About a third of the way through his poem “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us,” Ben Jonson writes:
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence, to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread
And shake a stage; or when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth; or since did from their ashes come.
I have always supposed that the first line quoted above meant, as it would today, “And although you had little command of Latin and less of Greek”; but a footnote in George Greenwood, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare (1921) offers the following gloss:
“And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” wrote Jonson. “Here,” says the learned Dr. [Clement Mansfield] Ingleby, “hadst is the subjunctive. The passage may be thus paraphrased: ‘Even if thou hadst little scholarship, I would not seek to honour thee by calling thee as others have done, Ovid, Plautus, Terence, etc., i.e., by the names of the classical poets, but would rather invite them to witness how far thou dost outshine them.’ Ben does not assert that Shakespeare had ‘little Latin and less Greek,’ as several understand him.” (Centurie of Prayse, 2nd Edit. , p. 151). This may be correct, but others contend that Ben’s words are to be taken not in the subjunctive but in the indicative mood. It may be so, since Ben was writing on the hypothesis that the player would be generally taken as the poet, and, naturally, had to adapt his language to that hypothesis. Either interpretation will equally well suit the sceptical case.
I have two questions:
1. Does “And though thou hadst” here mean “And even if you had” or “And although you had”—or is it impossible to tell?
2. If it is impossible to tell, were listeners and readers in Shakespearean/Jonsonian times accustomed to having to draw their own conclusions about whether the subjunctive mood or the indicative mood was intended in such cases?
This is about as silly an argument as I have ever encountered in Shakespearean scholarship — even sillier than the celebrated Impediment of Adipose.
Jonson’s compliment is a fairly pretty one: “Despite your lack of a Classical Education (like Mine), your work commands the admiration of the Classical Masters.”
But the reading Ingleby urges makes no sense at all: “Even if you lacked a Classical Education (like Mine), your work would command the admiration of the Classical Masters — all the more impressive, then, that you achieved this in full possession of a Classical Education.”
Jonson was an arrogant and hot-tempered SOB, but he was not an imbecile.