In a pivotal scene in Ben Jonson’s
Poetaster (1601), a play set in ‘Augustus Caesar’s times, / When wit and arts were at their height in Rome,’ but concerned with (amongst other things) the appropriate role of the writer in early modern English society, the character Ovid hosts a feast at which visitors assume the identities of the gods.
1 Amongst the deities seated at the banquet table when the scene opens is Momus, played by the courtier and singer Hermogenes.
2 In an early hint at the disaster that awaits the participants, the celebration opens with a petty conflict:
OVID: Gods and goddesses, take your several seats. Now Mercury, move your caduceus and in Jupiter’s name command silence.
CRISPINUS: In the name of Jupiter, silence.
HERMOGENES: The crier of the court hath too clarified a voice.
GALLUS: Peace, Momus.
OVID: O, he is the god of reprehension, let him alone; ‘tis his office.3
This exchange, trivial as it may first appear, neatly captures the divergent attitudes harboured by...
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