Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Mermaid Club


This famous Club was held at the Mermaid Tavern, which was long said to have stood in Friday-street, Cheapside; but Ben Jonson has, in his own verse, settled it in Bread-street:

"At Bread-street's Mermaid having dined and merry,

Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry."

Ben Jonson, ed. Gifford, viii. 242.

Mr. Hunter also, in his Notes on Shakspeare, tells us that "Mr. Johnson, at the Mermaid, in Bread-street, vintner, occurs as creditor for 17s. in a schedule annexed to the will of Albain Butler, of Clifford's Inn, gentleman, in 1603." Mr. Burn, in the Beaufoy Catalogue, also explains: "the Mermaid in Bread-street, the Mermaid in Friday-street, and the Mermaid in Cheap, were all one and the same. The tavern, situated behind, had a way to it from these thoroughfares, but was nearer to Bread-street than Friday-street." In a note, Mr. Burn adds: "The site of the Mermaid is clearly defined from the circumstance of W. R., a haberdasher of small wares, 'twixt Wood-street and Milk-street,' adopting the same sign 'over against the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside.'" The Tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire.

Here Sir Walter Raleigh is traditionally said to have instituted "The Mermaid Club." Gifford has thus described the Club, adopting the tradition and the Friday-street location: "About this time [1603] Jonson probably began to acquire that turn for conviviality for which he was afterwards noted. Sir Walter Raleigh, previously to his unfortunate engagement with the wretched Cobham and others, had instituted a meeting of beaux esprits at the Mermaid, a celebrated tavern in Friday-street. Of this Club, which combined more talent and genius than ever met together before or since, our author was a member; and here for many years he regularly repaired, with Shakspeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Cotton, Carew, Martin, Donne, and many others, whose names, even at this distant period, call up a mingled feeling of reverence and respect." But this is doubted. A writer in the Athenæum, Sept. 16, 1865, states: "The origin of the common tale of Raleigh founding the Mermaid Club, of which Shakspeare is said to have been a member, has not been traced. Is it older than Gifford?" Again: "Gifford's apparent invention of the Mermaid Club. Prove to us that Raleigh founded the Mermaid Club, that the wits attended it under his presidency, and you will have made a real contribution to our knowledge of Shakspeare's time, even if you fail to show that our Poet was a member of that Club." The tradition, it is thought, must be added to the long list of Shakspearian doubts.

Nevertheless, Fuller has described the wit-combats between Shakspeare and Ben Jonson, "which he beheld," meaning with his mind's eye, for he was only eight years of age when Shakspeare died; "a circumstance," says Mr. Charles Knight, "which appears to have been forgotten by some who have written of these matters." But we have a noble record left of the wit-combats in the celebrated epistle of Beaumont to Jonson:—

"Methinks the little wit I had is lost

Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest

Held up at tennis, which men do the best

With the best gamesters: what things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been

So nimble, and so full of subtile flame,

As if that every one from whence they came

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,

And had resolv'd to live a fool the rest

Of his dull life; then when there hath been thrown

Wit able enough to justify the town

For three days past, wit that might warrant be

For the whole city to talk foolishly

'Till that were cancell'd: and when that was gone

We left an air behind us, which alone

Was able to make the two next companies

Right witty; though but downright fools, mere wise."

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866