. Yes, yes, I know about 'confirmation bias'. And I know that sometimes a sparrow is just a sparrow. But bear with me.

Thersites insults Ajax by criticizing his “modicums of wit” and then declares "I will buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his [Ajax’s] pia mater is not worth the nineth part of a sparrow". In other words, Ajax’s brain is not even worth one ninth of one ninth of a penny – basically, it’s worthless.

Editors of Troilus and Cressida have tried to explain the phrase 'nine sparrows for a penny' here – why Shakespeare chose nine rather than some other number - but without much success. Baldwin, in the New Variorum edition (1953), tried to derive the phrase from two biblical references, and subsequent editors have either ignored the phrase entirely or just quoted Baldwin (Palmer, 1982 Arden; Muir, 1982 Oxford, and Bevington, 1998 Arden) e.g.

73. nine sparrows for a penny] The average price between Matthew x.29 (two for a farthing) and Luke xii.6 (five for two farthings), as Variorum noted.
[Kenneth Palmer (ed.), Troilus and Cressida, Arden Shakespeare (1982), 154]

Baldwin's gloss is ingenious, but hardly convincing. Why Shakespeare would have bothered to average two different costings of sparrows from the Bible just to come up with the words “nine sparrows for a penny” is beyond me. If he had wanted to make a biblical reference he could have just referred to Matthew, say, and said something like: "I will buy two sparrows for a farthing, and his pia mater is not worth half a sparrow". That would have been insulting enough.

Rather than being the result of some abstruse computation, the 'nine sparrows' here is probably just a reflection of the scene in the Iliad from which this passage in Troilus and Cressida is derived. In the Iliad, Ulysses (not Ajax) beats Thersites for his railing, and shortly afterwards follows a passage about a brood of eight sparrows and the mother sparrow (making nine sparrows) being eaten by a serpent, thus portending nine years of fighting with Troy. That ‘nine sparrows for a penny’ gives a price equal to the average of the prices in Matthew and Luke is probably just a genuine coincidence.

If Shakespeare did get the nine sparrows from the Iliad, that was just a starting point. He then constructed an attack on Ajax based on the worth of nine sparrows and a redoubled emphasis on nine: "I will buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his pia mater is not worth the nineth part of a sparrow". The attack on Ajax is thus focused on sparrows, nine and worth. Or - if Bednarz and others are correct - the attack on Jonson is focused on sparrows, nine and worth. If so, it is hard (for me, anyway) not to see this as a rejoinder by Shakespeare to Jonson’s satirising him as Sparrow in Guy of Warwick.

Under my scenario, ‘sparrows’ alludes to ‘Sparrow’, of course. But what of ‘nine’ and ‘worth’ in the attack on Ajax? I suspect it is meant to allude to the Nine Worthies - and by implication Guy of Warwick, who was one of the Worthies. If this seems far-fetched, consider this: in Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare had already explicitly connected Ajax with the Nine Worthies, in particular the Ninth Worthy:

You will be scraped out of the painted cloth for
this. Your lion, that holds his poleaxe sitting on a close-stool,
will be given to Ajax. He will be the ninth Worthy.

So is this 'Lo, lo, lo, lo' passage in Troilus and Cressida really an allusion to Jonson, Sparrow and Guy of Warwick? Or am I just suffering from a bad case of confirmation bias?  

I don't know. But I do think the passage is intriguing enough to give it a 'curious' rating.

Maybe even a curious+.