Shakespeare acted in some of Ben Jonson’s plays when they were performed by his playing company. He was listed in the cast of Sejanus His Fall as the first ‘principal tragedian’ in 1604. Shakespeare also acted in a performance of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. In the 1616 publication of The Works of Benjamin Jonson, Shakespeare was included in a list of the cast who first performed the play in 1598. Shakespeare was named along with Richard Burbage and Will Kemp, his fellow-actors from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare’s name is listed first and, since it is likely that the list is in order of appearance, he probably played the part of the old man called Kno’well.
He is often associated with the parts of old men in other plays that were performed by his company: old Adam in As You Like It, the ghost of Old Hamlet in Hamlet, John of Gaunt in Richard II and Prospero when he gave his final farewell to the theatre in The Tempest. In The Scourge of Folly (1610), John Davies of Hereford addressed an epigram to ‘Mr Will. Shake-speare, our English Terence’ and suggested Shakespeare also played the ‘kingly parts in sport’:
Some say good Will (which I, in sport, do sing)
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;
And, been a King among the meaner sort.
Ben Jonson was the most celebrated poet of his day and Shakespeare, although highly praised by Jonson, was less well-known in his own lifetime. Jonson paid tribute to his fellow poet and dramatist in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623. He wrote ‘I loved the man and do honour his memory (this side of idolatry) as much as any’. His eulogy to Shakespeare included the following enthusiastic tribute:
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line…
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show,
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
© 2017 Shakespeare’s World
To read more about this topic and other events on this day in Shakespeare’s lifetime, you can see our recommendations for further reading and visit our website to buy Shakespeare’s World App or to follow us on social media.